Connections can come from very strange places, so who would've thought that when my mom came home from work one day, she'd be telling me she worked with Jason Bukala—a North American Scout for the Nashville Predators.
Well needless to say, I was pumped, and I wouldn't be doing my job here at Bleacher Report if I didn't try and score an interview. Well Jason was gracious enough to grant me that opportunity and here we are; providing readers with a little more insight into the NHL Scouting Ranks.
Bryan Thiel: Jason thanks for doing this. Now obviously one just doesn't become a scout. How long have you been involved in hockey? Did you begin your involvement through playing, and if so what opened your eyes to the world of Scouting after your playing career?
Jason Bukala: To be honest, I’ve lived hockey all of my life in the city of London. During my playing career I was a goalie, but my limited career consisted of some AAA Minor Hockey, and high school hockey at Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School in London Ontario mixed in with a little Junior B in St. Marys and Stratford, and I was a draft pick of the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie) Greyhounds of the OHL.
After I wrapped up my playing career, I went straight into coaching as a Major Bantam Head Coach in London, eventually moving up to becoming the Oakridge Secondary School Head Coach for four years. For the Lucan Irish I was the Head Coach of Junior Development, followed by a three year career with the St. Marys Lincolns in which I was Head Coach and General Manager of the main team, and at one point, Head Coach of the Jr. B team.
From there I moved on to the Greyhounds organization where I was Director of Player Personnel for four seasons, and now I’m working with Nashville. It’s really quite the list when I see it put together!
BT: How did you become involved with the Nashville Predators organization? Were they interested in bringing you on as a North American Amateur Scout or did this evolve from a previous position?
JB: I met Paul Fenton at a game in London. He was Director of Player Personnel for the Predators at the time, but he’s now Assistant GM. We seemed to get along very well from the outset and looked for many of the same qualities when scouting players. Since I had input in player personnel decisions with the Soo Greyhounds, it was part of my responsibility to keep tabs on all players in the OHL (for trade scenarios, free agency...etc.).
I was informed of an opening in Nashville, and I interviewed for a position with the Predators, but actually lost out to another candidate. Paul and I stayed in touch the following year, and another opening became available and Paul offered me the job. My first year I mostly scouted the OHL, Tier 2 Jr. A, Jr. B, etc. in Ontario, but after my first year I was promoted to my current position (North American Scout).
I am now responsible for scouting the OHL, Tier 2, Jr. B, USA Under 17 and Under 18 programs, College Hockey in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Up-State New York.
BT: With the Predators, you work with three North American Amateur scouts. Does each scout receive a separate assignment based on a region to which you're assigned (Ie. You might be assigned to the OHL, Tom Nolan might deal with the QMJHL ect.) or are you all just given assignments one at a time, and travel the country in accordance?
JB: We all have our own territories. In addition to our territories, special assignments are not uncommon. These can include scouting the Canadian Under 18 program (based out of Calgary), the World Junior program (based in Ottawa this year). I am mostly responsible for all Ontario based leagues, and USA College Hockey (CCHA,MAC Conferences), as well as the USA Development Program.
BT: When you're scouting players for the NHL, are there any universal physical or mental traits that every NHL franchise covets?
JB: Tough question to answer! Every team has its own theories. For our team we are obviously looking for the best available talent at any given position. Where we have great success is in scouting “good people" as well. Our organization has been built through the draft so we really zero in on kids who are well rounded. Every NHL team hashad different levels of success with the draft. Our draft record is very strong.
BT: What's the biggest difference between an NHL ready player (or a player who could eventually make an impact at the NHL level) and a player who may never get his shot?
JB: Sometimes even the best "Prospects" turn out to be less than their projection. An NHL ready player has made the decision to be committed in every area of his daily life: Fitness, Diet, Proper Rest, Surrounding Himself with good people and support, etc.
The players who have the most success are extremely competitive. They compete night in and night out at the highest level. They know their limitations by the time they become NHL players and adjust their games accordingly. Sometimes the most gifted Major Junior scorers become the best 3rd and 4th line checkers or penalty killers.
BT: Throughout organizations in the NHL, the preference of what skills and attitudes prospective players bring to the game is probably fairly diverse. What are some of the specific parts of a player’s game or his mental approach that Nashville keys on?
JB: They must be fierce competitors, solid citizens, and possess at least one "Special Element". In today’s game, it goes without saying; the player must have great speed and agility combined with high end hockey sense.
BT: Are there any players on the current Predators' roster that you personally followed through the junior ranks?
JB: I'm looking forward to training camp this year. One of my former players, from St. Marys Jr. B, Josh Gratton, was signed as a Free Agent. I have only been in Nashville a short time but Nick Spaling from the Kitchener Rangers and Jeremy Smith from the Plymouth Whalers are also two players I’m excited to watch develop. Additionally we have added Kyle Gajewski from the Soo Greyhounds as a depth goalie in our organization and Brandon Buck from the Guelph Storm is a Free Agent invite to our training camp.
BT: What's it like when you or your fellow scouts see one of the players you targeted during his junior hockey career put together a successful NHL career?
JB: Hard for me to say at this point, but I know each scout takes a ton of pride in their selections. Whenever a player has success, and remembers the scout who contributed to his career, it is very rewarding.
BT: For a little bit of fun, out of the four of you (Rick, Tom, and David) who do you think has the best track record for the Predators?
JB: No comment!!!!! We are way too competitive already!!!!
BT: From a professional standpoint, do you have aspirations to move higher up in the organization in the ranks of scouts, or to a management position?
JB: At this point I want to maximize my ability in my territory. At the end of my current contract, perhaps I will be looking to add to my portfolio. For now, however, there is much work to do in my area. Having served in a Management Position with the Soo Greyhounds, another management position is something I may want to pursue in the future.
BT: As a scout you probably spend a lot of time on the road and you’re obviously very intertwined in the NHL. Do you still take on a bit of workload for the Greyhounds or other organizations?
JB: I am no longer the Director of Player Personnel in the Soo. Once you become a Full Time NHL employee you are not able to continue with a CHL or College program.
BT: Now you recently attended Team Canada's Under-18 Evaluation Camp. What was your impression of Canada's next wave of young talent? Who are the players we're going to hear a lot about in the coming months, and are there any players at the camp that you think could surprise some people?
JB: Canada continues to develop outstanding players and prospects. From the OHL this year some players include: Matt Duschene (Brampton Battalion), Casey Czikas (St. Mikes), and Ryan Ellis (Windsor Spitfires).
BT: Hockey seems to keep your pretty busy all year long. In your "downtime", do you try to do things that will allow you to think a little less about hockey, or does hockey still play a bit of a role in your personal life?
JB: No question that Hockey keeps me busy. We travel a ton throughout the season. A typical 5 day work week is not possible between September-May. My son, who is 8, is playing competitive hockey in London which also takes me to the rink. The summer months usually involve working at Hockey Schools and Motivational Speaking.
BT: We're just hitting the midpoint of August, and teams will soon be getting set up for training camp. After just squeaking into the playoffs last season, how do you see the Nashville Predators fairing this season?
JB: The "Prognosticators" have a history of underestimating our team before the season begins. We will be better than people think.
Again, I'd like to thank Jason for taking his time and answering a few questions for Bleacher Report. Hopefully, I'll be able to talk to Jason again soon, and perhaps get some thoughts on the season.