Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Writing for today's Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, Rachel Blount offers this touching piece about a Brockport hockey alumnus, the late EJ McGuire...

It would be natural for NHL Network analyst Craig Button to go about his job with a heavy heart this weekend. Like so many others in hockey, he still feels the hole left by the death of E.J. McGuire, who ran the league's Central Scouting bureau for the past six years.

But to be sad on the weekend of the NHL draft would run counter to McGuire's buoyant spirit. Through a too-brief lifetime of coaching and scouting, he celebrated young players. He encouraged them. He saw beyond the labels others might have attached -- too small, too slow -- to find the potential in all of them.

McGuire died in April at the age of 58, five months after he was found to have a rare form of cancer. He achieved much during his 35 years in the game, including improvements at NHL Central Scouting that made the bureau more efficient and effective.

His work there was driven by one desire: to build the game by recognizing the best in every prospect and helping others do the same. Button shared that attitude with his friend of 25 years, which led him to set one rule for his role on the draft broadcast. He will not criticize anything that happens this weekend. By focusing on the gifts of the young men whose names are called at Xcel Energy Center, Button quietly will honor the positive aura that McGuire radiated to everyone he knew.

"E.J. was like that wonderful high school teacher we all had,'' said Button, a former NHL executive and scout who worked for the North Stars from 1988 to '93. "He only saw the potential in these players, and he was going to do everything he could to help them reach it.

"On draft day, there is no reason for pessimism. This day is for the kids and their families; it's a day of achievement, and we need to celebrate it. E.J. did that. He never wavered in his belief that the potential of a player could be realized.''

At McGuire's passing, an NHL statement described him as "one of the most beloved, respected and accomplished men in all of hockey,'' which does not seem like hyperbole. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., he played for the State University of New York at Brockport -- an NCAA Division III school -- and recognized he didn't have the talent to play professionally. His intelligence, knowledge of the game, people skills and dedication to hockey put him on a path to influence the game in other ways.

McGuire coached college teams before a chance meeting with Mike Keenan brought him to the NHL in 1984. As an assistant to Keenan in Philadelphia, McGuire overflowed with ideas, launching his reputation as an innovator.

An early adopter of several technologies, McGuire began using computer programs to create databases. He came up with new ways to use video, then in its early days as a coaching and scouting tool. Those technological and organizational skills also helped him reshape NHL Central Scouting, which he joined as an assistant in 2002.

Button's father, Jack, had founded the bureau -- which scouts and ranks prospects in North America and Europe -- in 1975. McGuire, Button said, was dedicated to making it as useful as possible for the teams that relied on it. He created specialized player-assessment tools for the bureau's 29 scouts and a website that provides reams of information and video in an easy-to-use format.

McGuire also wanted to make it easier for players to make their best impression. He ended the practice of having players work out separately for multiple teams and centralized the testing process for top prospects. Under his leadership, the NHL scouting combine evolved from a small operation in a hotel basement into a modern, efficient means for evaluating players.

"He was so passionate about Central Scouting,'' said Brent Flahr, the Wild's assistant general manager and a former scout. "He had so many ideas on how to improve things, and when you saw him at the rinks, he had so much energy. A lot of scouts learned a lot of things from him.''

One of those things, Button said, was never to reject a prospect out of hand. McGuire kept an open mind when he watched players, seeing the unique virtues in the small, the hulking, the fleet and the strong. They all had something to offer, he believed, and he made sure they knew it.

"At the combine, E.J. was a voice of reason and assurance,'' Button said. "If he saw a 17-year-old who wasn't physically developed, who didn't do well on a strength test, he wasn't just telling the teams and scouts not to worry, that he's going to get stronger. He'd tell the player, 'Don't worry about it. You're a good player.'

"He could always give them something to relate to, like an NHL player he'd seen at the combine a few years ago who only did two bench presses. Without E.J. there this year, there was a void of optimism.''

That's just one reason McGuire has been so sorely missed. Known for his friendly, kind nature, he made time to talk to anyone and everyone, anywhere and everywhere. This time of year, McGuire loved to talk about prospects, and his desire to see young players succeed poured forth.

Vancouver assistant coach Rick Bowness told Canada's QMI news agency that he frequently thought of McGuire during the NHL playoffs. The two coached together during Ottawa's painful first years as an expansion team -- Bowness as head coach, McGuire as an assistant -- and McGuire's upbeat attitude never waned.

"We'd be in the middle of some of those losing streaks,'' Bowness said, "and I'd say, 'E.J., you can be a professor. You can do whatever you want in life and enjoy it, and we're going through hell here.' And he would say, 'No, this is where I want to be.' This is exactly what he was and who he was, and that's a hockey lifer.''

Because of that, Button said, McGuire's influence will live on, at this draft and in the future.

"E.J. is one of those people who, even though they're gone, their giving hasn't stopped,'' he said. "And it won't.''