The Seeker: Scout Hakan Andersson a hero of the Red Wings’ playoff streak
At four o’clock on the Friday before the winter solstice, in the gathering gloom of the 58th parallel, Frölundaborgs Isstadion, an arena that holds 7,527 in a Swedish suburb of Göteborg, is filled with little more than 55 spectators and the unmistakable musk of moldering hockey equipment bags. Fifty-four of those people are hockey civilians, awaiting the start of a Junior B tournament game between Västerås and a team from Norway. The 55th is Håkan Andersson, the chief European scout of the Red Wings, who settles into a deserted section between the red line and one of the blue lines. At hand are the three things he finds indispensable in his line of work: a roster, a pen and a paper cup of steeping Earl Grey tea.
Five days earlier, on Sunday, Andersson had flown from his home in Stockholm to Venice. The following morning he had driven 75 miles northwest to Asiago, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, for the second-tier under-20 world championship, where he and 20 or so other NHL scouts saw three games contested by teams from lesser European hockey nations (Norway vs. Austria, Latvia vs. Slovenia and Belarus vs. Italy). Andersson returned home on Tuesday, took Wednesday and Thursday off, and now had driven five hours across the country to catch a modest four-team tournament. Andersson has been in the epiphany business for nearly 25 years; his roads to Damascus are the autoroutes and tarmacs of Europe. From October through early April every year, he typically will drive 20,000 miles in Sweden and take 65 flights in Europe, hopscotching the Continent. He attends some 200 games each season, distilling about 12,000 minutes of earnest if inelegant hockey to the handful of meaningful seconds in which an ineluctable truth about a player emerges, when a teenage boy reveals himself and, perhaps, foretells his future as a man.
There is an exacting toll to the scouting life—cold rinks, rank air, time away from family (Andersson and his wife, Veronica Pihl, have a nine-year-old son, Philip)—but if you have instincts and contacts and luck and a stable organization with a sustainable hockey philosophy, the payoff can be considerable. Andersson is solely responsible for finding Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzén, Niklas Kronwall, Gustav Nyquist and Jonathan Ericsson and had the lead role in identifying Henrik Zetterberg, the players who form the core of the current team that has extended Detroit’s playoff streak to 23 seasons. (The Red Wings, currently third in the Atlantic Division, are likely to reach their 24th consecutive postseason this spring.) Simply, Andersson does his job as well as anyone in sports. “Håkan is an unsung hero, an MVP for us,” general manager Ken Holland says. “His fingerprints are on a big part of our team.”
In the second game at the Göteborg tournament—host Frölunda plays Linköping—Andersson will focus on Jacob Larsson, a silky 17-year-old defenseman for the local team. Andersson, who serves on the Frölunda board of directors, knows Larsson well. So does the industry; last month, he was fifth among non–North American skaters in the predraft rankings of NHL Central Scouting. Andersson has scored big with a first-rounder before. In 2000 he helped convince Detroit to take the then undersized Kronwall (the defenseman has filled out to 6 feet and 194 pounds) with the 29th pick. But Andersson has made his reputation mucking in the murky corners, seeing something that other scouts don’t—or can’t. With the final pick of the ’02 draft he found Ericsson, a converted forward who plays on the Red Wings’ top defense pair with Kronwall. At one point Detroit was icing an all-Håkan line of Datsyuk (171st in 1998) at center and Zetterberg (210th in ’99) and the now retired Tomas Holmström (257th in ’94) on the wings.
The NHL is dotted with late-round gems, including Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (picked in the seventh round in 2000), a Frölunda product who never played particularly well when Andersson saw him. If the scout has a stain on his résumé, it is his failure to uncover a No. 1 goaltender, but in recent years he has made a point of speaking with more goalie coaches to sharpen his knowledge of the position. Andersson remains relentlessly curious. In Göteborg he is less focused on Larsson than on a righthanded shooting winger from Västerås, Lukas Zetterberg (no relation to Henrik). Andersson has already seen the 17-year-old Zetterberg three times and is uncertain what to think.
“Remember, this is a Junior B game,” Andersson says during the second period. “When the game’s over, am I going to remember that [Zetterberg] stood out? He should dominate. He tries to finish his checks, but he’s not really intense. His skills are O.K. Can he do what he does here in the NHL?” Zetterberg chases the play into the corner, on the side of the ice where Andersson is seated. His view is obscured, but the scout clearly sees what comes next: An opposing defenseman whips the puck to a teammate in the neutral zone. “I don’t know what happened, but it can’t be good,” he says. “If you asked me right now, I would say to you it’s doubtful he would be on [my] list.”
Like many Swedes, Andersson speaks nearly flawless, colloquial English—right down to his appropriation of one of Holland’s verbal ticks, beginning answers with “I would say to you....” Andersson is 50. He is a professional optimist, one of the prerequisites for a job in which his work and that of his 12 fellow Red Wings amateur scouts is refined annually into seven draft choices. If Andersson likes a player, he might say, “I don’t mind him,” to dampen his natural enthusiasm. If he really likes a player, Andersson will bypass standard operating procedure—after games he usually refashions the sparse notes he jots on his roster into a detailed report that he enters into the team’s scouting database—and rank him on his list of European prospects, which will have 30 to 40 names at the draft in Florida next June.
“The odds say 1.5 in seven make it [to the NHL],” he says. “The criticism is I go too much for the home run. Late rounds, I’ll go for pure talent. If a guy makes it, [he’ll probably] be on the top two lines. My joke is Kenny can pick up the phone [any time] and find a fourth-line player or a seventh [defenseman]. So why not swing for the fences?”
In July 1989, Detroit scouting director Neil Smith left the Red Wings to become GM of the Rangers. When he departed for New York, Smith brought along Christer Rockström, the European scout who a month earlier had been behind Detroit’s selection of defenseman Nicklas Lidström in the third round of the team’s epic draft. Red Wings assistant GM Nick Polano asked Rockström if he could recommend a replacement.
Rockström said he had someone in mind.
“[Håkan] had hunger,” says Rockström, 57, who spent 21 years with the Rangers and now works for the Canadiens. “He would be willing to go the extra mile for a team. And I knew he had a good eye. He’d been a pretty good youth player. He knew about puckhandling, skating, edges. He could look at a skater and tell you if a guy was stiff-kneed or knock-kneed.”
Polano flew to Stockholm, where Rockström introduced him to Andersson, a center whose playing career had been cut short before his 18th birthday because of a torn meniscus in his left knee. Polano told Andersson of the job opening in Detroit and then left for a scouting trip to Finland and Russia. When he returned, Polano took Andersson on a traveling job interview around the Swedish Elite League. “I’m telling him what to look for: skating, playmaking ability, hard work, someone who’s not intimidated,” says Polano, now a pro scout for the Senators. “I’d quiz him about this guy or that guy we were watching. And he was bang on. The guy was a natural. After a few days I’m thinking, I’m going to hire a fishing guide.”