The 2007 NHL Combine took place in Toronto this week, with 106 of the top prospects in this month’s NHL Draft participating in interviews, medical screenings, and fitness tests over a four-day period. All 30 NHL teams sent representatives to watch the testing and to take part in the interviewing of the young prospects, who were prodded, poked, measured, and for the first time this year, tested for character and mental efficiency.
The Combine, which is run by NHL Central Scouting, officially took place from Wednesday to Saturday in a Toronto hotel, but really began on Monday, with the arrival of several European prospects.
By Tuesday, a half dozen NHL teams were already interviewing the Europeans, who often had interpreters in tow. Upon their arrival, each NHL team received a large loose-leaf binder that contained complete pre-Combine scouting reports on every player who would be attending.
By the time the Combine officially opened Wednesday, most of the NHL teams had picked up their binders and were heavily engaged in interviewing the European prospects. Each interview ran about 20 minutes and, while various teams requested more time with some of their interviewees, prospects often reported that their interviews did not even last the scheduled time. While most of the teams asked basically the same types of questions, the players reported some questions that seemed to come from left field. They were asked questions about specific game situations that they had encountered months before and asked why they behaved in a certain way. More difficult were the hypotheticals posed to the prospects, which were particularly challenging for the foreign prospects due to language and cultural nuances that often were hard to translate.
The invited CHL players began arriving in large numbers on the official Day 1 (Wednesday), and by Thursday, all major junior players were in attendance. The last players to arrive at the Combine were those with NCAA eligibility. According to NCAA rules, these prospects are limited to a 48-hour stay at the event, which for most began late Thursday night. Almost all of these prospects had very hectic, whirlwind schedules, often with more than 20 interviews on Friday and more meetings with NHL teams scheduled around the grueling medical and fitness testing yesterday.
The first actual test given to each of the 106 prospects was a psychological evaluation. This testing, conducted by the NHL in association with EXACT Sports, was added this year in response to the teams’ request for a mental assessment of the potential draftees. The evaluation consisted of a two-part computer test of approximately an hour’s length. It included a long series of questions about the prospect’s personality (including mental toughness and coachability), and went on to a more grueling mental efficiency test, which measured spatial awareness, decision speed, decision accuracy, concentration, and rates of mental fatigue. The potential draftees took the supervised test in a quiet room set up exclusively for that purpose. An abbreviated version of the mental efficiency portion of the test was then given a second time to each prospect immediately after he completed his fitness testing. The scores under the two conditions were then compared to determine the how much the individual player’s reactions decline under stress and fatigue.
The actual medical and fitness testing began at 8:00 am on Friday morning and ran through mid-afternoon yesterday. Groups of seven or eight prospects were allotted three hours to complete both the medical and fitness testing. Every hour, each group would begin the process, which began with the medicals. The medical portion of the testing, which took about a half an hour, included the filling out of a medical form, questions and examination by doctors, photographs of the player, an eye test, and two hand/eye coordination tasks.
After the medical testing was completed, the prospects were led to the lower ballroom, where they encountered what was by far the most difficult portion of the Combine for them, the fitness testing. In total, the players were given 18 tests, including several new tests of grip strength fatigue, wingspan, balance, and agility. The total fitness testing lasted about an hour and a half for each player, and, as in previous years, the most difficult physical challenges for the prospects were the two bike tests. The first, popularly called the "windgate," had the prospect’s feet taped to the bike pedals and for 30 seconds, the player was told to pedal as fast as he could. The tension on the bike’s pedals were varied over the time of the test, and four administrators surrounded the bike screaming loudly for the prospect to keep going. Upon the hearing of the loud encouragement given to the prospect, most of the scouts and GMs gathered in the room, turned to view the computer read outs of the scores on this test, which is very indicative of explosive speed and how quickly a player fatigues.
Throughout the testing, scouts and GMs sat or stood in the center of the room watching the prospects, who were undergoing the fitness challenges along the four walls of the room. As the complete schedule was available ahead of time, when a highly-touted prospect was testing, the room would fill and much attention would be paid to his performance. Some others seemed to toil in some anonymity, although the results of the testing of all invitees will be forwarded to the teams.
The second bike test, which was the final fitness test given to all the prospects, is longer than the windgate and gives an indication of the prospect’s endurance. The test measures VO2, heart rate, and duration of ability to pedal with differing resistance, and while most prospects were temporarily completely spent upon its completion, every one recovered very quickly.
With all the emphasis on the fitness testing, according to EJ McGuire, Director of NHL Central Scouting, this portion of the Combine ranks third in importance in the eyes of the NHL teams. "The interview portion is viewed as the most important part of the four days. Then would be the medical interviews and examination, which can raise red flags for the teams that they can follow up on, if necessary. And they do. If there are injuries, [Central Scouting] attaches the prospect’s doctor’s note to the medical report and if our doctor disagrees about either the prognosis or how long it will take to heal, we tell the teams. Then an interested team will often have their team doctor follow up with the prospect’s physician."
For McGuire and his staff, this week’s Combine was the culmination of many months of work. The location has to be chosen by the end of the summer, and then the rankings are worked on throughout the season. Prospects are selected to attend the Combine in the spring, invitations sent out, and the names sent to the NHL teams for interview requests. Then comes the enormous task of setting up schedules for the more than 100 prospects that will come to Toronto to participate.
Prior to the start of the Combine, the team’s scouting loose-leaf books are prepared and hotel logistics worked out. Each prospect receives an interview and testing schedule when they arrive, but has to check in with Central Scouting regularly, because teams often make last-minute interview requests. Changes such as these are common, but become particularly difficult for NCAA eligibles, who are in attendance for so short a time. For instance, Colby Cohen completed his fitness testing yesterday and had only 20 minutes to shower, change, and arrive at his next NHL interview.
All the numbers from the fitness testing and the medicals are crunched almost immediately after the event, and the full reports should be in the teams’ hands this coming week.
When asked about next year, McGuire said the NHL is looking into adding an on-ice component to the Combine. McGuire will be investigating that possible new element further over the next month or two, and then by the end of the summer, a venue has to be chosen to hold the 2008 event.
Notes: Memorial Cup-winning Tyson Sexsmith was in attendance but was too ill to complete the fitness portion of the testing. Blueliners Karl Alzner and Nick Petrecki were both extremely fit and tested well. Highly-touted prospects Jakub Voracek and Teddy Ruth both had some conditioning issues that will need to be addressed over the coming months.
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.