TORONTO -- Hockey Hall of Famer Jim Gregory said it best just prior to the start of the fitness testing portion of the 2011 NHL Scouting Combine on Friday.
In a moving tribute to his longtime friend, the late E.J. McGuire, Gregory saluted the man whose vision and foresight played a major role in catapulting the Combine into what was again a monumental success.
For the first time in the history of the Combine, the fitness portion of the event was held at a remote facility from the interview portion -- the Toronto Congress Centre. By all accounts, the new setup proved to be everything McGuire had hoped.
Long gone are the days of working out of a hotel basement with little media exposure and scarce resources. The NHL took the Combine to a whole new level this year and, in the process, didn't compromise the authenticity of the testing -- the primary reason for this gathering.
Just as McGuire and his determined crew at NHL Central Scouting predicted, the Combine was transformed into a paradise for scouts and general managers seeking the next generation of hockey prospects.
"I think it's much more professional," Phoenix Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney told NHL.com. "There's more space. Even the looks, with the TV booths behind us, the cameras … we feel like we're doing this the right way. I think every year there seems to be another wrinkle that evolves. I believe at some point we'll see an on-ice component of the testing, but I've really enjoyed it. I feel like it's been another step on doing things better."
"When players are being put through testing and there are lots of people, you need room, you need air to circulate, and I think this year's set-up has allowed that to happen," NHL Network analyst Craig Button said.
More space and freedom to check out each of the 13 fitness stations proved to be just what those NHL scouts and GMs required.
"It was a lot easier to move everything in and out since there's a lot more space," Central Scouting's Ontario Hockey League scout Chris Edwards said. "You can do a lot more in a room like this, with the big screen TVs, the TV studios. It just gives everyone much more room to view and we're not on top of each other."
This year's venue was constructed in a 9,600-square-foot room, compared to the 5,000-square-foot ballroom at Westin Bristol Place hotel that had been the home of the fitness testing. Key sponsors to the event included Reebok, which outfitted the prospects head to toe, Gatorade and Frito Lay; LG Television also donated eight flat-screen TVs for the event.
"It's exciting to see, first-hand, how this hidden gem of an event is finally getting the attention it deserves," NHL Manager of Events and Entertainment Frank Macina said. Additionally, NHL events coordinator Thomas Meaney worked closely with Macina in the months leading up to and during the Combine, while the information technology and support proved second to none.
"We're extremely pleased," NHL Central Scouting videographer and scout David Gregory said. "Our event guys did an unbelievable job in turning an empty room into this venue. We want to be better every year and just accommodate the requests of our member clubs. This is their event, it's done for them, from interviews right through to the testing, and I think we accomplished that."
The one catch to holding the fitness tests at a remote location was making certain all 102 prospects had transportation, and that was provided via a shuttle from the Westin Bristol Place two miles away. Central Scouting had groups of eight prospects shuttled to the Congress Centre every hour beginning 8:30 a.m. ET on Friday and Saturday.
"We faced challenges since we had to transport the players to and from the hotel, but the trade-off between having a bigger space and accommodating the media on hand by making the viewing a better experience for the teams really outweighed anything else," NHL Central Scouting Manager Nathan Ogilvie-Harris told NHL.com. "EJ would have loved the compliments the teams were giving Central Scouting. This was EJ's goal -- he came out and visited this facility, so he had a hand in it."
It was difficult for any of the scouts to not make mention of McGuire when discussing the Combine.
"He took the Combine from a basement of a hotel and turned it into what it is now -- a major convention center that is at least double the space and sponsors, so his fingerprints are all over this," Edwards said. "I mean, (his fingerprints) are all over everything we do, but especially this event. He raised it to a professional level. What once was a mom-and-pop operation is now covered nationally on TSN. We had to have had at least 50 media outlets. In year's past, we'd be lucky if we had six or 10."
"When you're in here, you can feel E.J. here as well," Central Scouting goalie scout Al Jensen said. "His prints are on this whole thing."
One thing was certain -- the prospects appeared right at home. The two grueling bike tests may have gotten the best of a few of the players, but the extra space provided more room to reach water stations or receive immediate medical attention, if required.
"We haven't changed our protocol in at least five years, and for a number of years there always were some new tweaks," David Gregory said. "There's also a better understanding of what the protocol is from a physical-conditioning standpoint. Kids are way more prepared, and I think, in general, just where pro sports are going, these kids know what they're up against. They come here ready to perform, but it's still hard to do."
Gregory's eyes swelled a bit when asked how proud he was of his father, Jim, for his opening remarks, during which he referred to the Combine as "E.J.'s beautiful event."
"He's experienced this coming from an idea, to this, and seeing a number of different men run this department and you saw it in the emotion he had for what it meant to talk about E.J.," Gregory said. "It was good to see that come out, because we're all feeling the same thing."Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
Author: Mike G. Morreale | NHL.com Staff Writer