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Interviews a big part of Combine

by John McGourty
TORONTO -- There are three major elements that each player at the 2009 Scouting Combine must master this week -- the physical testing, which concluded Saturday afternoon -- the psychological testing, and the team interviews.

The physical testing requires well-conditioned young athletes to stress their bodies to the limits of their endurance. It's a taxing workout, harder than what they do on a daily basis, but within their abilities.

The psychological testing is relatively new, added in recent years to reveal aspects of a player's personality not otherwise easy to discover. Each player takes a short psychological quiz immediately following their fitness testing, while some teams have their own psychological exams for players to take.

The interview has long been part of combine testing and varies from team to team. Each team gets 20 minutes to talk to a player; four or five talent evaluators -- including general managers in some cases -- spent up to nine hours per day during the five interview days talking to players.

Atlanta Thrashers General Manager Don Waddell and a pair of assistant general managers, Rick Dudley of the Chicago Blackhawks and Jim Nill of the Detroit Red Wings, discussed their approach to the combine interviews with

Each was asked what players were expected to be asked at the Combine and what teams are looking to find out.
"There's certain things you can ask to find out … if you ask him what he needs to work on," Dudley said. "You probably know the player well enough to know what he needs to work on. If he's not direct with that and doesn't understand that he does have weaknesses, that can be a little bit of a problem.

"You'd like to think the kid would be honest enough to say, you know what, my skating, my first couple steps. Often they are honest -- my first couple steps I do need to work on. I'm working with (a trainer or power-skating coach) to get better, I'm doing a lot of plyometrics. If they go through something like that, you say this kid really is serious about this."

"We always say we know you as a player, we've scouted you," Waddell said. "We ask them what kind of player they believe they are, if they're looking at NHL players who they think they most resemble. Those are pretty standard questions. Then we break away from that, start asking about hobbies, and depending on the hobby that might lead to two or three questions. Try to break away who their best friend in high school was, what that person is doing now, would you give me their phone number so I can call them? You try to do things like that, want to find out about them as a kid."

"You've watched them play hockey," Nill said. "We are dealing with 17- and 18-year-old kids and we're trying to gather as much information as we can. We've watched them, their skills on the ice, their skating, their stickhandling and their strengths. The final piece of the puzzle is trying to figure out who and what the player is. Is he a character guy? Is there some flaw? We're just trying to figure the kid out, and a lot of times that's the most important part.

"The kids we are interviewing are all pretty good players. They're here for a reason. You're trying to find that extra character quality. Is there a fire burning in him that's going to make the difference?"

Nill was asked if it's possible to indentify that quality in a half-hour.

"Yes. We've seen it in quite a few kids," Nill said. "Jiri Fischer is an example that we've had in our own organization. We didn't interview him because we didn't think he'd still be available where we were picking, but we ran into him on the elevator. We sat down and talked to him and we could tell he had that. We got that gut feeling when you meet someone that you know is a good guy, a character guy. We just knew he had it, that drive in him, and he sold us on that."

"A lot of it is a gut feeling. You just want to get them in a room and start talking to them. We don't have any specific questions; we just like to sit down and start talking to them as a normal person and get to know them. That will reveal a lot. A lot of these kids are well-schooled, they all have agents who have told them what's going to happen. We just want them to relax."

Because of their status as top-end athletes, most of the players are pretty confident -- but not all. Nill cited the painfully shy Pavel Datsyuk's interview, while others recall Phil Kessel as shy and inarticulate at 18. Both young men have matured and taken on leadership roles with their teams.

"That's where you have to be careful," Nill said. "You have to use this as just another tool, but it can't be the deciding tool. I've met a lot of Russian and European players. If we had brought Pavel Datsyuk alone into a room and made the decision on the interview, we probably would have made the wrong decision.

"You have to be careful and understand that everyone is different. Some kids are shy and some are outgoing. Some are salesmen. You go with your gut feeling. You don't overweigh the interview against what they've done all year on the ice."

"I would have been the worst interview on earth. I was very shy, especially at that age," Dudley said. "I would have looked at the floor the whole interview. I don't know if that would have been a precursor to my personality, but truthfully I try to just see if they're engaging kids and the personality meshes with the player. Sometimes they're too schooled and you read that. With every player you get a different read.

"From the time the kid walks in, you're looking at him from a physiological standpoint. Then you're looking at how confident and aggressively he answers the questions, or attempts to. It's very difficult because you have people who are much more comfortable in those settings than other people and you can be fooled by someone who's really comfortable in an interview."
"Which one?" would probably be a bad answer to "How's the wife?" But it's a rare for a player to give an answer that disqualifies him, the executives said. But it has happened.
"About seven years ago, I asked a player if he ever watches hockey on TV when he's not playing," Waddell said. "His response was, 'Why would I watch it? I don't like hockey.' He realized what he said and added, 'I don't like watching it on TV, I like playing it.' Needless to say we didn't draft that player and he didn't play a game in the NHL.

"There are some wrong answers here, but most times you're looking to see how they're going to answer. You're going to throw them some curveballs."

"I don't judge them too hard with this," Nill said, "but I think it's a great learning tool for them. They are kids who have been playing in Swift Current or Europe and they haven't been exposed to the media and the environment they'll be in when they turn pro. It's great to see how they react to it. They're going from being kids to being in the real world and people are going to start writing about them. People are watching every step they take."

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