'Job' interviews reveal important traits

Updated: June 25, 2004, 11:42 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Raleigh, N.C. -- A.J. Thelen is running about 15 minutes late, a fact that doesn't go unnoticed by the San Jose Sharks scouting staff.

If there's one thing you can do in life, director of amateur scouting Tim Burke says, it's be on time.

Still, Burke and the rest of the staff greet the strapping 6-foot-3, 205-pound Michigan State defenseman warmly as he takes a seat in the suite of a downtown hotel.

It is early Friday afternoon. In 24 hours they may be getting ready to make the Shakopee, Minn., native a Shark -- that is if the unlikely happens and he's still available at No. 28, the lowest San Jose has ever drafted.

In the meantime, it's time for one last look at Thelen and a handful of other prospects, a last-minute attempt to assess character, personality, leadership skills -- any number of the intangibles that may set them apart during the NHL draft's final reckoning.

For Thelen, ranked 11th among North American skaters by the NHL's Central Scouting and predicted to go somewhere around the middle of the first round, the interview is one of nine he's had scheduled on Thursday and Friday.

Burke asks Thelen if he's undergone a psychological test employed by the New York Rangers that many scouts and players have been talking about.

"That's just plain dumb," Thelen says.

"It's a good thing they didn't give scouts a psychological test," Burke quips. "Have you ever seen a psychological test score a goal or win a game? I don't buy it."

It is a scene repeated in hotel suites and meeting rooms all over Raleigh-Durham. Fresh-faced young hockey players, often in just-pressed shirts and jackets, face off with amateur scouts and general managers and player personnel directors, answering many of the same questions asked the day before and the week before that.

Each team is looking for that comfort level that says 'yes, this is a fit.'

"No one can win us over in the interview process, but some could delete [themselves] off our short list," Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said, recalling five years ago there were "a couple of players I did not care for in the interview."

They were players that were ranked high in the draft and the 'Canes took a pass. They became players, "but certainly not at the level expected of them," Rutherford said.

Sometimes it's just a gut feeling, he said.

"Ultimately, this is a player you're going to spend a lot of time with," he said.

Thelen, an 18-year-old who just finished his freshman season, tells the gathering (which includes chief scout Ray Payne, amateur scouts Rob Grillo, Brian Gross, Gilles Cote, Pat Funk, and European scouts Ilkka Sinisalo and Karel Masopust) that some 26 friends and family along with his girlfriend, also from Minnesota, will be in Raleigh.

What about his best asset, Burke wants to know.

"I love shooting the puck and I love getting up in the play," says Thelen, who was the second-youngest player in Division I hockey last season having left high school a year early.

Thelen led NCAA defensemen with 29 points in 41 games last season. Burke, who is full of praise, tells Thelen that video doesn't seem to reveal any flaws in his game.

"What situation would you struggle in? I don't see it," Burke says.

"I don't see it either," Thelen responds.

If assessing how a player's skills might evolve over two or three years is an inexact science, then imagining what kind of person they might become is likewise a crapshoot. But marrying the statistical with the human is nonetheless an important part of the draft puzzle for many teams.

It's one part of the process, said San Jose general manager Doug Wilson, "but we do an awful lot of due diligence."

Inside the 16th floor suite there's a comfy rust-colored couch, a couple of armchairs, some office chairs flanking a glass-topped table holding a couple of computers and various bits of paper. Against one window is a TV/VCR setup.

Burke would like to know when Thelen might consider leaving school.

"I think I would be ready after next year," he says.

How would his parents feel about that?

"They'll back me up on anything I decide, anything I want to do," Thelen says.

Paul Henry is a longtime scout who also acts as a private consultant to teams and players, in part, helping prepare for and conduct player interviews. Some teams may try and rattle their subjects; others are genuinely interested in finding out information about family and goals. Regardless, for most players it's a nerve-wracking process.

"There is the fear of not being seen accurately. They're vulnerable," said Henry whose background includes working at one of Canada's most prominent criminal mental hospitals north of Toronto.

His goal in working with agents and their clients is to try and reduce that anxiety and allow them to control their emotions, "rather than let a bunch of GMs and scouts control the situation," said Henry. "A kid is who or what he is, don't try and change them. They're exceptional, that's why they're going to get drafted."

Burke asks which player Thelen would pick given the choice of University of Michigan rival and Los Angeles Kings prospect Jeff Tambellini or Michigan State teammate Jeff Slater, an Atlanta prospect.

"I'd have Slater. He hits like a ton of bricks," Thelen says after mulling over the choice.

Thelen tells the group that he's been invited to USA Hockey's development camp in preparation for next year's World Junior Championship.

"Going for gold. Trying to keep it," Thelen says.

"Damn right," says Burke, a Massachusetts native.

Burke notes that the last three years Thelen has been the youngest player on his respective teams. What's he going to be like when he's a veteran?

"I think I'm going to be a player people can rely on, trust in," Thelen says.

How about things like breaking curfew?

"Breaking curfew is being disrespectful. That's pretty much plain and simple," Thelen says.

What about breaking curfew for a girl Thelen is asked?

Still wouldn't, Thelen insists. "Just wait and hang out the next day."

Someone is curious about whether the team hosts any toga parties on campus and Thelen describes how the players and a campus sorority held an "informal" dance. Thelen describes his outfit for the evening, a purple jacket with no sleeves and light blue dress pants.

"They like hanging out with us because they never know what's going to happen," he says of the girls.

Shortly after, the interview is over.

Thelen shakes hands with all the scouts before moving onto the next session, while the Sharks' staff turn their attention to their next subject.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.