Vaughn Karpan isn’t the best-known former Canadian Olympic hockey player, but he’s parlayed his special experiences into a long career in player evaluation. The 55-year-old, who was born in Bobby Clarke’s hometown of Flin Flon, Manitoba, suited up at the 1984 and 1988 Winter Games in Sarajevo and Calgary respectively under head coach Dave King, finishing fourth both times.
When Karpan hung up his skates, he served as an amateur scout with the Winnipeg Jets and Phoenix Coyotes franchise from 1993 to 2005. He moved to the Montreal Canadiens in 2005-06, switching to pro scouting in 2010-11. Karpan was hired by the new Las Vegas NHL franchise as the director of player personnel this summer. His scouting staff includes well-known international names from Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Nedomansky to Sweden’s Dan Labraaten. Las Vegas will start playing in 2017-18, and the key dates ahead for Karpan, in collaboration with GM George McPhee, include June 21 (the expansion draft) and June 23-24 (the entry draft).
IIHF.com caught up with Karpan in Vancouver when the Canucks beat the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 on 20 October.
What made you decide to take the job in Vegas?
The biggest reason was the opportunity to build something from the ground up. I had an existing relationship with Kelly McCrimmon. We were teammates in 1979 with the Brandon Wheat Kings. I knew the character of the people I was working with. I knew George’s reputation. So it wasn’t easy to leave Montreal after 11 years, having had a major role in putting the roster together. But the combination of the opportunity with the job skills and the people involved in it made it a lot easier.
What does your typical workday look like?
We just got done hiring our staff about three weeks ago. Now it’s getting people up to speed on scheduling and what we’re looking for from day-to-day, work when they’re at the rink. We’re starting to get the landscape of what teams are looking like and where they’re exposed, where they’re secure, and where our opportunities might be.
How do you strike the balance between trying to win right away as an expansion franchise versus bringing in young guys who can grow with your organization?
We need to be competitive right away. That’s a given. There are three or four different things that a player available in the expansion draft can do for us. We’re going to evaluate that. I think we need to build a young foundation if we can, and supplement them with the right combination of experience and skill and character. It’s going to be a moving target and a lot will depend on what’s available to us. We’re going to look at each asset, attach a value to it, and see what it looks like.
George McPhee helped assemble some of hockey’s most entertaining teams in Vancouver and Washington. What kind of identity does he want in Vegas?
If you look around the league, the best teams play with pace. They move the puck. They have three scoring lines and a mobile defence. So we have an idea of what we want our team to look like ultimately.
We’re obviously not going to get there in Year One, but we’re going to work toward that. There’ll be people available who fit that dimension. There’ll be other players who help us get there in terms of getting other assets. The team George built in Washington is as dynamic a team as there is in the league right now, from top to bottom, including their goaltending. Certainly that’s a template for us. We want to play up ice.
In your scouting career, what’s your proudest professional accomplishment so far?
This is my 25th year and only my third organization. So I haven’t moved around very much. I had a chance to be part of the Montreal Canadiens, which is the most storied franchise in the business. That was certainly a huge sense of pride. I’m proud of drafting Brendan Gallagher (fifth round, 147th overall in 2010). That was my last year on the amateur side. I saw him a lot. He was a player I liked with the Vancouver Giants. He was easy to like. He’s exceeded everyone’s expectations.
Switching gears to international hockey, what made you decide to join the Canadian national team program in the 1980’s?
I just wasn’t good enough to play anywhere else! [laughs] That was the only place that I had a chance to play. I was fortunate. I got connected with some good coaches along the way. My last three hockey coaches were Wayne Fleming, Andy Murray, and Dave King. I got to learn a lot about the game. I became a better student of the game. I was the least talented player on all those teams.
What was that lifestyle like? In addition to your two Olympics, you played 213 other games in a Canadian uniform, traveling all over Europe.
It was like scouting. No home games! We played five games in Calgary and then 70 on the road. Kind of like the Harlem Globetrotters. It was a great life lesson. We got to see a lot of things that were not available to most people, going behind the Iron Curtain in the 80’s. We played in East Berlin. We played in the town of Auschwitz. It was also a lesson in mental toughness. The schedule was demanding. The coaching was demanding. The competition was demanding. It was a test. For a player like me, I woke up every day not knowing if I’d be on the team the next day.
The toughest competition you faced was the Soviet Union with Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. What was that like?
I got to play them over a period of six years. I have an analogy. When I first played them, it was like you’re on the wrong train going the wrong way all night. You’d say: “Whoops, there goes my guy.” By the second and third year, you were on the right train, but you were about four cars back. By the end of it, you were on the right train and you were there with them. We learned how to play with them. In my last year, we played the same Soviet team three times that Mario Lemieux beat in the 1987 Canada Cup. We beat them twice.
What did it feel like to upset the Soviets in the ‘87 Izvestia tournament in Moscow?
It was surreal. It’s something nobody in Canada talks about. But I don’t know that anybody else beat a Soviet senior national team in their rink since Paul Henderson in 1972. The level of competition in that event is a big secret to most Canadians. It was the best international teams at their best. Certainly the Soviets had their best. It was phenomenal. For those of us who’d been to three or four Izvestias, to win it all and beat them was pretty satisfying after coming second the year before.
You played with some excellent players on those Canadian Olympic teams, from Russ Courtnall to Kirk Muller to Andy Moog. Who had an impact on you personally?
Dave Tippett, for one. He was the captain of the ‘84 team. He had really good practice habits and just did his job. Kevin Dineen was also particularly impressive. He was ultra-competitive and ultra-tough. I remember he separated his shoulder in a game against Finland and he just popped it back in. He screamed and he went out and played and ran into people. He was pretty special. And Sean Burke was one of the most impressive leaders I’ve played with. He was a core guy. He was the most important guy on those national teams. He was competitive, a real gamer.
Playing a home-ice Olympics, as you did in 1988, is a rare opportunity. Besides the hockey games, what do you remember away from the rink?
The best thing was that Labatt’s, one of the corporate sponsors, flew our parents in. Mine came in from Le Pas, Manitoba and had the time of their lives. They treated them like kings and queens.
That was probably the best gift I could give them. You’d see your folks after every game. And you’d see Katarina Witt in the Olympic village all the time. We had a Bryan Adams concert for the athletes. He took the hockey team backstage. We sat there and talked to him for an hour and a half. Prince Albert of Monaco was there. I met him at the athletes’ social dance at the end of it all. Eddie the Eagle was running around. I was lucky.
From your perspective, how important is it for the NHL to continue Olympic participation?
I think it’s great if we can. Hockey is one of the two or three marquee sports in the Olympics, along with downhill skiing and figure skating. If you look around the hockey world, it’s where you have the best playing the best. It seems to bring the country together. Everybody watches and talks about it. For me, it’s a special thing. If they don’t bring the pros back, then I still think it can be a good event, but they’d have to reinvent it a little bit. In my time, we played three or four years together to get ready for the Olympics. Now they get together and just go in and out. It’s not the same experience. From a fan perspective, after the Stanley Cup, it’s the most exciting thing we have. It’s unique. The World Cup of Hockey didn’t replicate it.