CALGARY, FEB. 24 -- During Olympic hockey games, they are scattered around every bend of the Saddledome, usually in some of the best seats in the house. Between periods, they come out in the corridors and can be seen holding gabby, gossipy conversations with their friends, comparing notes, telling tall tales and most of all, talking hockey.
NHL scouts and executives have descended en masse to the Olympic hockey tournament, for a variety of reasons, most of them directly related to the talent performing down on the ice.
"If you're in hockey," said Washington Capitals General Manager David Poile, "this is the place you want to be this week. You can't afford not to be here."
And so, walk around the bend, and there's Harry Sinden of the Boston Bruins or Al Arbour of the New York Islanders, or Jack Button, head scout for the Capitals. If they didn't get here for the first week, they will all be here for the weekend medal round games.
"It's multipurpose," said Poile, who got here Saturday and will stay a week. "It's such a high caliber of hockey. I've been to the last two Olympics, and each one has been beneficial both as a learning experience and in acquiring players."
In 1980, he was working in the front office of the Atlanta Flames. He went to Lake Placid to scout the team's fourth-round draft choice from Boston University, a goaltender named Jim Craig. Like everyone else who watched that American team win the gold medal, Poile was astounded by what he saw and, when it was over, there was no question Craig would be joining the Flames, ready or not. He wasn't.
"He played goal for us on the Saturday night after the Olympics," Poile said. "We beat the Colorado Rockies, 4-1, but after that it was a gradual downhill thing for him. He was physically and mentally out of it. When I picked him up at the Atlanta airport, he told me he'd had three hours sleep in four days.
"He was not really ready to play in the NHL, but we had no choice. The guy was such a hero. The first time he practiced with the team, we had more media there than we'd ever had before. But he was just an average goaltender, not really good enough to play at that high level of competition night after night. He did rise to the occasion in the Olympics, though, and it was the highlight of his career."
The Islanders had a different experience that year. They had drafted U.S. defenseman Ken Morrow a few years before and thought he was a legitimate prospect when the Olympic team formed the summer before the Games.
"As their season went on, Ken just got better and better," said Tex Ehman, the Islanders' director of scouting. "At first, we thought he'd go to our farm system. By February, it was very obvious this guy could play."
The Islanders were so impressed, they packaged defenseman Dave Lewis in a trade that brought Butch Goring to the team. With Morrow and Goring in the lineup, the Islanders went on a 10-0-2 streak, then rode that momentum to win their first Stanley Cup. Morrow has been a mainstay on the team ever since.
Scouts here will tell you there are many players of that caliber in these Games. The Rangers have already reached an agreement in principle with American defenseman Brian Leetch, who will join the team next week. The Devils have been keeping their eye on Canadian goaltender Sean Burke, who is expected to sign as soon as the Games are over. And if the Soviets allow defensemen Viatcheslav Fetisov and Alexai Kasatonov to play in the NHL, perhaps even after this tournament, the Devils, according to Poile, "have a very good chance to make the playoffs."
Most of the players here have not escaped the attention of NHL scouts. "There really are no sleepers," said Jim Gregory, head of Central Scouting for the league office. "Every team has people in Europe looking at these guys. You're not going to find anyone who somebody hasn't heard about."
Said the Bruins' assistant general manager, Tom Johnson: "There's not a man here anyone has missed."
So why are all the general managers, personnel types and scouts buzzing around?
"Well, we're trying to assess the players we've drafted, to see whether they're ready to make the move to the big team," said Ehman. "We're also assessing other players who belong to other teams. It's always worth it to take a look-see and know what everybody else is doing.
"And now with the possibility the Russians might be coming over, we're looking at them real closely, too. I've heard some of the names mentioned, and where there's smoke, there's fire. I don't expect them to let loose some of their kids, but you want to be prepared for everything."
But all eyes are not focusing on the Russians.
"I'm not paying that much attention to them, other than to admire the way they play," said Johnson. "Anyone they make available to us must be someone the Russians don't think is good enough to play on their national team. We're not interested right now. Now, if they made another Brad Park or Mike Gartner or Rod Langway available, you bet I'd be interested."
Poile is interested in the Soviets, but he also is here for other reasons. For one, he is keeping a close eye on Steve Leach, an American winger who may join the team after the Olympics.
"You're looking at players to see if they can give you a shot in the arm for the stretch run," Poile said. "You're looking for a guy coming off a high in the Olympics who might add some enthusiasm and fresh blood to your hockey team."
He also is watching the various styles of play to see if there is anything the Capitals might want to adapt, and he is having several games taped so Bryan Murray can take a look, too, not so much to assess individual players "but to see what all these teams are trying.
"The other day, I watched the Swedish team in their warmups and saw a couple of drills we might want to use," Poile said. "I'm always looking for new ideas or systems of play. And coming here is a lot cheaper than going to Europe. It's all right here for us. It's definitely a week well spent."