“Don’t drink the Gatorade. Whatever you do, don’t drink the Gatorade.” Some things you learn from experience. And in the 17 years the NHL has been running its annual combine—where the world’s top hockey prospects are put through a series of excruciating physical tests—this is one of those things.
“It’ll make you sick. It will stain the carpet and it’s impossible to clean,” says one of the many trainers administering the tests. This thought swims through my mind as my feet are duct-taped to an exercise bike, a plug is pushed over my nose and a hose jammed into my mouth. Roughly one in three of the 18-year-old future NHLers will “ralph” at the end of the testing, says E.J. McGuire, the NHL’s director of central scouting. I hope not to. It’s a modest goal, but one of the few I think I might actually reach today.
I’ve been invited to this airport hotel in Toronto to get a taste of what it takes to be an NHL prospect. For the 104 players gathered here, the combine is a chance to impress NHL teams before next month’s draft. Team trainers huddled in rooms upstairs will pore over the numbers and try to get a sense of how the top prospects measure up: how they compare in strength, balance, agility, endurance and raw power.
Before they do any exercise, players are put through an hour-long examination by an army of doctors. One of them notes, only half-jokingly, that I’m the first to fit on his exam table. (I’m five foot ten. The average height here is over six feet.) “You don’t look like a hockey player,” says an orthopaedic surgeon as he sizes me up. (I’m 145 lb., a full 50 lb. less than most of the players). Much of the exam is about the heart—NHL teams invest a lot in players who look healthy on the outside, but they don’t want any surprises. One test takes a seismic reading of the heart’s pumping. Mine looks like a graph measuring a catastrophic earthquake. The average player? Funny you should ask, says the technician watching results on a laptop. He pulls up a series of lines that could have been drawn with a ruler. “I think you were a little nervous.”
The embarrassment continues when I’m taken into a ballroom for the physical testing and the first thing I’m told to do, in front of the assembled media, NHL trainers and various others, is to take my shirt off for a body fat measurement. I score a 9.0 per cent, below the average of close to 10, but, remarkably, higher than top prospect John Tavares, despite the fact he outweighs me by 55 lb. Or maybe that explains what happens next as I try to bench press 150 lb. The weight sits on my chest until I’m rescued by a spotter. (Several players do 18 reps.) Seeing my result, someone pre-emptively marks me down for 0 in the curl-up test (I’m not even asked to try). We move on. I wheeze through 19 push-ups, timed to a beeping metronome. The top combine score: 41. Long jump: I manage 87 inches. Stefan Elliott, a defenceman with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, does 116. Squeezing a heavy steel clamp, my grip strength is measured at 103 lb. The best result of the day: 167 lb. by the Spokane Chiefs’ Jared Cowan. Sit-ups are measured such that your heels and butt can’t leave the ground and are timed to a metronome. I can’t do one in time with the beeps. Someone is leaning over me, aghast, and pointing a small digital camera at my face. I imagine this on YouTube.
With 13 tests done, I’ve beaten the worst scores of the day twice (grip strength, vertical jump), and tied once (a few players are also unable to do the awkward, timed sit-up, I’m told). I’m tempted to feel upbeat, but I can only assume there are players here with nagging playoff injuries.
The hardest two tests—both gruelling rides on exercise bikes—come last. The Wingate Cycle Ergometer measures the power output a player can maintain on a 30-second shift. Helpfully, it’s performed with young exercise physiologists screaming in my ear to “stop smiling!” and “push!” It’s an all-out sprint that leaves me nauseated and wobbly on my feet. Finally, the VO2max test. With hoses hooked up to large steel tanks, it looks like an 18th- century torture machine (and could be used as such). Measuring the endurance of a player’s heart, lungs and muscles, it’s supposed to last 12 minutes, with resistance steadily added to make pedalling harder. Halfway through, I look to see the bike’s electronic readout go from 70 rpm to 60 and then 20. My legs are dead, and after seven minutes the air hose pops out of my mouth in a trail of drool.
Surprisingly, my scores aren’t bad. Veronica Jamnik, one of the doctors who runs the tests, calls them “competitive”—partly because these tests are not measures of pure physical strength (an area where she suggests I could use some work). Still, the experience is sobering.
After the Wingate, as I wait to have my feet untaped from the stationary bike, a wave of heat rushes through my head. I call for a garbage bin. I fear a Friday night spent on my knees scrubbing the carpet of an airport hotel. I’m not sick in the end. But it is painfully clear I don’t belong here.