- Gare Joyce
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TORONTO -- Players attend the NFL combine and often work their way up into the first round or two with a 4.4 in the 40 or some eye-popping bench press numbers. The NHL's version doesn't work that way.
Fact is, almost 100 of the top players eligible for the 2004 NHL draft arrived at the league's three-day session on Thursday like others have over the years -- they were far more worried about falling down the rankings rather than hopeful of moving up.
The NHL combine isn't about making a reputation; it's about protecting one.
Robbie Schremp, a center with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, is a case in point, maybe the case in point this year. Schremp has been ranked at or near the top of draft-eligible prospects in the OHL all season. At least one scouting service rates the native of Fulton, N.Y., as the top draft-eligible prospect in North America.
The consensus among NHL general managers and scouts at the combine is that the 2004 draft is an average one -- or at least pales in comparison to last year's deep and talented pool, regarded as the best in a decade, maybe longer. Last year, Patrice Bergeron was taken in the second round, 45th overall, by the Boston Bruins and made a significant contribution right away. That won't be the case this year.
Said one executive: "This year there won't be any Patrice Bergerons. There's a clear No. 1 who separated himself from everybody. Then there's one other player who established himself as the clear No. 2, and maybe even closed on the first kid. But after that, with a significant step down, there are 12 or 15 kids, maybe more -- some will play, some might not. They're much tougher to sort out."
Barring a trade or unforeseeable events, the Washington Capitals will select Alexander Ovechkin of Moscow Dynamo with the first overall pick. Then the Pittsburgh Penguins will opt for Ovechkin's countryman, Evgeni Malkin, at No. 2.
Schremp is one who's tougher to sort out. That he'll be a first-rounder at the draft in Raleigh, N.C., on June 26, seems like a lock. He has a good shot at being a lottery pick and it wouldn't be a complete shock if he landed in the top seven.
"He might be the third-most talented kid coming out of this draft behind the two Russians," one scout said.
Schremp had been the top pick in the OHL's entry draft two summers ago, and just last year he was regarded as the top talent in North America eligible for the 2004 draft. He has more than his share of knockers -- and few of their complaints have anything to do with talent.
He was criticized last fall for bailing out on the Mississauga Ice Dogs, the team that drafted him before the 2002-03 season. After winning the OHL's rookie of the year in 2003 and helping the team make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, Schremp threatened to leave the team for the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., unless he was traded to a contender. Mississauga ended up sending him to London, an OHL powerhouse.
Others think that Schremp has a little too much hot dog in him. When he scored with a lacrosse-style scoop move in one of the major prospects games, it brought fans to their feet but didn't impress many NHL scouts. They figured that attitude was the key factor in USA Hockey's decision to omit him from its junior national team, which went on to win the nation's first gold medal at the World Junior Championships in January.
And when the heavily favored Knights fell to the Guelph Storm in the OHL semifinals, a few laid blame at Schremp's skates. They figured that he got what he deserved when his former Ice Dog teammates made it to the league finals.
Though Schremp had 30 goals and 75 points in 63 games during the OHL season, he had reason to believe that his rep needed rehab work at the combine.
"I came here to show teams that I'm serious about the game and about playing in the NHL," Schremp said.
Like the NFL combine, the NHL session exposes all the fudging on heights and weights. But the NHL's version differs from the NFL by virtue of the fact that most of tests seem to have little obvious application for the game. The only ice at the combine is found in the pitchers of water beside the stationary bikes. No arena. No fans. No sticks. No pucks, either. There's the standing long jump, the vertical jump, the bench press and other lifting, and aerobic workouts. The sessions are held in a basement of a hotel near Toronto's airport, with as many as 50 team executives inspecting the meat.
There really isn't anything that says hockey, save the logos on the scouts' clipboards. For the uninitiated, it's a weird scene in a gold mine of hockey talent. Schremp said he wasn't thrown by the eyeballing or by the pressure to perform.
"I've had friends and teammates go through this before," Schremp said. "I wasn't really surprised by anything here. And there are some things that you can't prepare for, no matter what you do in training for a few weeks. And thing is, we don't do anything on the ice. That's what counts most of all."
Some agents brought in players weeks in advance to prime them for the testing. Schremp didn't have the luxury.
"A few other players have been off longer because their teams either didn't make the playoffs or were eliminated early," Schremp said. "They had more time to put into training for the tests that the league has you do here. We had a good run in the playoffs -- not as far as we hoped -- but still our season ended only three weeks ago. Teams will take that into account with what we do here."
That might have been true, but still scouts noticed that Schremp's 6-foot-½, 200-pound frame looked a little fleshy when he was given his skinfold body-fat test. It didn't take any precision read-out to put together that he wasn't ripped like most of the players here.
While other prospects took off their shirts to go through the aerobic testing on stationary bikes, Schremp put his on -- not a matter of modesty as much as a cover-up. Not that it worked mind you. It was like hiding the mirrors on The Swan after the reveal.
However, the draft is all about projections: If Schremp is a point-a-game player with love handles, some execs would be thinking he could be even more productive if he achieves a pro level of fitness.
Schremp's most important performance, however, might have been away from the combine's fitness room. Some scouts believe that the real moment of truth comes when the players are called up for interviews with interested teams. At the very least, he had some 'splaining to do about his run-ins with Mississauga's management.
"A kid who has had a problem like that before is far more likely to have problems like that down the line," said a general manager whose team scheduled an interview with Schremp. "Maybe there's a good reason for it and we're open to hearing the player out. He gets his chance."
Schremp was circumspect about media interviews -- if teams thought he had an attitude problem, he'd make the situation worse by spilling his guts about the closed-door sessions. He did say that he had interviews scheduled with 20 teams and that most of them were "practically the same."
"I can't think of any question that threw me or surprised me," he said. "But when you're talking about making the commitment of a high draft pick, you can't blame them for wanting to kick the tires."
What Schremp had to say in interviews -- that he's eager to play in the NHL, that it has been his goal since he was a kid -- is pretty much the standard line. Only once in a while do teams ever hear something out of the ordinary.
"Last year, we talked to one goalie who told us that his mind wanders on the ice sometimes and a goal beats him because he was thinking about girls in the stands," said one amateur scouting director, who admitted that his team ended up selecting the day-dreaming netminder anyway.
Some organizations schedule more interviews and give them more weight than other franchises. Others choose to go a different route.
"The kids are so practiced in the interviews and have been coached by their agents so much that we just consider it a formality," said one scout with a Western Conference club. "If you get a player who has talked to 20 clubs already he can be a little shell-shocked. We do [schedule interviews here] just to meet the kid, but what's more important to us is the work-up we get from a sports psychologist we bring in [before] the combine. He puts together a profile from a standard written test and from individual interviews. We've been doing it for 10 years now -- everybody makes their share of mistakes about the character of some young players but we've managed to minimize [the mistakes]."
It's not clear whether Schremp helped or hurt his cause at the combine, either in the testing or the interviews. Time will tell. So too will where he goes in the draft.
Gare Joyce is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine and has covered sports in Toronto for 20 years.