I think the most distateful of the distasteful things about the business of the NHL is the draft combine. The spectacle of a bunch of seventeen and eighteen-year-old boys grunting and sweating through a battery of physical tests, some excruciatingly difficult, that may or may not have anything at all to do with their ability to play hockey, while an equal bunch of fat, middle-aged men ogle their every move is just...distasteful.
I get the interview part. Meeting a boy face-to-face and finding out about his opinions and his attitude while reading his expression can tell you something about whether the kid is at least determined to make a go of it in hockey. I think about Josh Gorges when I see the criteria at the combine. He was never drafted, and maybe wouldn't have fared well against some of the studs in the physical testing. I think, though, if a GM had sat and interviewed him when he was eighteen, he might have heard his name called on draft day. Even the interview part, though, isn't an ironclad indicator of how a kid will progress. How many of us wince when we think about things we did and said at eighteen? Kids grow up, and basing their futures on performances while they're still immature just isn't fair.
The physical test part is silly. Boys at that age are still growing and putting the pressure on them to be ripped beasts encourages too much time in the gym and the temptation to dope themselves to get bigger and stronger. I can see the value of drafting a naturally big, strong kid who also has hockey skills. But I think the combine puts an inordinate amount of value on size, and pressure on kids to attain it. Size alone, of course, means nothing. Look at Shawn Belle: big, strong, fast; physically impressive. Yet, after being picked in the first round of a great 2003 draft, he's never been able to establish himself in the NHL.
The draft, at the best of times, is a crapshoot. The top players get chosen, regardless of their combine performance. Seriously, can you imagine the Oilers passing on Taylor Hall because he's hurt and can't demonstrate how many sit-ups he can do? I wonder how guys like Gretzky, or Lafleur, would have done in the combine and if it would have affected the way they were viewed as players? So, the combine is really for the lower-ranked players who may or may not pan out as actual hockey players, regardless of their physical abilities in those tests.
The whole event is uncomfortable for the players, and kind of creepy for the amount of slavish interest paid it by the sports networks. It makes me think of what it must have been like for the poor men on the docks of Waterford a couple of centuries ago, who sold themselves into indentured servitude for seven years in exchange for passage to America. That's really what the draft is, after all. Eighteen-year-old boys owe their professional rights and allegiences to whatever team drafts them. They have little choice in the matter if they want to play, and if it takes seven years of indentured servitude and putting up with the draft combine to forge themselves a career in hockey, they'll do it.
I just find the whole thing tastes pretty sour.