Approximately 100 top prospects gather in Toronto every year for the NHL Scouting Combine. They participate in club interviews and arduous physical tests in front of team representatives and media.
In its 19-year history, the combine has become an important part of the NHL schedule. As the final fitness tests wrapped up at the Toronto International Center Saturday, I was reflecting with one of my colleagues on the history of the combine.
Two important questions come to mind. First, what purpose does it serve? Second, how has it developed over the years?
Let’s address the second question first. In order to get a balanced perspective, we should consider the views of the two groups of experts present at these events.
Most teams have their strength and conditioning coaches closely examine the prospects as they go through two days of physical testing. They focus on particular prospects and their body types, as well as their potential for future development.
The second group consists of the psychologists present for many teams during the four days of player interviews. They try to assess personality traits in the prospects and often warn the respective clubs about those that may hinder the development of certain players as pros.
I’ve heard similar statements from both strength coaches and psychologists over the past couple of years. Although the members of both groups are uniformly professional in withholding observations concerning individual players, they are generally quite open to discussion about overall trends. Both groups have commented that in recent years the prospects they have been observing resemble one another much more than they did in the early years of the combine.
In the fitness testing, few show up in anything other than tip-top physical condition. During this year’s combine, the handful of prospects in subpar physical condition stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. Similarly, psychologists have pointed out that few prospects show up for interviews unprepared to answer questions.
What does this similarity represent? In the area of physical fitness, I suggest a couple of things. First, the specter of the combine stimulates the top prospects to prepare for it and to consider it as a form of competition. Secondly, the high level of conditioning reflects the general state of competitive hockey. Year-round conditioning has become a lifestyle for players. This is the single biggest change in the game during my 27 years in the NHL.
The culture of hockey persuades prospects to dress well and conduct themselves in a professional manner. The quick and detailed answers too many of the commonly asked interview questions indicate prospects have been preparing for the sessions, often under the direction of their advisors.
Psychologists involved in the combines of other professional sports have told me the atmosphere at the NHL combine is different than similar events held in other leagues. Hockey prospects are generally more respectful and open to criticism.
One psychologist involved in a recent combine told me NHL teams can go after prospects more safely than in basketball and football. In those combines, prospects are more likely to argue sharply with the questioner or simply refuse to answer harshly worded questions.
In the early years of the combine, a number of European players and those from American colleges and high schools appeared for interviews sloppily attired and with casual attitudes. Most of these prospects from around the world have now bought into the solid, conservative tradition of the NHL.
How important is the combine? Let me first ask the question: how many businesses would hire new employees for high-paying jobs without some form of interview? I have always said that it is dangerous to upgrade a prospect on your draft list just because of a favorable interview or good results on a particular fitness test. However, prospects often drop because of character concerns exhibited during the interviews. Body appearance or a poor competitive drive shown in the fitness tests can also be a drawback.
I realize most teams interview prospects in detail during the course of the season. The combine presents an opportunity to follow up on certain questions or simply allow more of your scouting and management staff to meet the players.
Let us not forget the value of the medical examinations prospects must clear before engaging in the fitness tests. The physicians often serve as a source of independent examiners concerning injuries that are already known. They have also identified other conditions of concern, including ones that can be life-threatening.
All in all, the NHL Scouting Combine has proven to be a useful tool for teams in preparation for the draft. It now appears to be a permanent feature on the league’s landscape.