Friday, May 28, 2010

Farmboys and Combines

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.


Kyle Roussel said...

I had never given the combine much thought until I saw the ads on TSN. I understand the "need" for GMs and scouts to satisfy their insatiable quest for data and metrics before investing in a kid.

Where the whole thing goes off the rails is when TSN decides its important to get this on the air. Following the lead of ESPN and their obsessive coverage of the NFL combine, they must have figured that another hockey event is precisely what hockey-loving Canadians need. "Well, if you don't like it, or don't want to watch, don't tune in". Is there a lazier argument out there?

You hit the nail on the head. Getting these kids shirtless and breathless on tv before they've even signed their first pro contract is totally overkill. I think the coverage given to the World Junior Tournament is too much. This just puts it over the top. It's excessive now. These boys are already nervous enough; how would we have felt as kids if we were televised while taking our exams. Orals included. Probably not very good. It could also increase the temptation for some of these boys to dope up, which I can't stand the thought of. I don't presume that it doesn't happen now, but this will only help make it worse.

Of course, it won't stop. They rarely terminate a program once they've started it. All we can do is ignore it and hope it goes away.

Anonymous said...

I agree that turning it into a spectacle is wrong. Grown men standing around watching is weird too. I am a strength and conditioning coach and saying that the tests are pointless is wrong though . Simply put, I believe it shows the kids work ethic and ability to follow a plan just like they will when learning a new hockey system. Plus, knowing how strong, fast, agile, etc a kid is definitely is worth knowing don't you think?

Maxime said...

Hum, Guy Lafleur would have shattered every known cardio record. And that's without training AND smoking one pack a day.

Let's just say that he was from another planet and be done with it.

Robert Rice said...

The Draft Combine is a drag, but I really feel bad for these kids on draft day when they get called and have to talk a spiel about how they're excited to go play for a basement team that could cost them half a decade or more of their careers while they see a bunch of other guys get drafted to better hockey organizations with far better development systems. Tavares is trapped on an Islanders team that has close to 10 million toxic dollars on their annual cap thanks to Dipietro and Yashin until 2015 for Yashin alone. Even if they draft well, they're got a giant lead weight around their necks.

Humberto said...

i really dislike the combine, i think its a mistake and since Pierre Maguire is part of it its just extra extra creepy.

Paul O. said...

My issue, which I didn't realize until now is the potential to turn kids to doping, but until there is any proof of this I am not too worried. In the end, they have downplayed how important the combine is since televising it.

This is not a bad thing for hockey, it gets more attention and news for a growing sport. I also don't really think it is very wierd, these guys are athletes who want to be on TSN etc. It is pretty similar to a rookie in a post game conference (in regards to being put on the spotlight). You make it sound like the press corps is the equivalent of a pedophile convention at these things.

Either way, I love the blog and have been reading it all season. I can't wait for next year! Keep up the good work.