Q&A with Thrashers European scout Bernd Freimüller

By Holly Gunning

Bernd Freimüller has been the Head European Scout for the Atlanta Thrashers since the 1999-00 inaugural season. His background is as a hockey journalist, media relations director, and general manager. Vienna, Austria is his home base from which he filed 1000 reports on players in 190 games last season.

Freimüller sat down with Hockey’s Future at the RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina just after all the picks were complete in the 2004 Draft to talk about the newest Thrashers and some familiar names as well.

HF: Let’s start with Juraj Gracik (selected 142nd overall).
BF: Gracik is a potential power forward. Played this year in the second level, senior Slovak league. Scored tons of goals. He had a four-goal game and in the junior league he had a six-goal game. He played all the time, three to four games a week. Got a little tired towards the end. But scored tons, close to 20 goals in the senior league. Tall, pretty competitive, good around the net. No problems with the physical game. Has to work a little bit on his skating, although it’s fine. And his decision-making has to get better, but I like him all the time. I saw him with the national team Under 18, Minsk was not his best tournament but he played some good tournaments. He came over with the national team in December to North America, played here very well too. I talked to him, nice guy, determined. Most probably he will stay in Slovakia for another year, move to Trencin, the champion, which would be good. Maybe he comes over, but he tends toward staying there for another year, he wants to finish school. Very nice kid, I like him.

There’s still a chance that he’ll say he wants to come over and a team will pick him, but the last thing I heard when I talked to him was one more year. He might play for the senior team in Trencin, if not, the junior team and that’s fine too. It´s up to him and what he is more comfortable with. I won´t influence him in any way.

HF: Miikka Tuomainen (selected 204th overall)?
BF: He’s a banger, a physical player. A grinder, very good size. Typical Finnish player really. Doesn’t back down from anybody. Always a physical component for the Under 18 national team, had a very good second half of the season. Also played with the national team here in December in North America, played very well, even had a hat-trick game, but he’s more of a grinder, don’t expect too much scoring from him. He also played in the Finnish second level, senior league, and he will continue to do so.

HF: So he’s more of a grinder than say (Tomi) Kallio was?
BF: Well he has more size. That’s his role, he’s a physical player. His hands are good enough, but we don’t tag him as a scorer, no.

HF: Let’s move on to guys already in the system. How did Ilja Nikulin do last year?
BF: Very well, very well, as he always does. Since we drafted him, he has played I would say 95 percent of the games with the senior team. Dynamo Moscow is one of the best teams and one of the richest teams. Played very well and beat out some older players for a spot in the lineup. It’s a good thing that he plays there, we’re happy that he plays there. But at some point he has to come over. A little problem that they curtail his offensive abilities, they don’t want him to join the attack. He draws penalties and things like that. His physical game, which is very good, they don’t like it so much. He will be very good on the small ice.

HF: Tobias Enstrom?
BF: He was a regular with Modo in the Swedish Elite League, I just wish he had racked up more points. But he played a very good World Junior. There he scored on the power play. Of course his skating is still outstanding, his hockey sense is very good, good shot. He played after his injury all the games with the big team. Then he helped out the juniors in the playoffs, and there of course he was dominating.

HF: Denis Loginov?
BF: I saw him at the end of the year with the national team, the Under 19 national team, and of course we hope he’s on the Under 20 national team next year, but they have so many good players. It’s a little bit tough, so it would be nice but we wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if he doesn’t make it. He was with Kazan, always one of the big teams in the Russian League. And like ‘join the navy and see the world’, he was on the team all the time, traveled with the team, but often he was the 14th forward. They use 13 and he was the 14th so he didn’t play that much. But he played enough games that we’re happy, scored even a little bit, but of course he played for the second team, especially the home games and there he was a scorer. He’s a role player, he’s a versatile player, can play all three forward positions, has size. His intensity comes and goes, it should be a little more consistent. But we’re happy where he is. We just hope he plays more for the senior team next year, but it’s always a tough thing for the young Russian players. That’s why we’re happy Nikulin always played, but it’s tough.

HF: And then Samu Isosalo missed a whole year with the knee injury.
BF: Yeah, he was supposed to come back in January, but he got reinjured again so he missed the whole season. So he just has to get back on his legs and play hockey again.

HF: How did he get reinjured, was he skating already?
BF: He was practicing already, yeah. I don’t have the details but he got injured again and they had already posted on the web page that he would be back and then he wasn’t. It’s a pity of course, he had a lot of injuries already in his career. So he just has to come back and play hockey.

HF: Was it the same injury again?
BF: I think it was a different injury. Not as bad, but it cost him the rest of the season. He’s under contract for next season, he will be there and hopefully play there.

HF: You got to see Kari (Lehtonen) in Chicago this year, what did you think of his transition to North America?
BF: I only saw him a little bit in the middle of the season, but I remember him from Europe and when I went to Chicago he was exactly the guy I expected him to be. No doubt.

HF: What specifically did you see in him that was so special?
BF: Calmness, coolness, as always. We knew that. And he has worked a lot on his stickhandling. I was very pleasantly surprised by his stickhandling, it’s important here. Same calm guy who is mentally strong.

HF: What did you think of the 2004 draft class as a whole for Europeans, was it a good year?
BF: It was OK, yes.

HF: Which countries did you think were particularly strong this year?
BF: Czechs and Russians of course with the top guys. Finns, some guys went higher and higher. But I would say the Czechs and the Russians are always at a high level.

HF: How many trips to North America do you usually make per year?
BF: One, I haven´t watched junior games there in a long time. I just come here for meetings and try of course to watch our team, the Thrashers, and to watch the Wolves. It was very nice of them to give me the chance to watch the Wolves and also Atlanta. I know approximately what’s going on of course, but to read about it, talk about and see it live is different.
[Note: Freimüller was able to see the Thrashers play live once (plus about five games on TV in Europe) and the Chicago Wolves twice. He even caught a Gwinnett Gladiators game while he was in Atlanta.]

HF: But you always come to the draft as well, so that’s two times.
BF: Right, two.

HF: How does seeing the farm team help?
BF: I can say Player X, he’s better, worse, or the same player, things like that. It helps me a little bit. I say our group of defensemen, I think this guy could help us, he might be better
than we have. Or the other way around. But again, I only saw two games from Chicago so my opinion is not the most important. It just helps me personally.

HF: How much crossover scouting is there on the staff?
BF: Well (the North American scouts) come in for the tournaments, Danny Marr hangs around before or after one tournament to see some league games, mostly of course the top guys. He doesn’t come over for ninth round players. For Kovalchuk of course people came over to watch this guy. Danny Marr does that. They come in about five times a year for the tournaments.

HF: How do you organize your group of European scouts, does each part-time scout just stick to their country or is there crossover there too?
BF: Evgeny (Bogdanovich) our Russian guy, he’s half part-time, half full-time. He comes in for all the tournaments and the other guys, they stay where they are.

HF: So the Finnish scout would never go to Russia?
BF: No, I don’t even want him to leave Helsinki, because it’s not necessary. All the teams come to Helsinki so why should he drive around, you know?

HF: Do you travel to see whoever the part-time scouts point out to you then?
BF: Not necessarily. I see the national teams and I know the underagers from the season before. They’re mostly the same guys they point out to me because 90-95 percent of the best players are on the national team, Under 18, 19 or 20. If they tell me OK, here’s a guy who’s not on the national team, or he’s an overage player, I watch him and I try to fit him in.

HF: Do you try to plan your schedule out for the whole year at the beginning?
BF: No, I don’t go that far. But I know I have to go to Finland, I have to go to Sweden, I have to go Russia, the Czechs and the Slovaks are my home country, so I drive there. No, but I would say OK there’s a good schedule at the end of September in Finland, a game every day, with some good players, and I go there and start with Finland. Then I go back for a week to the Czech Republic, then I go to Russia for a week if there’s another good schedule. And that’s how I do it.

HF: So it’s only a few weeks in advance then.
BF: A few weeks, a month. You have to be organized to mimimize the travel costs, but on the other hand, towards the end of the season, you have to think on your feet to get a last glimpse of a player you are not so familiar with.

HF: Do you and the part-time scouts get together and make a European list before you go to the meetings in Atlanta?
BF: We get the lists at the meetings or we get them by fax or email. But I’m responsible for the European list, nobody else. Evgeny has his own because he goes to all the tournaments. And the Finnish scout’s list is a Finnish list. If they have someone rated high that I have very low, then I would try to catch him, see whether they are right or whether I am right. If I think they are wrong, I stick with my list. I listen to our part timers, but the more people participate in an overall list, the more muddled the picture will get. After all the discussions, at one point somebody has to take responsibility for the list and I do that for Europe. I take theirs into consideration, try to figure out what they were thinking, but the European list is my list. Evgeny has his own list that will look at little different from mine.

HF: And how do you share that with Atlanta then?
BF: It’s always in the system. Every month I have to put it in the system. All the part-timers every month do a list. I get the October lists and I see a guy I’ve never heard of at No. 2 or 3, I would get in contact with my Swedish guy, and then I try to watch him.

HF: Can you talk about the software that you use?
BF: It’s a system called Rinknet. Around 20 teams in the NHL use it. It works through the internet. I put my reports in, I put the list in, I can even use the email there, but mostly I use my private email. So everything is on a button. If Don (Waddell) wants to know what I think about a player we drafted today, he doesn’t have to grill me, he just looks at my report.

HF: Do you have any funny stories from your travels?
BF: Not off the top of my head. The whole job is fun. I like watching the games, that’s the fun part for me. I go to a game in Slovakia and a writer comes up to me and says ‘who are you watching here, what special players?’ but I say ‘It’s just routine,’ you know? I haven’t seen these two teams and I just want to catch up on them. There’s a lot of routine. I try to see all the senior teams, and as many of the junior teams as possible.

HF: What do you do in the summertime without hockey to watch?
BF: I just relax, get my mind a little bit off hockey. Read books, watch TV, take a vacation and spend some time with my wife. I picked her up in a hockey rink in Czech, so maybe she has been my best discovery yet.

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