Kids who've spent their lives on skates jump through hoops at the NHL combine
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's July 17, 2006, issue. Subscribe today!
ON DRAFT DAY, the proud No. 1 pick stands alongside beaming team executives, wearing his new team's sweater while basking in the love of his new bosses, fans, family and friends. But that special day is only the last in a series that begins weeks earlier, at the NHL's draft combine in Toronto. There the top-ranked players from North America and Europe are invited to have their bodies and psyches prodded, poked and run through the paces. This year, the Blue Jackets gave The Magazine fly-on-the-wall access to the team's draft process, from precombine meetings through sweater day. Here's what we learned.
The story behind the story
Every knock on the door could have been the future of their franchise. Likewise, every knock on the door could have been a kid who took their millions and never played a game for them. For the better part of a week, I sat with the Columbus Blue Jackets' scouting staff in a conference room as they waited for those knocks that came every 20 minutes. For the men in that room, all that was at stake was their jobs.
I had managed to persuade the Jackets to allow me behind the scenes in advance of the 2006 NHL draft, but the most interesting aspect of my month of reporting was this interview process: 100 18-year-olds from across North America and Europe talking with the scouts who had tracked them and the executives who might offer them a chance at big-time glory. Some of the teenagers handled themselves like old pros; others, like Phil Kessel, suffered.
Looking back at my notes now, I found a scene that I had to cut from the piece. A kid with a mop of red hair walked into the room, looking no more than 15 or 16. He was French, with a heavy accent; when he said he was from Hearst, Ontario, it came out "'Earst." Before anyone asked him a question, Wayne Smith, the Blue Jackets scout in Ottawa, circled his name on his list. The kid was No. 38 in the NHL rankings, but the team had him at No. 12. Smith had him even higher.
"I just want to tell you, we're probably not going to be in a position to pick you, but you're going to play in the league, there's no doubt about it," Smith said. That got a smile out of Claude Giroux, these days the captain of the Flyers and the NHL's third-leading scorer last year. Giroux's best friend, Derick Brassard, wound up as Columbus' first-rounder, going No. 6 overall. Brassard is still looking for his first 20-goal season. Within five years only three members of the scouting staff in that room were still on the payroll. Smith left for the Bruins the next year. -- Gare Joyce
May 29, 1:30 p.m.
Renaissance Hotel conference room, Toronto
"Johnson," Don Boyd reads out.
All team execs have their lists: preseason lists, midseason lists, lists at season's end. All the scouts have their lists too: lists of players in their region, lists of goaltenders, lists of kids they just have a feeling about. And from all these lists comes The List, the one Blue Jackets player personnel director Don Boyd will pass to his general manager, Doug MacLean, and his scouting staff on the morning of the NHL draft.
The List starts at a wall-size erasable board, next to which scout John Williams stands with a marker. He writes "1 JOHNSON." The scouts, sitting at tables half-circling the board, don't look up from their laptop screens as they study the profile of Bloomington, Minn., native Erik Johnson.
Williams moves to the column marked Pluses.
"Size, skating, strength, shot," Boyd says. Agreement all around. Williams moves to the next column. "What are his minuses?" Boyd asks.
After a few seconds of quiet, Williams says: "Lack of experience in the NHL."
This is how it will be for the next few days: names, appraisals, jokes and Doritos. Two, three passes at The List, one by one. Because one scout's first-rounder is another's fourth-rounder. Stats don't mean a lot when you're trying to compare a kid who scored 10 goals in the Swedish Elite League against pros to a kid who tallied 100 points in the Quebec league against other kids. And this year's List better pay off: Everyone in the room might be out of a job if it doesn't. Boyd and his staff have been together for all six Blue Jacket drafts, and the team has yet to make the playoffs.
Back to business, which begins with identifying this draft's Top Ten. Not who will be the first 10 picks on June 24 in Vancouver. No, Top Ten is a brand, a type, a way of describing an 18-year-old who should develop into a first-line NHL player, maybe an All-Star. This year, Columbus scouts figure there are only seven Top Tens. But the Jackets pick sixth, so they'll get a Top Ten guy. In fact, they'll have to choose between two when they pick, maybe three if there's a draft-day surprise, such as a goalie getting picked as somebody's No.1, a rarity.
But three players on The List almost certainly won't be around at No. 6: Johnson, a defenseman with the U.S. under-18 program in Ann Arbor; Jordan Staal, a forward out of Peterborough juniors and brother of Hurricanes star Eric; and Jonathan Toews, a U. of North Dakota center. Each could go first. Or third. Because everybody has a minus. For Johnson, it's "doesn't have a killer instinct"; for Staal, "first couple of steps"; and for Toews, "not a gamebreaker." But the minuses end there, along with any hope of seeing any one of them at the six spot. The way Boyd & Co. see it, four Top Tens could be there at No. 6: Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, Nicklas Backstrom and Peter Mueller.
Kessel. At 17, the forward starred for the U.S. team at the 2005 world juniors. He would have gone No. 2 behind Sidney Crosby in last year's draft if he'd been eligible, but his stock has since plunged. He spent last season on the U. of Minnesota's third line.
"Strengths?" Boyd asks.
"Speed" and "scoring" go up on the board.
Then the minuses pour out. Says Brian Bates, the Minneapolis scout who saw him the most: "I wonder about his game awareness sometimes."
"There might be some selfish play there sometimes," Boyd
Brassard. A forward with Drummondville in the Quebec league, he's moved ahead of Kessel with the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau.
"Speed," Williams says.
"Creativity, hands," Boyd says. "Gamebreaker?"
Wayne Smith, an Ontario scout, wants to jump but opts not to. He's seen Brassard dozens of times over the past two years, and loves him. But he doesn't want to show his cards yet.
"Real good hockey sense," someone says, before someone else raises Brassard's biggest knock: size.
"What is he," Smith asks, "a buck-70?"
"Not going to be a big forward," Williams says.
Backstrom. Not coming to the combine, no interview, no testing, Williams says. No surprise, Boyd answers, not after the 18-year-old from Gavle took a regular shift with NHLers on Sweden's team at the world championships earlier in May.
The floor is yielded to Kjell Larsson, head of European scouting and a former coach of the Swedish national team. The North American scouts rib Larsson for always pushing Swedes.
"Two little marks below what you said about Brassard," Larsson says. "Two little marks." Williams puts ditto marks under Brassard's strengths; they're Backstrom's too. "What about speed?" Boyd asks. "Brassard is an NHL skater right now." Williams follows: "Is he a gamebreaker?" "I think so," Larsson says.
Boyd again: "I was watching tape of him playing with Henrik Zetterberg at the worlds, and sometimes I couldn't tell which was which. Let's see if we can get him to come to Columbus next week. Otherwise, let's make sure we talk to him in Vancouver."
Mueller. The 18-year-old forward for the Everett Silvertips in the Western league sparks lots of cross-talk. "Size" is listed as an asset, but Williams says the 6'3", 205-pound Mueller plays smaller because he "sits down" on his skates. "Shot" is listed as a strength, his unwillingness to use it a weakness.
"Not going to carry your team," Smith says.
"Best passer in the Western league," Williams says.
"From Minnesota," Boyd says, "so why did he go play junior rather than go to college?"
No answer. "We'll ask in the interview," says Boyd, who along with his staff will spend six more hours roughing out Nos. 8-100.
June 2, 1:00 p.m.
Park Plaza suite, Toronto
Day 3 of four days spent interviewing prospects. The Blue Jackets will have interviewed 109 teenagers by the end of business tomorrow. They come through the doors, one every 20 minutes.
Finnish goaltender Riku Helenius sits silent, stiff and bolt upright while his feet nervously bounce under the table. Another goalie, Reto Berra from Switzerland, drops to his knees during the interview when asked about his style. Blake Geoffrion, from the U.S. under-18 program, works the room like a stand-up, introduces himself as "grandson of Hall of Famer Bernie Geoffrion, great grandson of Hall of Famer Howie Morenz." Most come in new suits, though some East Europeans are more casual because they don't have anything dressy.
Some kids are polished, others look desperate. The scouts ask Bud Holloway, a center from the Seattle Thunderbirds, how many interviews he's lined up. "Three," Holloway says, obviously embarrassed. The top kids talk to practically every club.
All are asked what they must work on to be NHLers, and there's only one right answer here: get stronger. Some kids talk about personal trainers and skating coaches. Then there's Holloway, from Wapella, Sask. (pop. 354), who's projected as a late second-rounder. "What can you do in your hometown with no gym?" Boyd asks. Says Holloway: "I bought a set of weights at Wal-Mart. My little brother will spot me."
The scouts sit through all 109 interviews, and Williams enters notes from each into a database. But no interview is more important to the Blue Jackets than Kessel's. No prospect has more to win or lose than he does. Kessel walks into the room. The Blue Jackets are the first of 20 interviews on his schedule. He is barely in his seat before Boyd says, "Teammates." Silence. "Do you know what I'm talking about?" "No," Kessel says. He most certainly does. Kessel has a reputation for being disliked by teammates wherever he's played. Jack Johnson, second overall in last year's draft, called him "a dirtbag" during one of his combine interviews. Silence. "I don't have a problem with my teammates." More silence. "I don't have a problem with Jack Johnson." More silence. "I had lunch with him practically every day." What about that TV report about that bar serving underage Gophers? "Happens everywhere," Kessel says. Only 18 goals last season when you were compared to Sidney Crosby the year before? "I was on the third line -- we rolled four lines." Kessel's time is up. He leaves, seemingly aware that his was a less-than-stellar performance. Boyd is unfazed. "Helluva talent," he says to no one in particular.
June 2, 1:30 p.m.
Park Plaza basement, Toronto
This is where the meat gets inspected, where players get physicals and undergo fitness testing. Many draft-eligibles in Toronto have spent weeks training specifically for the combine's testing. Brassard, the boy-band-cute center, is anxious. A couple months prior, he couldn't do one rep with the 150-pound test weight. Now he's on the bench, and you can see the dread. He gets to five, arms shaking. Spotters jump in before No. 6 crushes his neck.
Brassard knows that his best bud, Mathieu Carle, a defenseman in the Q, did 15 reps. He knows five isn't good. He's right. By the end of the day, his reps will stand as the low total among all skaters tested. Then he gets on the bike to demo his lung capacity, feet taped to the pedals, mouthpiece hooked to a tube. Shouts from the testing staff drown out the never-ending chatter of 100 or so scouts and execs. "Go! Come on! Go!" The suits see Brassard strain, and love it. They'll love it even more later on: VO2, 71.6, among the best at the combine. He went harder and longer than anyone else: The test maxes out at 15 minutes, and he pedaled 10 seconds past it.
"What you get a look at here," Boyd says, "is just how willing the kids are to work on their own and what their work ethic is like."
As if on cue, Kessel comes in. He looks around nervously. A few minutes later, Kessel looks gassed on the bike, stopping at seven minutes.
June 14, 10:00 a.m.
Nationwide Arena executive offices, Columbus
Boyd hoped more players would show for private testing and interviews. He sent word to the Top Tens and their agents or "family advisers" (for college players). The team covered expenses for the juniors and Backstrom, but the college kids had to pay their own way to maintain NCAA eligibility. Johnson passed; he'd already paid for a trip to St. Louis, holder of the first pick. Toews passed too, as did Kessel and Backstrom.
So it's just Staal, Brassard and Mueller. Boyd isn't angry the others didn't come, but he thinks making the effort says something about the three who did. "We got you a flight to Carolina for Game 5 tonight," Boyd tells Staal. "We'll get you out to the airport as quick as we can."
Staal is unexcited by the prospect, even though big bro Eric has a chance to raise the Stanley Cup in Raleigh that night. "If it's okay with you, I'd rather stick around and watch the game on television with Brass and Mulls," he tells Boyd. "You're joking," Boyd says. "No, really," Staal says. "St. Louis was gonna fly me to Carolina, but I told them I'd rather go to the Cards game with the other guys."
June 14, 2:20 p.m.
Nationwide Arena, Doug MacLean's office
Brassard's English is shaky. At the combine, Smith translated. Here, he struggles on his own. "Did you break curfew this year?" MacLean says. "Yeah," Brassard admits, laughing. "Why?" "A girl," Brassard says. "Good. If you're going to break curfew, it better be a girl and she better be worth it. What do you know about our team?" "Everyt'ing!" Brassard says, before enthusiastically running through the roster. "You don't know how good it is to hear someone come in here who knows about our team," MacLean says. "We like that. What's your strongest asset?" "Hockey sense," Brassard says. "You're what, six feet? One-seventy? When I was in Detroit we had Steve Yzerman. He was about that, and he worked at the game. Are you going to work at the game?" Brassard, of course, says he will. But it's how he says it that impresses MacLean. The interview ends with a firm handshake after 20 minutes. After it's over, Brassard's expression reads: C'est tout? Is that all there is? Later, MacLean explains, "I just want to look them in the eye and see if they're engaged."
June 22, 2:40 p.m.
Marriott Hotel conference room, Vancouver
Another pass at The List. Kessel edges Brassard. Sam McMaster, the team's western Canada scout, has Brassard No. 2. "Love this kid," he says. "Goes into corners and comes out with the puck like there's glue on his stick." Smith, the Ontariobased scout, is also pro-Brassard. "I know more about this kid than he does himself."
After three hours, Boyd interrupts.
"Okay, Doug has something to ask," Boyd says.
"Offers are out there," MacLean says. "Is it worth trading up to No. 2 for this year's No. 6, next year's No. 1 and maybe more?"
"No," says McMaster, who thinks Brassard could be there at No. 6.
Smith disagrees. "If you have a chance to get a big, skilled center like Staal, you have to go for it. They don't come along every year."
But another reality factors into the discussion. Columbus hosts next year's draft. It would look bad if the host didn't have a pick in the first round. MacLean says no deal. The List is all but closed. How it will get used is an open question.
June 23, 3:05 p.m.
Marriott Hotel, MacLean's suite, Vancouver
Kessel walks in holding an empty water bottle. He shakes hands, sits on the couch and starts tapping the bottle against his palm, a drum beat. "How would you look with Nash?" the GM asks. "I think I'd look pretty good." "Do you dish the puck well enough to play with him?" "I think I dish it pretty well." "I'm not sure that you'd get it back." Boyd jumps in. "Phil, I watched you test at the combine. How do you think you did?" "I think I did pretty well. It was tough. I just came back from the world championships. Didn't have that much chance to prepare for it." "You walked around that room," Boyd says.
"You saw the conditioning level of other guys. Where do you think your conditioning is? A lot of guys look like they've been in the gym longer than you. I'm not talking about the past few weeks. I'm talking about the past year, year and a half."
"I doubt that."
"You train pretty hard?" Boyd says.
"Yeah. I mean, I didn't have a chance to work out for practically a month and a half."
There are other questions. About his relationships with teammates. About his rep as a party guy. Then Boyd goes directly to the scouting report. "How would you respond to this: 'A little bit immature, needs to work a little harder in the gym, practice a little harder, needs to learn some social skills, people skills.' We'll leave it at that."
Kessel's voice falls to a whisper. "I'd say, okay ... yeah a little bit ... some of that stuff ... it's a little hard ... work on some of that stuff, I guess."
It's over soon after that. Kessel looks disheartened as he leaves. MacLean looks sad. "If what they're saying about this kid isn't true, it's criminal. Because I don't know if I ever heard the negative stuff like I have with this kid."
"It would be a tragedy," Boyd agrees.
June 24, 10:15 a.m.
Hyatt Regency, Mathieu Carle's room, Vancouver
While his buddy dresses for draft day, Brassard doesn't look up at the draft preview on TV. He sits, writing down the teams in draft order and filing in spaces next to them on a paper napkin:
St L Johnson
Wash peut-etre Backstrom
Peut-tre: maybe. Peut-etre Boston or Columbus for Brassard?
June 24, 3:30 p.m.
GM Place, Blue Jackets draft table, Vancouver
Everyone has a copy of The List. The final List, Nos. 1-100, signed off by Boyd. The scouts mark their copies with pens and highlighters. They use their own color schemes and notations. They've listened to the first three picks go down. Chalk.
1. St. Louis: Erik Johnson
2. Pittsburgh: Jordan Staal
3. Chicago: Jonathan Toews
Now it gets interesting.
Washington has Calder-winner Alex Ovechkin announce its selection. He gets a standing O, then announces Backstrom's name. The Swede goes on the board, and the scouts nod their heads. Kessel sits quietly with his parents and brother in the stands. Brassard sits with his parents, aunts, uncles and friends. They talk all the way through it.
Boston up. Some thought the Bruins would take Brassard because he played midget hockey in Gatineau, backyard of Daniel Doré, the B's scout who pushed for Patrice Bergeron three years back. Others thought the Bruins couldn't pass on Kessel.
They don't. Kessel's name goes up on the board. He's a Bruin: grinning from ear to ear, as happy as he's looked in weeks.
Finally, after days and weeks of meetings, Boyd is on the mike. First he invites everyone to come to Columbus for the 2007 draft, then he says, "With their first selection in the 2006 NHL draft, the Columbus Blue Jackets are pleased to select Derick Brassard of Drummondville."
Brassard stands and hugs his father, then goes down the line: aunts, uncles, his agent and Carle (taken 53rd by Montreal later in the evening). He walks to the stage, shakes Gary Bettman's hand, stands beside MacLean and Boyd, puts on a Blue Jackets sweater and poses for photos. A Quebec TV crew stops him as he leaves the stage. As the camera lights come up, Kessel walks over to congratulate him.
Brassard heads to the Blue Jackets' table and shakes hands with all the scouts. He pulls a crumpled napkin out of his pocket-his list, the one he'd worked on in the hotel. He worked on it right up until he and his parents made their way to the arena. Now it reads:
Washington peut-etre Backstrom
He sits at the table, smiling. He'd sit here through seven rounds if they'd let him. He told MacLean that he knows "everyt'ing" about the Blue Jackets, but he doesn't really know how he ended up a Blue Jacket, how the journey started. It didn't start with The List, but rather with these exact
"Not big ... was one of the best player offensively ... skating is very good and shows scoring touch ... if he get bigger should be an early pick."
That's the first entry for Derick Brassard in the Columbus scouting database, the first of 50 reports, from July 24, 2003, before he ever played juniors. A part-time scout in Quebec filed the report when Brassard, playing in the Gatineau midget league, skated in a showcase.
It's a long way from The List.
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