Your Favorite Prospect Is Just OkayJacob Ginsberg
Höglander takes the ice. His first step is baby-deer wobbly, but when he sees the puck in open space, he chases it with full strides from the knees-bent, chest-up, ass-out power skating position. He stops hard, spraying ice off his edges. Protecting the puck with his body, he shrugs off a defender, who crashes into the boards. Textbook technique. From behind the net he moves the puck to an open man, Elvenes, who flubs the pass and sends play back the other way.
From the enclosed press box atop Coop Norrbotten Arena I can see the entire two-hundred-foot ice surface. While the ice crew removes snow and slush during a stoppage in play, I send a quick tweet: “#GoldenKnights prospect Lucas Elvenes still struggling to finish one-timer opportunities.”
I’m surrounded by mostly older men in folding chairs, local journalists and scouts from Swedish Hockey League teams murmuring in bouncy, musical Swedish I don’t understand. The arena’s ceiling is low, so our view looks down on the jumbotron, which shows a replay of Elvenes’s easy-goal-turned-gaffe, then flashes the league standings. The fans chant, because if this result holds, Luleå will move into second place.
I’m indifferent to both the final score and the standings. I’m here for one reason: seventeen-year-old and potential-first-round-pick Nils Höglander, a left winger for Rögle who will turn eighteen in December and therefore become draft eligible next June. The NHL draft is seven months away, but following the unexpected firing of the GM who gave me my job and the swift hiring of his successor, the organizational midseason meeting has been pushed from January to two days from now, where I’ll be expected to give a detailed report on all draft-eligible players in Sweden, to justify my role in the organization and show I’m not a remnant of the old, dysfunctional regime.
“Too thin, slow for the NHL, that Lucas. Do you agree, Katie Couloir?”
From the creepy way he uses my full name I recognize this as the voice of Nichlas, a local scout who must have been peering over my shoulder.
“Yes,” I say, “And he can’t finish — definitely a reach at 127.”
“Time for dinner before your flight?”
He’s hoping for another opportunity to fuck me. A few years ago, we met at a game in Timrå. I planned to return to Stockholm as usual, but when the game went to overtime and I missed the last flight of the evening, I inadvertently booked a room in the hotel where he was staying. When we discovered the coincidence at the hotel bar, we laughed and shared whiskeys, and I took him back to my room. He’s handsome, but he’s unassertive and basically devoid of sexuality, and when I rode him I kept having to move his hands to my body from their natural palms-down-on-mattress position. Since then, if we happen to be working at the same game, he prods about my hockey opinions and politely implies he’d love for me to get him off. I accepted his offer of a ride to the airport, but that’s it.
“None, Nichlas. It takes off in ninety minutes.”
Höglander starts another shift; I lower the percent of focus on Nichlas from thirty to maybe five. Nichlas says something unintelligible, so I lean forward in my seat to make my return to work mode conspicuous. He takes the hint.
Höglander anticipates a pass, intercepts it, and hits the blue line with speed. The defenseman hustles to make up for the turnover, but Höglander uses a free hand to muscle him off while skating a sickle-sharp curve around him — a highlight reel move. In alone on the goaltender, he fakes a forehand shot, dekes to the backhand, but where I would have roofed it, he slides the puck backward through his legs to the trailing Elvenes, who receives the pass right on his tape and faces an empty net. Elvenes misses wide. No goal. The fans scream, whistle, and clap.
I add a tweet to my Elvenes thread: “Another easy opportunity missed by Elvenes. Have to wonder if he’ll be able to score at the NHL level.”
A traditionalist might watch that play and give Höglander the “unselfish” designator, high praise among the hockey men who preach a team first mentality, but unselfish can be a buzzword, a positive spin on “underconfident” or “unwilling to shoot.” With better teammates on an NHL roster, maybe unselfish isn’t a problem, but it’s inherently risky to assume a player will improve when surrounded by talent. It reminds me a little of Nichlas. You have to be assertive to score.
The ride to the airport is fifteen minutes. Towering pines line the road, and the car is engulfed in darkness. When we drive over the illuminated Bergnäs bridge, I don’t tell Nichlas that its six arches remind me of the path a boulder would take if a giant skipped it across the river, or that with the lights reflecting in the water it looks like a snippet of DNA that encodes wide feet. I don’t tell him that it makes me think of inevitability and restriction, that I’m afraid I’ll be fired, that even if I’m not I’m afraid I’ll spend the rest of my life rising and falling and working but never pushing beyond an unchanging upper limit, never moving up in the organization, never reaching my goal of becoming the NHL’s first female general manager. When he drops me off at the airport, I say, “You don’t need to get out,” and when he does and moves to hug me, I give a one-armed side-lean and back-pat, and I head to security without looking back.
My flight home to Stockholm is nearly empty, so I have a row to myself. I take the window seat to rest my forehead against the cool double-layered plexiglass. While awaiting takeoff, I open Twitter again. A rare perk of working for the old GM was that he allowed me to participate in the online hockey community — I could give quotes to journalists, participate in debates, and live-tweet games where future NHL players competed to prove their worth. Most teams restrict their scouts to avoid giving up a competitive advantage, but the old GM was unconventional, from his social media policy to his decision to hire me.
My Twitter bio: UW-Madison Alumna | NCAA Champ | NHL Prospects | Sweden | Your Favorite Prospect Is Just Okay (don’t @ me).
As the plane begins to taxi, I compose one more tweet: “Elvenes is looking more like a miss with each game I watch.” Send. I put my phone on airplane mode, then lean on the glass.
I don’t check Twitter again until three hours later in my sparse one-bedroom. No matter how many times I clean the fridge, whenever I return from a trip I’m greeted by the lingering smell of smoked fish. Along with the apparently unkillable snake plant left on the windowsill, the odor is the last remnant of the previous tenant. I light a chestnut scented candle and see that my mentions are filled with replies to my last tweets. There are likes, quote tweets by people who’ve long agreed with my evaluation, but also the usual.
@Mike_11: “Calm down, Elvenes is gonna be a beast.”
@FuriousSlimJim: “Stick to women’s sports … #goKnights”
@GuyfromChi: “You can’t just judge a player based on one shot or if you think he’s hot. Learn the game.”
The direct messages are worse:
@Greg_Inc: “Hey, stranger.”
@Salv0_xx: “U dumb cunt.”
@Puckboi87: “1. Bad hockey opinions. 2. Sucked in WNCAA. 3. Saggy tits in profile pic.”
My feelings toward these creeps are not entirely negative. Most of these assholes haven’t even seen a single Swedish hockey game anyway. They just want a rise out of me, want to be right. They’re not. It’s the beauty of the internet — I can reject the hate as digitally emboldened nonsense while accepting the human contact as meaningful.
I type a response to Puckboi: “1. Employed by NHL team. 2. Won a national championship. 3.” I stop, delete what I’ve typed, and block him.
During my 14-hour flight to the U.S. the next day, I review my notes on Höglander and all the other Swedes and potential late rounders in my personal rankings. I re-watch a few games to make sure they’re fresh in my head. Then I watch tape on every player outside of Sweden that projects as a first rounder, making quick notes on impressions of their games. I look at the NHL standings and team rosters, evaluating holes and stylistic fits. I sneak in a few episodes of Iron Chef and a ninety-minute nap at some point during the flight, but I work for the other ten hours.
When I arrive at the hotel my vision is blurry and I can’t seem to equilibrate. I want to pick someone up at the bar in the lobby, but all road scouts are probably being put up in the same shithole, and I can’t risk sleeping with a coworker. I stagger to my room and pass out fully clothed.
The meeting is held the next morning in a large conference room at the team facilities. It has fancy projectors and plasma screens, but also hideous early 2000s triangular Polycom conference-call phones. There are about thirty people in attendance. The new GM, two assistant GMs, two reps from analytics, five from player development, five miscellaneous people, and fifteen amateur scouts. I passed women in offices in the business department, but in this room, I am the only one.
Each amateur scout gives a report on his region. In my presentation, I give Höglander a mid-first-round designation. No one else has been interrupted, but someone scoffs.
“Typical Sweden bias — you always project your guys early.”
“He’s not ‘my guy.’ He’s a mid-first-rounder. Höglander. 10-20 range. Next.”
The new GM observes from the back of the room. He has the intimidating presence of a person who doesn’t work to project intimidation. His authority is casual. His movements are slow and deliberate. He looks like he could say, “nice work everyone” or “you’re all fired” with the same facial expression.
When it’s my turn for a one-on-one debrief with him, my calm from the familiar group environment gives way to anxiety and terror. I stare at him, unconsciously tugging at the lanyard displaying my team ID. I can’t decide if it would be worse to lose my job or to be reassigned to a lower tier league. Maybe I’ll get a job for a Swedish team, or covering the SHL for a hockey blog. Maybe my old coach will hire me to run skating drills for college kids and Olympic hopefuls — would lonely dark winters in Wisconsin be so different from Stockholm?
When he fires me, I’ll apologize, then fight for my job as defiantly as possible without playing the only-woman-in-the-department card. I have a pristine record of player evaluation. I’m dedicated. Obsessed. Professional. I know the game. I know systems, stats, intangibles. I can help this team win.
“So,” he begins. “Do you enjoy working in Sweden?”
I stop fidgeting with the lanyard. “Yes, very much.”
“Can you see yourself relocating back here in a year or two if something opens up, if we can move you up the ladder?”
“One of the changes we’re implementing here is running a tighter ship. No more tweets.”
“Got it,” I say. “No more tweets.”
“Great,” he says. “Let’s work hard and lift that cup.”
I can’t take a deep breath until two days later when I watch the puck drop at Hovet arena, where Djurgårdens IF is taking on Rögle BK. From the press box, I can see my future, moving up the ladder. I whisper my new mantra: work hard and lift that cup. Below, the crowd breaks into a full-throated chant.
Höglander takes the ice.