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NASHVILLE – Natalie Sickles waited against the metal fence, shirt and pen in hand, as the NHL players left Bridgestone Arena. She was looking for one All-Star in particular.
The one they kept saying didn’t belong there.
John Scott, the 6-foot-8 pugilist whose chaotic journey since winning the All-Star fan vote has overshadowed the game itself, emerged from the arena. Sickles held out her John Scott All-Star T-shirt and the gentle giant scribbled his name over the No. 28. She smiled, thanked him and wished him well.
Scott’s shirts sold out online four days before the game. Sickles said she purchased one out of appreciation for what Scott’s endured, en route to Nashville.
“I felt he was treated unfairly by the NHL. Reading about the fan vote, the way it came out and how he was being punished for it. If the NHL doesn’t want a fan vote, then they shouldn’t do it,” said the Predators fan.
“I’m hoping that he gets cheered. But I know he’ll have a good time.”
On Day 1 of his All-Star Weekend, Scott was the embodiment of fun. He signed autographs for fans. He joked about fighting players in the All-Star Game, and self-deprecatingly joked about his hockey prowess. He urged the media to remain where they were while he snapped a photo of them with his phone following a press conference, forever preserving the surreal absurdity of it all.
“I hope the fans cheer,” said Scott. “They’re going to take it for what it is, which is an anomaly. It’s probably not going to happen again. I hope they have fun with it, get behind me.”
When he arrived in Nashville, Scott was fairly certain the fans were behind him.
He was much less sure about the NHL.
On Thursday, John Scott dropped a megaton bomb on the NHL with a story in The Players’ Tribune that was equal parts autobiography and exposé.
“I had read a ton of articles, and I didn’t really care for what was written. I wanted to get my voice heard, have it be written my way,” said Scott. “Got an overwhelming positive response. I got so many texts and calls from people that I’ve never even met. It’s pretty crazy. I guess it’s a big success.”
Scott wrote about the fan vote campaign that got him elected to the game – how it started as a joke that offended him, but became something he appreciated as his friends and peers said he should embrace it. Yet he didn’t encourage it – his team, the Arizona Coyotes, actually instructed him to speak out against it.
He wrote about the suspicious trade from the Coyotes to the Montreal Canadiens, who buried him in the AHL. The speculation had been that the deal was done out of spite, as Scott refused to decline his All-Star Game spot. Scott’s article did little to dispel that.
But more disturbing was the allegation that the NHL itself tried to bully Scott out of the game. He wrote that his breaking point was when an unnamed NHL official asked him, “Do you think this is something your daughters would be proud of?”
As Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star wrote: “What an embarrassment for the NHL that this became public. The whole thing has been a cavalcade of incompetence.”
How much damage was done? Consider this: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had to meet with Scott on Thursday night in an effort to smooth things over and ensure he didn’t “go rogue” again at the All-Star Game.
"He's more than welcome to be here," Bettman told the Associated Press. "We're happy he's here. The fans spoke, and we're happy to reflect their will."
Scott said The Players’ Tribune article wasn’t a topic of conversation.
“No, we just had a quick talk. I think he was worried about me not feeling welcome here and kinda just being uncomfortable in this situation. But he said, ‘we want you here,’” said Scott.
“It was nice hearing that coming from him. There was a time when I wasn’t really sure how the league felt. But he put those thoughts to rest.”
Had he heard from the Coyotes and general manager Don Maloney, who also received criticism after the article hit?
“No. They’re not my team anymore. I don’t know why I’d talk to them,” he said.
One of the criticisms of the Coyotes was that they traded Scott – in the end, to Newfoundland – with his wife expected to deliver twins within weeks. That this broke some sort of hockey code. But Scott gave them a pass.
“I think that’s asking a lot from a GM. If that’s the case they’re going to have a hard job to do,” he said.
“They do as much as they can do but at the end of the day, I’m a grown man. I have to do it myself. At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘You traded me. I don’t want to suck off your teat anymore.’”
Technically, Scott is representing the Coyotes at the All-Star Game as captain of the Pacific Division. But he won’t wear a Coyotes jersey on Saturday night in the Skills Competition, and he doesn’t have a Coyotes patch on his official All-Star Game jersey.
Neither the Coyotes nor the Canadiens had media personnel herding Scott from interview to interview – Scott was flanked by two NHL officials, keenly monitoring what he said during his press conference.
No, Scott’s his own man at the All-Star Game.
And that’s perhaps what has him most excited.
“Just a goon."
It’s the worst thing you can say to John Scott … well, outside of evoking his family to guilt him out of the All-Star Game. It’s the word that’s been affixed to his name in several dozen think-pieces during the voting controversy.
And he despises it.
“It’s a guy who’s brain dead. Just goes out there and fights. It’s really a derogatory term, and I hate reading it in articles,” said Scott. “I’m not a goon. I don’t even fight that much. But you get this label and it just sticks.”
If not a goon, what is John Scott?
“A piece of work.”
That’s Brent Burns, All-Star defenseman, talking through a gap-toothed smile.
Burns and Scott played together with the San Jose Sharks. From the moment he arrived in Nashville, Burns has been Scott’s social media hype man, taking selfies with his promotional photos and then hanging out together on Thursday night:
— Brent Burns (@Burnzie88) January 29, 2016
“They say the tough guys are actually teddy bears. I think that’s the case with Johnny. There’s not many more colorful, smart, funny guys that Johnny Scott,” said Burns. “I think it’s good for fans to see that.”
Burns isn’t Scott’s only fan amongst the All-Stars in Nashville, and that acceptance has been something Scott’s relied on through this process. If his Arizona Coyotes teammates were cool with it – and they were – then he could be cool with it. If other players around the NHL were cool with it – and if they weren’t before, they were after The Players’ Tribune piece revealed the NHL’s tactics – then he can be cool with it.
“That means a lot, more than anything. To have your peers want you in the game,” he said. “It’s nice to get recognized for doing the grunt work in the game. Get some love for the third and fourth liners.”
He’s worried about the requests from teammates for one of his sticks, in that grand tradition of stick trading that happens after the All-Star Game. Scott only brought around six with him, so he’ll have to be selective on trades.
“I don’t need Burnsie’s,” he said, glancing at Brent Burns a few tables away. “I don’t really care for him.”
Scott and Burns will skate for the Pacific Division All-Star team – Calgary’s Mark Giordano joked that their team will just bludgeon opponents rather than go goal for goal with them – which brings us to another mystery about John Scott and the All-Star Game:
What the hell is he going to do there?
In the Skills Competition, Scott will compete in the hardest shot and in the shootout. He said he put his name down for every event.
“I tried! I tried! But they’re kind of funny about me being in all the skills,” he said.
“I tried to put myself in the accuracy, but I get bumped from that. They’re always editing the lists because some guys don’t want to do certain events,” he said, adding with a smile: “Buncha prima donnas here.”
On Sunday, in the 3-on-3, Scott said he would probably just “wing it,” having never played in that format before. But he does have high expectations.
“I predicted I’m going to get six goals,” he said.
That would mean one more goal than his career total in the NHL, in 285 games. It would also mean six goal celebrations from a guy who doesn’t have … many.
“I have something planned. An homage to an old tough guy maybe,” said Scott.
And while John Scott isn’t the ‘g-word,’ the question had to be asked: Will he find an opponent to fight in the All-Star Game?
“I don’t think they’ll have a choice.”
Who will he fight?
“I don’t want to say. I’ll ruin my plan.”
Scott dropped the charade and said there will be no fighting in the All-Star Game.
“I’m a skill player now.”
This is the part of the story where I do what I’ve tried to avoid doing during most of this, which is use the word “I.”
The catalyst for the ‘John Scott, All-Star’ campaign was on my podcast with Jeff Marek, and then with an article on this blog. Truth be told, I cast a single vote for the guy, just to see how the software worked. John Scott is an All-Star by the daily keyboard pounding of activist fans on Reddit and throughout social media.
The fact is that none of this was coordinated with Scott. At all. We had spoken once, when I covered the San Jose Sharks in their Santa Clara outdoor game last season. But I hadn’t actually spoken to Scott through this campaign – one that started as a joke about his being an All-Star, but one that targeted him as someone who would be in on the joke. The “voting the class clown as student council president” thing.
I heard he wasn’t exactly enamored with the joke portion of the campaign – something about “lugging his ass up and down the ice in the 3-on-3” apparently didn’t sit right with him. I was curious what he thought about the campaign and our part in it.
So I caught Scott near the elevator of his hotel, extended my hand and introduced myself.
"Oh hey, you're the guy who got me here,” said Scott.
I acknowledged that, and then acknowledged that I wasn’t really sure if he was cool with the campaign, or wanted to punch me in the face for some of the things I had said about his hockey talents.
"The thought had crossed my mind,” said Scott.
We spoke briefly, and he thanked everyone that supported him for the All-Star Game. It went better than I had expected, being both a pessimist about these things and fully expecting to receive a (well-earned) punch in the face.
But somewhere during this campaign, Scott decided to embrace it as we hoped he would. He decided to the go to the All-Star Game and have the time of his life, like we hoped he would. What we didn’t anticipate was the fumble-handed pushback from the NHL, which amplified his popularity beyond anything we could have imagined.
So if we weren’t always cool, we were cool now, it appeared.
“You know,” I said to my new friend, “people say we sort of look alike.”
Scott looked down at me. “God, I hope not.”
And then the elevator closed.
Piece of work, that one.
As incredibly poor as the NHL has handled this campaign – one prominent media executive told us the League was ‘absolutely clueless’ – Scott played it perfectly. He went from joke candidate to victim to man of the people, without openly campaigning for any of it.
“I learned just to keep my mouth shut. Go to work. Throughout this whole process, I just let other people do the talking. I think that worked out well,” he said.
But Scott knows that this will never happen again. Not to him, not to another fourth-liner, not to another fighter. The NHL will clamp down on the fan vote to ensure it next season.
“I’m guessing they’ll do something. To not allow the fans to have the same effect again next year, and prevent this from happening again.”
Scott paused for a moment.
“But I think this is a good thing for the game. It’s gotten a lot of attention, and publicity. Gotten people excited to watch the game,” he said.
“When this whole thing started, I got negative and positive. But I hoped that everyone would just put that aside and just realize, ‘Hey, it’s gonna happen. Let’s have fun with it, have a good time.’”
Odds are that no other player will have as much fun with this as John Scott.