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Couturier; van Riemsdyk reflect on NHL Combine

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers
No one would describe the annual NHL Scouting Combine as “fun” for the participating Draft prospects or the teams involved.  But the painstaking process of intensive physical tests, medical exams and on-the-spot interviews with NHL teams’ scouting departments is an important rite of passage and a golden opportunity for the top-rated prospects to impress prospective employers.

For the various NHL organizations, the Combine represents a chance to gather information they can put to use both on the weekend of the Draft and in the year or two that follow.
The Philadelphia Flyers scouting staff and hockey operations personnel, along with their counterparts representing the rest of the 30 teams in the NHL, are currently at the 2012 NHL Scouting Combine in Toronto. The event runs from May 28 to June 2.

As with every team, the Flyers use the Combine as a means to round out the scouting reports they’ve assembled during the season, which often includes major international tournaments such as the Under-18 World Championships as well as games from the various leagues in which the Draft prospects compete. In some cases, clubs have already done extensive homework on a particular player, both on and off the ice. In other cases, the team may have only a sketchy scouting familiarity with the player.

There are two distinct areas emphasized at the Combine. Half of the focus is geared toward physical fitness testing, the other half toward player interviews with teams' scouting departments. Meanwhile, the clubs have the opportunity to review independent medical reports (conducted this year by doctors from the University of Toronto).

Because of the highly detailed nature of the Combine, only a fraction of potential NHL Draft selections get invited to participate. Simply being invited is an accomplishment of sorts. This year, 105 Draft hopefuls are taking part in the Combine in Toronto.  While earning an invite is desirable, it is hardly the be-all and end-all of someone’s candidacy to someday play in the NHL.  Likewise, many players who are not invited to the Combine still go on to earn selections in the Draft.

For example, current Flyers’ defenseman Marc-Andre Bourdon was not invited to attend the 2008 Combine despite a very strong 2007-08 season (59 points in 69 regular season games, 18 points in 17 playoff games) for the QMJHL’s Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Nevertheless, the organization felt confident enough in its in-season scouting reports on Bourdon to select him in the 3rd round,  67th overall, in the 2008 Entry Draft.

For many of the teenagers invited to the Combine, as grueling as the physical testing can be, the anticipation of the interviews can be even more nerve-racking. Most of the questions are geared toward learning more about him as a hockey player and a person.

Different teams approach it in different ways, but the common thread is that the clubs want to find out if the young man seems poised, confident, mentally alert, emotionally mature and truly committed to attaining a career in pro hockey. Teams also ask questions related to recent injuries, with a focus on players’ rehab regimens.

Flyers’ forwards James van Riemsdyk and Sean Couturier know all about the dual physical and mental challenges presented at the Combine. Both were top-ranked Draft candidates in their respective selection years and, as such, were in high demand at the Combine.

“I don’t know if nervous is the right word,” van Riemsdyk said in recalling his feelings before the 2007 Combine. “I was excited about the opportunity and eager to meet with the teams. I felt confident that I could show teams what I could do. So I wouldn’t really say I was nervous, but I knew it would be a big challenge and I was looking forward to.”

Likewise, Couturier viewed the 2011 event with a combination of trepidation and eager anticipation.

“It makes for a very busy two or three days meeting with all those teams and scouts,” Couturier said. “At the same time, it was very exciting to be there. It was something that I looked forward to.”

Some young prospects who attend the Combine put themselves at a disadvantage. They may overestimate their ability to ace the series of physical tests to measure their raw strength, stamina and endurance. Others may not come sufficiently prepared for the interview questions they’ll be asked. In the case of van Riemsdyk, the young man avoided those traps by preparing as conscientiously as possible for what was to come at the Combine.

“I talked to some guys who had been through it, to get a sense of what it was like. In my case, it also really helped that there were other players from my team [US National Development Team Program] who were also there in Ann Arbor. That definitely made it a little easier to prepare. I felt ready,” said van Riemsdyk.

The physical testing at the Combine includes a battery of 13 different strength and fitness tests, ranging from bench-press repetitions to situps. Among many participants, the most difficult and dreaded tests are a pair of tests performed while riding a stationary bike.

Performed back-to-back, one test measures raw power while the other is geared toward endurance and cardiovascular conditioning. 

“I’d agree that the bike tests were probably the toughest. Actually, while I was standing and waiting for my turn, the guy who finished right before me went and puked immediately. That wasn't too reassuring going into it,” laughed JVR, who got through the test without losing his lunch.

As tough as the physical tests are, they are right up the alley of the athletes at the Combine. Most participants approach them as a competitive opportunity to outdo their peers and also as educational opportunity to learn which specific areas they can improve their training regimens. The interview phase, on the other hand, is largely unchartered waters for many of the participants. 

The interview questions can be mundane and repetitive, given the sheer volume of interviews that many players do. The Combine participants must attempt to answer the questions as fully and honestly as they can, no matter how many times they field the same queries. Even more dauntingly, sometimes teams throw the young men a curve ball with questions that catch them off guard. This is done to judge how confidently the teenagers can think on their feet.

“I interviewed with about 15 teams,” said van Riemsdyk. “I had heard that I would probably end up going with one of the top four or five picks, but obviously, I couldn’t take that for granted. Well, the team that was drafting seventh [the Columbus Blue Jackets] asked me, ‘So how can we get you?’ I really wasn’t sure what to respond.”

“As it turns out, back in 2002, they asked Rick Nash the same question. And he said to them, ‘Trade for the first pick.’ And that’s what they did, trading up [from the third pick to the first pick]. So that was pretty funny they asked me that, because they knew that Nash is a player that I really liked.”

Columbus ended up using their seventh overall pick in the 2007 Draft to select Jakub Voracek, who is now van Riemsdyk’s teammate with the Flyers.

For the most part, van Riemdsyk had little trouble anticipating and answering the questions he was asked at the 2007 Combine. In JVR's case, there was a lot of emphasis on his experiences with the US National Team Development Program and his plans to attend the University of New Hampshire.

At the 2011 Combine, Couturier met with even more teams than van Riemdsyk did – with one surprising exception.

“I spoke with about 20 or 21 of the NHL teams,” said Couturier. “Actually, the Flyers were one of the few teams that I didn’t talk to at the Combine. So that was kind of funny now when I look back at it.”

Couturier spent considerable time at the Combine answering pointed questions about what had been something of a down season for him in the QMJHL in 2010-11.  A pre-season candidate for the top overall selection of the 2011 Draft, Couturier dealt with mononucleosis early in the season. The illness severely sapped his strength for several months and forced him to play catch-up conditioning-wise.

“It was basically the same conversation over and over,” Couturier said. “But it was always exciting to meet with a different team. Before I started doing the interviews, I didn’t really know what to expect. But after I did a few of them, I think it helped me to relax.  With the physical testing, it really pushed you to the limit every time. So it was a very different bunch of challenges but, like I said, it was very exciting.”

Both van Riemsdyk and Couturier came through the Combine with flying colors. Philadelphia drafted JVR second overall in the 2007 Draft. Four years later, the organization chose Couturier with the eighth overall pick that Columbus packaged along with Voracek in the Jeff Carter trade.

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