TORONTO – Everyone has seen a hotel conference room. Spaces such as these are readily identifiable without even looking up; you can tell by the carpeting that you’re in a hotel conference room. But if you do look up in this hotel conference room, you’ll see several teenaged athletes grunting and sweating, you’ll hear several Vince Lombardi-type “coaches” egging them on, and you’ll see dozens of studious men watching and taking notes. It’s the NHL’s draft combine, and some of these teenagers are on the verge of becoming millionaires.
The hockey games are over for another year, and the NHL Entry Draft is just around the corner. Toronto annually hosts the combine a few weeks before the actual draft. Three weeks after this grueling conference room effort, some of these kids will hear their names called from the podium in Columbus as first-round Entry Draft selections.
More than 100 players are in attendance at this year’s combine. In groups of seven or eight, they undergo rigorous physical testing for an hour and spend a few days interviewing with the general managers and scouting departments of teams around the league. Mental and medical testing is also part of the process. The addition of mental testing is new this year, but the physical tests have changed very little over the years.
In the combine setting, scouts and general managers are able to see a player’s body without the encumbrances of hockey equipment. Team strength specialists can look at a player’s body, watch him traverse the combine course, and get an idea of how well his body projects for the coming rigors of pro hockey.
Teams will also take the time to interview players, spending 20 minutes or so getting to know more about the backgrounds of these hockey hopefuls. Scouts can readily see what a player can do on the ice, but the interview process gives them a chance to learn more about the player as a person and to get a glimpse into his character.
The interviews begin as early as 8:30 in the morning and run as late as 9:20 in the evening. Over the course of the week leading up to the combine, clubs will have sit-down discussions with a few dozen prospects, and most players will talk to around 20 NHL clubs, give or take a few. Players may spend several days interviewing, but the physical and mental testing is all achieved in the same day.
Players enter the room and work their way around the perimeter, beginning with height and weight measurement and body fat and wingspan assessment. They’re identically clad in loose black shorts and sleeveless white T-shirts.
You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, so each player sports a different number on the right leg-front of his shorts. The scorecard also lets scouts know which players will test at which times. This is important because the scouts must shuttle between watching the tests in one conference room and sitting in on their team’s interviews in another part of the hotel.
The players move from station to station, going through their paces while their performance is recorded for posterity. Including height and weight, there are 16 measurable stations at which each player is tested. The others are; wingspan, percentage of body fat, strength (using a hand-grip and arm-pull apparatus), curl-ups (variation on the sit-up), bench press, push-ups, trunk flexion, standing long jump, upper body power, vertical jump, agility, balance, anaerobic power and aerobic power.
Once the players have completed the physical portion of the testing, they must sit their tired frames down in front of a computer and undergo mental testing in the midst of the same noisy room. Being able to concentrate and do well on the mental portion of the exam is thought to be akin to performing well in a hostile and loud hockey arena.
Opinions vary as to which of the many physical tests are the most useful for projecting a player’s future worth as an NHL commodity.
“The one where you go and watch the player play hockey,” says one veteran scout when queried as to which of the physical tests has the most value. “When someone can build a machine that a player can stand on that says, ‘This guy will be an NHL player,’ that will become the most valuable tool.”
Central Scouting invites the players to the combine, and it’s up to the players as to whether they’d like to attend. Some players go through practice testing with their own personal trainers in an attempt to prepare themselves for the rigors of combine testing. A few players who were scheduled to attend did not for various reasons, and one player showed up without an invitation.
Interpreters accompany those players whose English isn’t good enough for the testing and interview environments.
The amount of value placed on players’ performance here at the combine varies from team to team. Generally speaking, it’s another layer of information for teams to add to their dossier. But there have been players who tested well only to become professional busts, and others who tested poorly and went on to enjoy prosperous NHL careers.
Plenty of NHL general managers and personnel men were on hand here over the weekend, and with the draft looming ahead, you’ve got to believe the talk is turning to trades from time to time. This weekend’s fitness testing was followed by Monday’s NHL general manager meetings in Ottawa.
In less than three weeks the draft will be over and the scouting season will begin anew. For these talent evaluators it will be time to begin following and evaluating the class of 2008.