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Combine Crucial for Prospects, Clubs

by Aaron Lopez / Colorado Avalanche
Beginning Monday, May 25, over 100 of the top draft-eligible players from North America and Europe will descend upon the Westin Bristol Place in Toronto as part of the 2009 NHL Combine.

There, they will undergo myriad physical, medical and psychological tests that will help to determine their status when the 2009 NHL Entry Draft rolls around on June 26-27 in Montreal.

But what actually takes place at the combine?

According to Rick Pracey, director of amateur scouting for the Avalanche, it’s a time for teams to analyze who the prospects are as people, while also getting to know them more as hockey players.

“The combine allows us to get a better feel for these kids as people,” said Pracey. “We try to understand how they feel about themselves as players; what are their strengths and what areas do we need to improve upon? A lot of this stuff is putting a face to the name. And obviously, there is a good deal of information gathering that goes on.”

Clubs are given the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with the top prospects
NHL clubs have spent the past year scouting draft eligible players across the globe, accessing their talent and potential. Those same prospects won’t be lacing up the skates at the combine, but instead will have a chance to speak with scouts and management from each NHL team in hopes of improving their status come draft day.

The group of players invited to the combine is loosely based on Central Scouting’s Final Rankings. In May, NHL clubs are notified of which players will be attending the combine, and from there are able to fill out forms requesting one-on-one interviews.

“Every team is then assigned interview slots,” said Pracey. “Essentially you’re as busy or selective as you want to be in who you’re speaking with. Time slots for those interviews usually run around 20 to 25 minutes and the interviews run Monday through Thursday.”

Most view the combine as the “second phase” of scouting. After watching them skate multiple times during the 2008-09 season, Pracey sees the combine as an opportunity to delve a little deeper into their “hockey backgrounds.” This includes who they’ve played with, who their coaches have been in the past and what their goals are for the short-term and long-term future.

“The questions we ask are a vehicle for them to express themselves,” said Pracey. “You get a feel for them as people and learn about their motivations, character and values.”

Although the 20-to-25 minute time slots for initial interviews may seem a bit hasty – especially when you consider that teams are often staking the future of their franchise on these young adults – there are opportunities for follow-ups.

“If there’s more information we need, there are often openings for secondary interviews,” Pracey stated. “Sometimes, through these 25-minute conversations, there are things that pop up. Anything from injuries to stories that you need to get a better handle on and might need further information about.”

Prospects are put through a number of physical tests at the combine
When the interview grind is finally over, the players – and the teams scouting them – begin to focus on the physical testing portion of the combine. The players are lumped into two groups, with half undergoing the assessments on Friday and the rest on Saturday. Physical tests range from simple exercises like push-ups and sit-ups to more grueling challenges, which include riding bikes that test anaerobic fitness and aerobic max VO2.

The tests not only allow teams to compare the fitness levels of over 100 prospects at once, but also to see if they meet certain benchmarks established by the club.

“I will have Paul Goldberg, the strength and conditioning coach for the Avalanche, observing the kids,” said Pracey. “He’ll have his own set of criteria that’s he’s looking at during the testing, but he’ll also help us decipher the results. He’ll make individual notes on each kid.”

The combine is an important day for all 30 teams and the participating players, but that doesn’t necessarily mean an organization’s line of thinking about a specific player boils down to just one interview or test.

“We do these combine interviews and it’s a process that’s important. But there’s also a lot of background checking and secondary stuff that goes into it,” noted Pracey. “If we’re liking a player, rarely does it come down to a 25-minute interview in Toronto when they’re seeing 29 other teams at the same time. We just have to make sure we’re finding out as much as we can about these players as people.

“It’s certainly challenging, and I know our guys do a very diligent job. We just try to go into the draft as confident as we can.”
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