“I remember where I was, and what I was doing.”
January 15, 2016 was a day like any other for David Salter, Director of Communications for the St. John’s IceCaps, the AHL affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens at the time. The IceCaps were on the road, and David was on the way to pick up his kids when his phone rang. On the other end was Dominick Saillant, the Director of Media Communications for the Canadiens.
“There was constant player movement at the time between St. John’s, Brampton, and Montreal,” Salter explained, “so calls from Saillant were a fairly regular occurrence. I wasn’t surprised to see it ring.”
Answering the phone, Salter got news that would make an immediate impact on the rest of his day, for the rest of the week, for the rest of the month, and put the IceCaps on the map for all North American media outlets.
“John Scott’s coming. He’s been traded,” said Saillant.
The Canadiens had just acquired possibly the most controversial player in the NHL at the time, and were sending him straight to St. John’s. Scott was voted into the All-Star Game by an online fan vote while playing for the Arizona Coyotes as a prank that yielded some very strong pushback from the league.
“It was somewhere around 4:00 or 5:00 PM. Everyone was aware that he was voted in to the All-Star Game and the NHL was not pleased about it and tried to pressure him into dropping out. Trading him out-of-conference to Montreal, who then sent him to Newfoundland — the other end of the continent — they could not have gotten him any further from Phoenix and still be in North America.
“I knew that this would be news. That this move happened, it seemed pretty clear to a lot of people that the league did not want him to play in the All-Star Game, and it would be a huge story that he was being sent to St. John’s.”
Salter braced himself for what he assumed would be some media interest, but he had no idea what kind of ride he was about to embark on as the point man for the IceCaps organization.
Meanwhile, Scott was on the verge of welcoming another child with his wife, and the trade was very clearly a punishment by the league that had serious life implications for him.
“I spoke to John on the phone what the plan was in regards to setting up media availability for him, the next morning after practice, and he sounded shellshocked on the phone. He even asked me, ‘What do you think I should do?’ regarding the All-Star Game. I was a little surprised. I’m just a PR guy in St. John’s. I told him it was something for him and his agent to discuss.”
Salter had arranged for a press conference the day after he arrived to St. John’s for any interested outlets, but local papers were already parked at the airport, waiting for Scott to arrive.
“Robin Short of The Telegram was waiting at Mile One. You can’t hide Scott — he’s 6’7” — and Robin is about 6’5”, so I had to stand between these two giants and tell Robin, ‘Sorry, but John is not available tonight. We’ll do it tomorrow.’ I wanted it to be fair to everyone else. I knew I needed to have a news conference because this news transcended just the IceCaps; that every media outlet would be interested.”
“We started getting a few mainland outlets like TSN and Sportsnet checking in for a couple of weeks in little drips and drabs. Then I saw on social media that the league was going to let him play in the All-Star Game. That’s how I found out. I didn’t get a call from anyone.”
Whether the Canadiens were purposely trying to distance themselves from Scott or not was never really confirmed, but it could be somewhat read between the lines.
‘So guys, what do we do here?’
“This was uncharted territory. Is he a Montreal guy? Is he still with us as an AHL minor-league player, and how can that happen? I conferred with the Canadiens as I always did regarding protocol and everything else, and you want to do the right thing in order to be professional. And I remember Saillant saying, “David, he’s your guy. Good luck.” in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, insinuating that this could be big and that I should enjoy it. That’s when the phone calls started to come in. The ESPNs, the Fox Sports, NBCs, Globe & Mail, TSN ... whoa.”
“I remember that it was getting so crazy. I had a yellow notepad and I was writing down everyone’s name and phone number just to keep track of it all. To compound things, John was on the road with the IceCaps at this point in Bridgeport, Connecticut playing the Sound Tigers. We couldn’t have this major announcement — unprecedented in sports history in my mind — where a minor-league player is playing in the All-Star Game, and not have him available.
“But I wasn’t travelling with the team, so I coordinated with Jason King from our hockey operation group who was on the ground with the team to set up a call at the hotel where they were staying in Bridgeport. ESPN was one of the driving points because they are not too far from there, so they showed up, among some other outlets at the hotel itself. I was then coordinating calls to John as he was doing the interview with ESPN, and I was feeding those phone calls that went through me to him on site. We were making him available to anyone who wanted him.
“When John was asked what jersey he would wear to the ASG, he replied ‘I think I’ll wear the IceCaps jersey. I like this jersey. This jersey is cool.’ And we were all like, ‘YES.’ We were so proud and happy.”
“So John’s in the All-Star Game. This is great. This is fun and exciting and we were getting all this media attention from all over North America. Then, of course, he goes on and becomes the MVP of the All-Star Game. and that’s when all those outlets starting coming back. All the sports radio in the US, let alone Canada, the New York Times. Then you get a call from Mitch Albom.”
“One of his personal staffers calling and saying we want to come up there to write a movie about his story. They took me out to dinner to get my side of the story, interviewed John, then the New York Times came up to do a story. John Branch, who is a great writer, did a story on John.”
Hollywood took notice of the story, and Scott’s star rose beyond hockey and sports to mainstream recognition. But under all of that mass media buzz, and non-stop attention, Scott never allowed it to go to his head, or use it to strike back at the league. He stayed professional through it all.
“It was a crazy cool experience. For him to go to the All-Star Game was one thing, but then to become MVP, it was big. He really embraced it all. I think he knew that he was coming to the end of his career, and that’s why he embraced the whole All-Star Game thing. But even in St. John’s he knew it’s not where he wanted to be, but he knew he wasn’t going to be there for five years. This is a crazy weird adventure that he was just going to have to ride out, and his attitude with us was great. His time here just coincided with our fan fest, and it couldn’t have been better timing. John stood up on his feet for three hours signing autographs for anyone who would ask.”
“Teammates loved him. Nikita Scherbak, for one, absolutely adored him. Sportsnet Magazine came down and did a feature on John, we all went out to a local pub and he got screeched in. He just embraced the whole kind of experience. He’s just such an everyman. I remember when he would walk down George Street everyone would know his name. He was such a celebrity anywhere he would go.”
“It was such a crazy time. First him getting traded to St. John’s, then the ride, getting to the All-Star Game was the second part, and then him being the MVP that was the final crazy part. How do you even write a story like that? That’s why it was worthy of a Hollywood movie script. It was cool to be the point man for all of it.”
John Scott played one game for the Montreal Canadiens that season, and called it a career, but still appears on occasion as part of the Canadiens Alumni team, where he continues to attract huge attention to match his huge personality with a big smile and time for everyone. The former feared pugilist truly switched out his black hat for a white one and rode off into the sunset as the hero of his own story.