The establishment of the national hockey programs and the teams that participate at no less than the highly popular World Junior Championship, Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament, and the U18 World Championship (often referred to as the “scouts’ tournament”) is a mammoth job that requires the people behind the scenes to put in all types of hours to sculpt together a group of young players who will best represent their respective nation, always looking to take gold in the process.
For Canada, a nation that continues to produce more high-end hockey players than any other nation on the planet, this job encompasses an incredible amount of time, scouting, organization and preparation, featuring all sorts of challenges in putting together teams that are constantly expected to compete for gold.
At the head of things for Hockey Canada is former New York Islanders‘ Assistant General Manager Ryan Jankowski, who also spent six years as a WHL scout and three years in the same capacity for the Montreal Canadiens. Present at the U18 in Switzerland to manage and analyze the culmination of many months of work, Jankowski was kind enough to sit down with Hockey’s Future right before Canada played for and won the bronze medal.
Hockey’s Future: To kick things off, what exactly is your job description as Hockey Canada’s head scout and what does your job entail?
Ryan Jankowski: My official position is as the Director of Player Personnel. So my overall job is to oversee Canada’s U20, U18, and U17 player selections. As such, it starts at an Under-16 level where we watch players around the country at various regional-based tournaments. There’s one tournament in the West, one in Ontario and one in Quebec and the Maritimes. As that group goes through, we start forming our U17 rosters, our lists, our player lists and then those players come to our U17 event in the summer. They then participate in the World U17 Hockey Challenge.
Those players then graduate to the U18 program, which kicks off the year with our big tournament, the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. That’s where we put our best kids together and can form our best team.
All that is only for that age group. We’re just talking about the U18 players, predominantly 17 year olds, to this point.
HF: And all that leading up to this U18 World Championship?
RJ: Things then become a little bit more difficult for this tournament. We’re dealing with the CHL playoffs back in Canada, so you have to have a long list. We have to read and react based on what’s happening in the CHL playoffs. For example, as you probably noticed early in the tournament, we held some spots open, because we knew we’d have access to a certain group of players at the end of the second round of the CHL playoffs. Of course, we didn’t know which ones they’d be. Sometimes you get players A, B, and C; sometimes you get players D, E, and F. So it’s a real balancing act in seeing how you put the pieces of that puzzle together for this tournament.
This said, this situation is a great opportunity for another set of players. That’s what we like about this tournament, because we get to tap into our depth a little bit, give players an opportunity to play for Canada, and maybe even bring in some hidden gems who would otherwise not have had the chance.
Ideally, we too would like to have our best players and be able to put our best possible team on the ice for this tournament, but it has also been real positive for us and many of our depth players to get an opportunity to play and maybe even move forward in the program.
HF: What comes next?
RJ: The focus is turned towards the WJC. That’s the BIG tournament. We put a heck of a lot of effort into ensuring that we have very strong teams at the World Juniors and that really is one of the pinnacles of our program.
You can also talk about the Men’s World Championship that is going on now. You see that there are the same types of issues as constructing the U18 team in that the NHL playoffs are going on at the same time. The Olympics are of course a huge thing, where we know it’s time to have the best playing against the best, but one of our biggest properties, one of the most important teams we put together, is that U20 WJC team. That’s what our focus goes into.
And that’s just the scouting part of the job!
HF: What are some of the other duties?
RJ: I do have some managerial duties with our U18 team. As such, I’m Hockey Canada’s lead with our two U18 teams.
HF: Are we talking about organizing trips, flights for players, and things of that nature?
RJ: No, it’s much more about overseeing the operations. I make sure that the coaches have support. I work with the coaches to ensure that they have what they need for this short-term competition and that details are being taken care of properly along the way as they pop up. I make sure that they are comfortable with the program as it is.
Now, my number one job is the scouting part, but this managerial aspect with the U18 part is very enjoyable as well. It allows me to provide some behind-the-scenes leadership.
HF: Going a little deeper, are there a lot of politics involved in putting all this together and coordinating the teams? For example, surely junior clubs have a great interest in their players, who they may see as properties of sorts…
RJ: Nope. We’re really pretty free of any politics when putting our teams together. Our mandate is to put the best players we can on the ice. The CHL is a great partner to Hockey Canada. The CHL leagues work very well with us to ensure that we get the best players, get their coaches, and even their support staff. We’ve got trainers, coaches, players all coming from the CHL and at the end of the day, this is a really strong partnership that allows us to survive successfully at these tournaments.
HF: How difficult do you feel it is for particularly the coaching staff to come together so quickly before a U18 tournament, on such short notice, and then coach a newly formed team against a squad like, say the USA, which features players who’ve been working together tightly for up to two years?
RJ: It’s a challenge, and yet we believe in the power of the short-term competition. We believe in bringing in good kids – passionate kids – who have the attributes to grow together very quickly and become a ‘team’. That’s how we have to do things. Even for the World Juniors, even if we have a little bit more time in putting that team together.
But considering how much the Swedes, the Finns, the Czechs, the Russians play together, we’ll always be somewhat limited by this factor. Yet we do have a process we make use of to make sure that the team comes together very quickly and that the coaches get to know their players. Through the 33 days since we named our coaches for this tournament, for example, having zero players at that time, it’s amazing how far we’ve come to be playing for bronze today in that short amount of time.
HF: Now you yourself come from a hockey family. At what point in your life did it become clear that you wanted to work as a scout and in this scouting business?
RJ: It was a real easy decision for me because my dad was a scout. He was a scout for the New York Rangers and he scouted my whole childhood. So I grew up in a scouting family in the scouting business. I watched my dad work and I went to a lot of games. I spent a lot of time with him on the road and it became natural for me to do this. I owe him so much and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him introducing me to the hockey world and yet, it really is my passion.
Someone really close to me said that being in the hockey world, especially being a scout, well it’s not a job; it’s a way of life. You need a lot of support from your family and home. You need support from the teams that you work with. It’s an enjoyable situation to get to travel around and watch the best Canadian players, but now putting them together as a team and seeing them in front of your eyes at a tournament, that is just really, really rewarding.
HF: You spent time as an Assistant General Manager with the New York Islanders and as a scout for the Montreal Canadiens. How different is it for you to go from that pro team business to working for your nation’s official hockey association?
RJ: At the end of the day, it’s watching hockey. You’re scouting hockey players. But your projection is different. For this U18 team, for example, you really have to balance the future with the ‘right now’, because you have to compete at a tournament right now. It’s the same thing at the World Juniors. Sure, you’re watching hockey players. You get to watch the best ones. You get to pick the best ones in Canada. But they have to play for you right now. When you’re at the NHL level, you’re looking to figure out how those players are going to be when they’re 25, 26, and 27 years old. That’s the projection you’re making.
Our projection is for right now. It’s for how they perform on the ice right now in these tournaments.
HF: When at these tournaments and working for Hockey Canada, the scout and talent analyzer in you must nonetheless enjoy watching the other countries and viewing their talents, right?
RJ: Definitely. You like watching the other countries. You like seeing great players. If for nothing else, for the purpose of seeing the game get better. In international ice hockey, what we’re seeing is more parity. The Slovaks won the bronze medal at the WJC. You see Switzerland here playing for a bronze medal. It’s great for the game and it’s great for those respective federations to have success, because it’s good for their programs. After all, the better their programs are, the more quality players there are and it all comes together to enhance the game of hockey.
HF: You have a lot of experience and are still quite young. Do you have your eye set on another NHL position one day?
RJ: There may be some opportunities down the road, but I love this job. The great thing about this job is that you get to play for three championships every year. You have a real good hand in that. It is really, really rewarding and you get to be around the elite athlete. You get to see how elite players prepare and how good they are.
As great as the National Hockey League is – and sure I dream to get back there someday in some capacity – I really love what I’m doing now and I love being involved with Hockey Canada. It’s a great organization.
HF: To conclude, let’s move to the topic of “WJC 2016 in Helsinki”. When does your work in putting that Canadian team together begin?
RJ: Well, it started about 12 months ago after the last U18 tournament. You always have to project ahead. You always have to think about things the next few years down the road. For the next WJC, the key group is the 1996-born players and the fillers are the 1997-born players. You always have to keep an eye on things for down the road.
For the WJC in 2017, the group of players we’re seeing here at this U18 is the key group of players. These are the 1997’s. You’re always trying to stay ahead of the game. You always have your lists going and being built. You’re then monitoring the changes and see who’s improving. You want to know who’s ready to go come December 1st, when we’ll be announcing our selection camp roster for the WJC in Helsinki.
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