Last weekend the NHL Combine took place just outside of Toronto. Every year about 100 of the top prospects attend the week-long event. Any interested NHL teams interview them during the week and the last two days they take part in physical fitness tests in front of the media. The tests are designed to showcase their physical attributes as well as the manner in which they approach the tests.
First up the prospect would sit and go over paperwork with some NHL staff, then he would be weighed, his height would be taken, and his wingspan would be measured. The player would go to the next station, take off his shirt, and his body fat levels would be jotted down. Then came the fun. They had two grip tests, had to do push-ups, bench press, vertical jump, long jump, another vertical jump, jump in place, balance with a ball, equilibrium tests, tests on the bike and then the dreaded VO2 test. After the grueling process they were allowed to wind down for a few minutes and then they were brought out for the media portion of the event. Every moment of their testing, other than the cool-down after the VO2, was done in front of the media.
The two-day media event is something rather spectacular to see. Nathan MacKinnon, Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin elected not to take part in the testing portion of the weekend, stating that on the advice of their agent they felt that they have proved enough to the NHL teams. Let’s keep in mind that while numerous players had over a month to prepare for the event, these three gentlemen only had five days between their last game and the testing day.
The overall group of 101 kids was broken down into 11 groups of 9 and the final group had two kids in it. Each group was scheduled to start at one hour intervals. The first group included Drouin, Buchnevich, Erne, Olofsson, Petersen, Sanford, Tambellini, Thompson, and Wheaton. As mentioned, Drouin didn’t partake in the more tiresome activities – he was weighed , had his height, wingspan and body fat measured. After that he was off to do some media interviews. I must admit, his media interview was rather short. He stated that he felt that he’d already showcased himself to the best of his abilities, that his agent suggested that he didn’t partake in the activities, and that he was exhausted. When he was asked to describe his last year he said "Surreal.".
The second group included JT Comher, Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, Anthony Florentino, John Hayden, Spenser Jesen, Seth Jones, Marc-Olivier Roy, Steven Santini, Shea Theodore. Like Drouin, Jones stayed long enough to be measured and then headed to go to the media area.
When he was asked how he felt after the tests he joked "It was tough, I really had to stretch for that one." He was then asked how it felt that he hadn’t been able to take part in the tests, specifically the VO2 test, when all the others were taking part in it "since in a way this is what you were working to". Seth replied " In a sense, yeah, but I just played my last game on Sunday. I didn’t really have time to train or do anything for this, but my body’s worn down. I’ve been nursing a couple injuries all year. I didn’t think I was really prepared. I had a good talk with my agent." He was asked how someone could train for this kind of event. "Well, there’s a difference between on-ice – being in shape on-ice and being in shape off the ice. Off-season is when you really want to train and develop. During the season you want to focus a bit more on hockey, but still developing. You know, a lot of these guys have had at least a month off of hockey and have been able to work out and those sorts of things." He was asked if he felt he had more to prove, after playing 90+ games, and being at this kind of event. Seth said "I think this is definitely an important week for a lot of people, including me. You want to make a good first impression in meetings and those sorts of things."
The next question Jones answered was about the fact that as soon as he stepped onto the stage the media was immediately taking photographs and video of him being tested- and if it was odd. "Umm, a little bit. I mean, it’s kinda weird when you have a couple hundred people staring right at you, with your shirt off… but it’s part of why we’re here. They want to know a little bit more about you. " He then went on to confirm that he wouldn’t be taking part in any team-specific combines either.
Jones was then asked what he was looking forward to the most in the Draft process: " Well, this week has been a lot of fun. Meeting different teams, a lot of scouts that I’ve been watching all year. But the draft will be fun. New Jersey, I’m really looking forward to that. I was able to go last year and experience it a little bit. But, my family is going to be there this year, so I’ll get to share that with them." He was asked if there have been any surprises with the Combine: "Not really, I’ve had a lot of friends, especially last year because a lot of guys from the U.S. program went. I talked to a lot of them before I came. It’s pretty straightforward, from what they said, it hasn’t changed too much."
He was then asked what being picked number one would mean to him, he smiled and answered "it’s obviously pretty special, being the number one rated player in North America by Central Scouting. It’s what you work towards. Everyone wants to be the best, I think. But, that being said… no one knows what the teams are thinking, no one knows what the teams need. I’m just going to control what I can control which is just trying to develop and get better. I thought I laid it all out in the season and did what I could to impress them. But, like I said, you don’t really know what they want." But how bad does he want it? "First overall?" Jones shrugged, "I just want to play in the NHL. That’s it. I just want to make a team next year."
Jones was asked about preparing for the interviews, and if there was anything special that he had to do for that. "Not really, you’ve got to be yourself. It’s what they want. They just want a file on you, they want to know more about you. If you’re a good person, what your hobbies are… those sorts of things." He was asked if he knew what kinds of questions he’d be asked before he went in "Well, you have a good idea… strengths and weaknesses. You know, they’ve seen you enough times to know those things but they want to know what you think about your own game. They want to know about your family, your background… those sorts of things. There was one question that they liked to ask ‘what would you do if you physically couldn’t play hockey?’ That’s, obviously, a tough one. You’re whole life revolves around hockey, your family, your friends. You have a lot of hockey friends. So, that’s obviously a pretty tough question to answer. I took an entrepreneur class this year in Portland, so I said I may try to own a business or something like that."
Seeing as this was right after the Roy announcement, I had to ask a question about the fact that he knew Roy as a child, and what he would think about being coached by him? "I think it would be pretty cool. He’s a very smart coach, from what I’ve heard. He coached the Quebec Remparts to a Memorial Cup, and like I said, from what I’ve heard he’s smart, he’s a very intense coach, not afraid to get in your face, but I don’t mind that in a coach." For what it’s worth – Roy was at the interviews on Wednesday, but Jones was interviewed on Thursday so he didn’t get to meet Roy during his interview process. He also said that after talking to other players, he was asked the same questions as everyone else.
Jones was then asked about being in a predominantly white sport: " It’s definitely a white-dominated sport and it’s not a secret at all, but hopefully with some more black players starting to play, I can convince or sway some young African-American kids to start playing hockey. Just trying to be a role-model, being good in the community. Those sorts of things." There has never been as many black kids at the combine as there have been this year: "How many are there?" Six or seven. "Really?! I think I know a couple, I know Subban and I’ve seen a couple more actually…".
He was then asked what was the more challenging aspects of choosing to play hockey in high school? "Umm, probably convincing my Dad. Ha, we were all pretty young, I have two brothers, besides me, all playing at the same time pretty much. He probably wasn’t too happy at the time. But, he’s just fine with it now." He was then asked if his father brought him to early morning practices: "No, he was usually on the road, my Mom handled all that stuff. She’s a strong lady, I’m very appreciative, I wouldn’t be here without her." He was then asked what his father had the most trouble getting used to? "Umm, probably walking into the rink. Physically. People would give him weird looks, those sorts of things. ‘What are you doing at the rink right now, why aren’t you on the basketball court, or with your kids on the court?’ So that was also pretty funny.". Did you ever see your Dad skate? "I did once. I didn’t see him after the first session. Did not let go of the boards. Literally did not. Like, grabbing the boards, pulling himself around the rink." So, he had some custom 15 CCMs. Which, are just huge. And an extra-large stick with, like, a 6 inch knob or something." He was asked if his Dad used a chair, like they use to teach little kids. "No, no, he can’t reach down that far! It’d be below his knees.".
Jones was then asked if he thought his father was expecting him to be a basketball player. "He was probably expecting all of us. A lot of kids want to follow in their fathers’ footsteps and play and do the same things that he did. But, it was a bit different for us." Jones was then asked about his mother. "My Mom’s name is Amy, she lives in Dallas, which is where I live in the summer. It was pretty easy for her (to get into hockey), I think, she lets us go and play and do whatever makes us happy. I appreciate that from her. Yeah (she’s taken to liking hockey), a long time ago. She thinks she knows all about it. I hear it everyday."
As the media session was winding down, some new media members joined the scrum and asked some questions that had already been, somewhat, answered. He was asked again about not taking part in the testing. "Yeah, pretty hard, you definitely want to show the scouts your abilities, and impress them, but at the same time I think they understand that I just played my last game Sunday, and I played a lot of games this year." And was asked again about being a minority player – and the potential of being picked first, and how that’s changing the face of hockey. "Yeah, I think it’s something that’s evolving, a lot more minority players are starting to play. Whatever I can do to, you know if it’s not number 1, it’s going to be working in the community and those sorts of things. My Mom is all over that kind of stuff. It’d be pretty cool to see something like that happen." When asked what was next: "I’m just going to go back for a couple of weeks and relax.
With that Seth was whisked away, but the show continued. Inside the testing center the next batch of kids had started their torture – I mean testing – William Carrier, Eric Comrie, Morgan Klimchuk, Anthony Mantha, Eamon McAdam, Sean Monahan, Joshua Morrissey, Brett Pesce and Eric Roy. After this group, the next group slowly started coming out and that included Laurent Dauphin, Ryan Fitzgerald, Frederik Gauthier, Ryan Hartman, Ryan Kujawinski, Yan Pavel Laplante, Valerie Nichushkin, Darnell Nurse, and Ryan Pulock.
While the media ate lunch, and talked amongst themselves, the NHL hopefuls worked hard. It’s impressive how quickly you get used to someone screaming support across the room. Or the first sigh as the kid removed the VO2 tube after pedaling for 20 or so minutes. At this point I had met Tim Bates, the director of photography for OHJL images, and we discussed the event this year compared to last year, and who I wanted to photograph. During lunch I also met a number of media who wholeheartedly support SBnation.com and were thrilled to meet me. But, then again, I did stand out while standing on a chair, in heels and a dress, trying to capture images of the event.
After the lunch break the next group held one of the guys that I was most looking forward to meeting: Nathan MacKinnon. After meeting Seth Jones, I was wondering what the personality difference would be. As you know, for the Colorado Avalanche, it’s all about character.
MacKinnon’s group included Nicholas Baptiste, Michael Downing, Hudson Fasching, Connor Hurley, Ian McCoshen, Thomas Vannelli, Valentin Zykov and fellow Halifax Moosehead – Zachary Fucale. Fucale was the goalie for the Halifax Mooseheads and he decided to take part in the testing, saying that he was already there so he may as well get the full experience. He also said that he felt the teams made the interview process very easy on them, and that they were laid back and just trying to get to know the players.
MacKinnon was also asked how he felt about not taking part in the testing and if he felt like he was missing something: "Oh, for sure, you never want to do that. You want to show these guys what you have. I’ve been playing hockey since August. I finished six days ago, I think (actually – it was 5 days), so I talked to my agent a little bit and we decided that this was the best for me. But at the same time, obviously it’s tough (to not take part)". He was asked if he felt that he had done enough: " You know this Combine has been going on for a while now, and I think that it’s very important. Obviously, I played a lot of hockey, but this is very important as well. Like I said, it’s tough." Talking about the Draft process: "it’s been fun. The interview process has been mostly what I expected but different teams have different approaches on how they approach questions. You know, it’s been a fun process. It’s coming to an end, but the lead up to the Draft is going to be great, but I think the day itself is going to be the best thing. I’m really looking forward to it." He said that after his long hockey season he’s feeling "a little tired, I’ve lacked sleep these past few days. Flew to Halifax Monday, had a parade Tuesday, woke up at 4 am to get here Wednesday, had interviews for the past two days. Obviously, I’m a little drained. But when I get back to Halifax, I’ll kick my feet up and get some rest and get back at it."
When MacKinnon was asked if there were any questions that caught him off-guard he said "Yes, for sure, there are some questions that take a few seconds to answer. Different teams have different approaches, and ask different things. There were some tough ones, but most were pretty smooth. They asked me what kind of player I'd be without skating. It kind of caught me off guard because it's my whole game. It's what I do. It's my strength. That was a tough one to answer."
About the process of going through the Memorial Cup with teammates and adversaries, and coming to the Combine and being peers: "It's cool, that's the great thing about hockey. The hockey world is very small. I've played against almost everyone of these guys. It's been a fun ride, you kinda have to switch gears pretty quickly. Forget about the Memorial Cup, obviously I won't for awhile, but you have to focus on this process. It's pretty cool that all these guys get to share this and go through it together.". Asked if it was surreal that the Draft was only a month away MacKinnon said "Yeah, it is. They've been talking about since... my first game last year, as a sixteen year old. It's kinda weird. There's been a lot of build up to this, a lot of hype and speculation... things like that. It's almost all over. Like you said, it's only a month away."
Asked if he was doing his own scouting (about the potential teams, players, coaches that he he may work with) he said "Yeah, I am, I'm pretty interested in some of the teams that I could end up with. Obviously, anything could end up happening on Draft day. Teams could decide to trade their picks, and that kind of thing, but it's human nature to be interested this kind of stuff - what your future could be. It's pretty cool. I'm really looking forward to having a career one day." MacKinnon followed it up with: "I think every team in the NHL has the interest to win, they have outstanding player development people, great coaches, you're not going to find anything bad in any organization. Anywhere I end up, hopefully I can develop."
He was then asked if he and Seth Jones had spent anytime together this week "Yep, we spent a lot of time together. Obviously it was a battle to the Memorial Cup, but there's no hard feelings at all. He won the World Juniors, so I don't hold any bragging rights on him or anything like that. We went out to dinner a couple of times already, friends for sure." When asked to clarify no bragging rights at all? "I don't think so. Like I said he's got a World Championship under his belt too. He's had a heck of a year and has done a great job." He was asked about the 'Dream to Reality' of being at the Combine: "Yeah, I didn't really know what to expect coming to the Combine, and didn't know that it would be this busy for sure. A lot of requests and a lot of demands, for sure... but obviously I wouldn't trade it for anything. I've had a lot of fun this year, and this is another step towards the draft. It's been great. A great experience. I don't know if I'm living the dream yet - the NHL - but it's been fun."
He was asked what separates him from everyone else: "You know, I don't want to get too much into that kind of stuff. There's a ton of talented players in this draft, I like to think I'm one of them, but at the same time everybody has their own strengths, especially the three of us. Not much separates each other. But, like I said, everybody has their own strengths." I asked MacKinnon about the potential of having Roy as a head coach, if he had any thoughts on that: "Yeah, he'd be a great person to develop under. He's a winner. He has a very competitive nature and I think I have that too, so it'd go really well. Like I said, he wants to win. He'll do anything to win. I'd love to play for him. It'd be great." As an aside, answering this question - and talking about Roy - is when he smiled the most. He is also quick to diminish his role in the Memorial Cup win, saying that he got the bounces, an empty net in front of him and that his team worked hard.
The rest of the day saw the following teens get a chance at being tested and interviewed: Aleksander Barkov, Max Domi, Dillon Heatherington, Dylan Labbe, Curtis Lazar, Michael McCaron, Samuel Morin, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jordan Subban, Justin Bailey, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Bo Horvat, Tristan Jarry, James Lodge, Sean Malone, Mirco Mueller, Kerby Rychel, Nikita Zadorov, Chris Bigras, Madison Bowey, Jason Dickinson, Anthony Duclair, Remi Elie, Spencer Martin, Zach Nastasiuk, Nicolas Petan, and Nick Sorensen.
The next day was a bit more relaxed, at least from a media perspective. There were far fewer scouts on the floor, and only a handful of media. Turns out that the big draw for most media is the Top Three. A wonderful lady who worked for the NHL approached me asked if I wanted to interview anyone in particular, I said Kurt Etchegary. He was in the second-last group so I had a while to wait. But seeing as he is a player for the Quebec Remparts, I figured he'd be well-worth it.
I watched as Alexandre Coulombe, Marko Dano, Jeremy Gregoire, Jackson Houck, Teemu Kivhalme, Nick Moutrey, Gabryel Paquin-Boudreau, Emile Poirier, Bogdan Yakimov, Myles Bell, Viktor Crus Rydberg, Jacob De La Rose, Vincent Dunn, Mason Geertsen, Tyler Lewington, David Pope, Rasmus Ristolainen, and Ty Stanton all took to the testing centers. Once they were done Kurt's group started filtering in. Etchegary was noticeable right away. Not only because he has numerous upper-body tattoos, or the fact that his face was incredibly swollen, but because he was smiling, often even while doing the tests.
Like most interviews at the Combine Etchgary was asked to talk about his week at the Combine. "It was awesome, the whole week was just was such a great experience. It was crazy around the hotel, and being around so many great players. Stuff like that, I mean you're all prospects for the NHL, I mean, you couldn't ask for a better place to be, right? I'm in heaven right now." He was asked where he placed himself/saw himself going: "Well, going by what I've heard... I mean they never really tell you round-wise, but things I've heard is between second and fourth. I mean, it could go either way depending on how they feel."
The next question was one that was on my mind: Did he meet with the Avalanche for an interview? "Yeah, I did. That was... oh my God... dream come true! Yeah, I mean it's too bad they (the Colorado Avalanche) took him (Patrick Roy) away from us in Quebec, I'm sure we're going to find a good replacement but he was such a good mentor for all the players. It was an unbelievable experience."
Talking about the change for the Remparts coaching staff: "Yeah (it's going to be a big change), I don't know if we're going to be running stairs now... I'm sure if he still has a part in the ownership we're going to be bagged every day. So, I'm sure things won't change." He also discussed leadership a bit: "Yeah, that's my plan (being the Captain), I mean, it's up to the organization, obviously, but I think I demonstrate pretty good leadership skills, and I'm able to lead in the right way. So, I'm one of the candidates and hopefully it works out in my favor. But if I am, I'm sure I'll do everything I can to lead the Boys to a Championship."
Looking at his face it wasn't surprising that someone would ask him how he was doing: "Oh, I'm 100%. It was kind of blown out of proportion, the whole surgery thing. Supposedly people were saying six months, it took me two and a half and I had no pain at all. All it was was a shaving of a bone, which is a pretty common surgery. So I mean, I'm fine." A lot of people asked about it, but once he explained they were "Oh, ok", but Patrick Roy knew? "Yeah, Patrick knew it wasn't such a big thing. It was nice to come back earlier and get a chance to play in the playoffs. It was a disappointing run, obviously, but next year should be better for sure."
Next up was a question about the physical testing: "Yeah, it was awesome! I mean, just the whole experience of the media, and the scouts, and being around all the players. It was a great week, great experience. I'm in Heaven right now, I wish I was staying for another couple of weeks. I'd go through that (the testing) any day to stay here. It was fun, and met a lot of great players and people; it was awesome." I'm not sure that a lot of guys would say the workouts were so fun and 'Heaven'? "No, obviously, the toughness of the workouts is not Heaven, but just the whole experience... I work out six days a week, and some days twice a day. I enjoy working out, this is kinda fun for me. As hard as it was, it's fun. It's fun to be here, and I loved it. I think I preformed pretty respectably."
How does he feel his interviews went? "Oh, really well, I had nine interviews and they all went very smoothly. A couple teams were really, really interested, I mean they were all interested but a couple stood out, so it was awesome. So hopefully everything works out."
Once I got Etchegary on his own I asked him to tell me what it's like to have Patrick Roy as a coach, what he's like: "Yeah, sure. Well, I mean, it was a great experience. He brought a lot on and off the ice. He has the Hall of Famer reputation. A lot of experience that he shared with the Boys. No matter what happened in a game, he always tried to get the best out of us. So if we were winning or losing he wanted to get us going. He never wanted to lose. He is definitely the coach I've seen that wanted to win the most. Just a great mentor for all the players. We're all going to miss him. We're all excited for him to get his opportunity with Colorado, but we are going to miss him. Very much so. It's tough to see him go."
But is he a tough coach? "Oh yeah! He's tough. He pushes us to the limits every day. We run stairs, and skate suicides at the end of practice. But we all enjoy that. It makes us better players, and he's there to help us get through it all."
What are his thoughts about possibly going to Colorado? "Oh, man, with Patrick? That'd be quite the experience! Definitely something that I would love. I would love for that to happen." And his thoughts of having his Junior coach in the NHL as well? "That's be pretty special! I'd be ecstatic with that."
With that Etchegary was off, and I watch the last two hopefuls: Linus Arnesson and Andre Burakovsky make their way through the grueling testing. That ended the 2013 NHL Draft Combine.