Under the microscope

By Sunaya Sapurji, Yahoo! Sports
Yahoo! Sports

TORONTO - Vladimir Tarasenko is sitting on the floor, towel around his neck, covered in sweat and chugging a Pepsi.

“He is nervous, what kind of questions will they ask?” a translator for the Russian teenager queries a member of the National Hockey League’s media relations department.

Tarasenko’s apprehension is reserved solely for the media, having already finished the grueling interview and fitness testing process at the NHL draft combine on Friday morning. Over the weekend 100 players eligible for the league’s June 25 entry draft in Los Angeles will have gone through the same process: that is, being poked, prodded, psyched-out and pushed to the limits to see if they’re worth the million-dollar contracts tendered to future stars. The fitness room at the Westin Bristol Hotel – located a couple of Shea Weber slapshots away from Pearson Airport - looks more like a high-class meat packing facility, than mad scientist’s lair with machines lined up and players shuttled around in grey and black numbered outfits.

“(The NHL) is trying to leave no stone unturned as far as getting at what makes these players tick physically, in a real heart rate sense, or mentally in a sports psychology sense, and the ability to think on their feet in interviews,” says the league’s director of central scouting, E.J. McGuire.

Almost everything the players do or say at the combine is parsed to the highest degree. In the room where the physical assessments, which include the vomit-inducing VO2 Max test, are done screams of “GO HARD!” or “C’MON, PUSH!” are heard in five-minute intervals – and even that is part of the process.

“It was the longest 30 seconds of my life,” said Tyler Seguin, the Plymouth Whalers centre who is currently the top-ranked prospect by Central Scouting, of the max test. “After about 25 seconds I really wanted them to shut up.”

Seguin says he took the test last year “for fun” and vomited during the process, something he was glad to avoid in his draft season.

It didn’t go quite so well for two of the top-rated defensive prospects for the draft – Cam Fowler and Erik Gudbranson. The Ontario Hockey League rivals, Fowler with the Windsor Spitfires and Gudbranson with the Kingston Frontenacs, traded stories in the hotel lounge about how they both vomited after finishing their testing sessions. Fowler says he decided not to eat breakfast because he’s not big on starting the morning off by eating as part of his regular routine.

“That whole hallway smells like puke,” said Gudbranson.

“Numbers will be crunched from that yelling in the background,” McGuire explained Friday. “But also these strength and conditioning coaches are looking to see how far this guy is pushing himself beyond his perceived maximum. They’ll report back to the (NHL) scouts and say, ‘he sort of quit early’ or ‘boy he really exceeded what I thought he’d be able to do’ and the scouts can think and say, ‘you know what, we see the same thing on the ice’.”

The NHL’s draft combine has been taking place in some form or another for the past 20 years, according to McGuire. Back in the day, the NHL would send people out to cities like Minneapolis, Boston, or even Stockholm to do rudimentary physical and medical testing on players. McGuire says he goes to the National Football League combine every year in Indianapolis to see if he can steal something from the pro football world that can be adapted to help the talent-evaluation process in pro hockey.

“The better fit they are, the better able they are to withstand injuries so there’s less injury time,” said McGuire. “We don’t like it when Steven Stamkos comes into your arena and we’re charging big bucks and he’s not a part of our marquee product, so this is just a small part of it, it’s a huge mosaic.”

For the mental acuity portion of the testing, teams were asking all kinds of strange questions to throw players – who are usually coached beforehand by media professionals and sports psychologists within an inch of their lives – off their intellectual game plan. Questions like, what’s the longest river in Canada? or explain the top five songs in your iPod?

“New Jersey was probably one of the toughest (interviews),” said American goaltender Jack Campbell, who will play with the two-time Mastercard Memorial Cup-champion Windsor Spitfires next season. “They didn’t really smile at all, but you know what, that’s fine because I’m a serious guy.”

But the combine is not the be-all or end-all of a player’s draft hopes. Some players, like Calgary’s Matt MacKenzie or Windsor Spitfires forward Taylor Hall – the No. 2-ranked player behind Seguin - are coming off the Memorial Cup tournament which ended less than a week earlier. MacKenzie, whose tournament ended in the semi-final on May 21, had less than a week to rest and prepare for the physical portion of the testing – Hall and teammates Cam Fowler and Justin Shugg had even less time to ready themselves for the combine.

“I didn’t have too much time, I didn’t even have time for a workout because I was just trying to let my body rest,” said MacKenzie. “It was definitely challenging; my legs were a little fatigued from the bike ride but for the most part I felt like I was in pretty good shape from the (playoff) run we had.”

MacKenzie says if he had his choice he would have loved some extra time to rest or at least the ability to get one good workout in before Friday’s physical testing.

“It would have been nice,” said the Calgary forward. “My body was pretty banged up and sore, I tried to go for one but the body wouldn’t allow it so I just kind of took the week off so I was rested for today.”

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