Editor's note: This story was originally posted ahead of the 2018 NHL combine. It has been updated.
Josh Norris was lost. After showcasing elite-level athleticism in the dreaded Wingate test at the 2017 NHL scouting combine, he went for a walk. Unlike many of his fellow draft prospects, he did not head to a nearby garbage can to expel whatever was left in his body after the intense exertion required to complete the test.
"I didn't get sick. I definitely felt sick. I probably laid on the ground for 15 or 20 minutes after it," Norris said, noting that the Wingate was the test he'd heard the most about coming into the combine.
His memory is a little fuzzy about how he got from the bike to lying on his back in the hallway beneath the bleachers at Buffalo's HarborCenter. He didn't pass out, but one of the many athletic trainers on hand had to come collect him after a brief, somewhat nervous search for the missing prospect.
The NHL scouting combine can provide the most physically and mentally exhausting days in a draft prospect's season. This week, prospects eligible for the 2019 NHL draft will descend on Buffalo to make their last impressions on scouts and executives from all 31 teams in both physical testing and interviews with individual clubs. Each of the top players eligible for the draft is slated to attend, including likely top-two picks Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko.
Norris was one of the standout performers during the physical testing at the 2017 combine, finishing first in five tests and in the top 10 in two more. Coming out of that event, it was clear that Norris was one of the best pure athletes in the class. It's hard to know exactly how much that helped his stock, but as a player thought to be a bubble candidate for the first round, he ended up going 19th overall to the San Jose Sharks.
"You can definitely help yourself at the combine," said Judd Brackett, who is the director of amateur scouting for the Vancouver Canucks, noting that the interview portion is the most important part of the week for his club. This week can help further clarify things for a team, especially since many of the general managers will be even more heavily involved in this part of the process.
"As a group, we expect to be doing a lot of interviewing throughout the year anyway," Brackett said. "In a way, we want to have [the combine interview] be a continuation of where an [earlier] interview left off in front of everybody so we get a good feel for the character, the makeup, what motivates them, what drives them."
The interview process can vary for teams, but some rooms will have a good chunk of a team's amateur scouting staff, the general manager, the assistant GM, various other hockey operations personnel and sometimes even the team president or owner. It's a pretty intimidating environment made more challenging sometimes by the line of questioning as teams look to find what makes certain players tick.
"I think it is important to come in with specific questions that might be triggers for that player or person," Brackett said. "Maybe it was something you saw in how they played or a comment that a coach made. You want to be prepared, but a lot of times the conversation will go a direction and you go with it. Is there a pressure point or a question that maybe you want to touch on and see how they react or what their response is? Absolutely, but it could come natural with a pre-plan or the intention of asking that."
A lot of the questions tend to be centered on a player's on-ice performance and personality, but they can veer off course. Norris recalled one team asking him if he was a "beer or liquor guy," noting that was the one question that caught him off guard and made him chuckle a bit during his own interview process.
Norris said he met with 29 or 30 teams at the combine. As a player who was projected to be on the bubble to be a first-round pick, he knew this event gave him a chance to separate himself a little bit.
"I knew if I could really do well at the testing part of the combine and leave good impressions and show my personality [in the interviews], I knew that would put me in a better spot in the end," Norris said.
Although it matters to the teams and the players, the physical testing portion certainly isn't a make-or-break situation for either.
"The guys that do really well, it's a positive. It shows great athleticism, strength, coordination or advancements in their physical structure," Brackett said. "Guys that don't perform well who maybe have less training or were less physically drilled, it's not a detriment. It could be that they just need more time. As long as they can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and have a plan to address them, I think it's a positive whether you go and blow away the testing or go and struggle a little bit."
The combine also has an important medical element in which players visit with doctors. A little over 10 years ago, the scouting combine might have proved life-saving for one attendee.
David Carle was expected to be a midround pick in the 2008 NHL draft, but irregularities flagged during his combine physical were followed up on by doctors at the Mayo Clinic. It turned out that Carle had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a heart condition that put him at risk of death amid strenuous physical activity. The official word came down the day before the draft. Carle could never play hockey again. The Tampa Bay Lightning selected him in the seventh round anyway, in a bit of a feel-good story. Carle pursued a career in coaching and was named head coach of the University of Denver hockey team in 2018.
With the interviews and medical testing completed away from the public eye, the physical testing portion remains a point of intrigue for hockey fans, if still somewhat mysterious.
Here's a quick rundown of some of the physical testing events that will be happening in Buffalo this week, along with examples of the current NHL players who scored best in their draft seasons since 2009. Past combine figures come via topendsports.com.
Standing long jump
This is one of the more straightforward tests. A player jumps as far as he can from a standing position, with the measurement taken from his heel mark to the jumping line. The best of his three attempts is recorded.
Florida Panthers defenseman Michael Matheson and Buffalo Sabres blueliner Jake McCabe each recorded 119-inch jumps in 2012. Just three years ago, Sabres prospect Brendan Guhle had one of the best jumps ever recorded at 122 inches, which nearly took him off the mat. Liam Foudy of the Columbus Blue Jackets stood out last year, posting a 118.8-inch jump, more than three inches longer than the next closest player.
Players will perform three different jumps straight up and down. According to the NHL, "an AccuPower Dual Force Plate system will be used to objectively measure the direction, strength and timing of the three-dimensional forces that a player produces during hockey related movement." The test will also use high-speed camera technology to provide immediate results designed to allow teams to assess movement efficiency, physical performance and injury potential.
Players will perform a vertical jump with an arm swing, a second jump with no arm swing and will finish with a jump started from the squat position. Players will do each jump three times.
In the debut of the force plate in 2018, Foudy was again a standout. He posted the highest vertical jump at 27.65 inches. Nils Lundkvist of the New York Rangers was the only other player who came close with a 26.7-inch vertical. Both players went in the first round. Foudy also placed second in the squat jump at 21.87 inches and first in the "no arm" jump at a whopping 27.81 inches -- over three inches higher than the next closest competitor.
Instead of going for reps, players lift 50 percent of their body weight in three repetitions at maximum velocity. A "Gym Aware" device measures a player's ability to produce power, with the results measured in watts per kilogram.
Los Angeles Kings first-rounder Rasmus Kupari was the standout in the new format last year, logging 8.25 watts per kilogram, edging Ty Emberson, who was selected in the third round by the Arizona Coyotes.
This is the test that you hear about only when one of the top guys doesn't succeed at it. Sam Bennett, who ended up going third overall to the Calgary Flames in 2014, famously failed to do any pullups at his combine. That was pretty unfortunate timing for Bennett, as that was the first year pullups became part of the event. Casey Mittelstadt, the Sabres' top pick in 2017, produced the same result and even compounded things with only one rep on his bench press test.
In the end, this test isn't going to make or break a prospect, but if you post a zero, it's going to get noticed and, as each prospect found out, widely publicized.
Defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker, who was selected by the Ottawa Senators in the first round in 2018, had one of the best pullup sessions on record, recording 15 consecutive pullups. Right behind him last year were Edmonton Oilers first-rounder Evan Bouchard and Montreal Canadiens third-rounder Jordan Harris, each with 14.
Aerobic fitness VO2max
The VO2max test has a player on the spin bike for basically as long as he's able to go. The player is also hooked up to a heart rate monitor and wears a mask to measure the amount of oxygen he is utilizing during maximal exercise. The players have to maintain a minimum RPM over the course of the test or they will be stopped by the instructor.
Several current NHL players have excelled in this one. Among those who performed well when it came to VO2max measurements were Sami Vatanen and Tomas Hertl. Players who managed to go longest among their draft-eligible peers include Adam Larsson, Hampus Lindholm, Mirco Mueller, Chris Bigras and Jack Eichel. And 2018 Vegas Golden Knights sixth-round pick Xavier Bouchard posted one of the longest VO2max times in recent combine history with his 16:45 run.
The Wingate is one of the most notorious and feared tests of the combine and is well known for its ability to make these elite athletes lose their lunch. It measures power and a player's fatigue index, but it's also a test of will.
In the past, players had to go all out on this test for 30 seconds as resistance increased. But starting last year, players instead are on the bike for 45 seconds, going all out in an initial spurt of 10 seconds, followed by alternating intervals of rest and five seconds of maximum power.
After the slight change in Wingate protocol, there was a major increase in mean power output among players. The previous high in that category was 13.8 watts per kilogram. With the new process, all of the top 25 players managed to post a mean power output higher than 15 watts per kilogram. Lightning second-rounder Gabriel Fortier led the way at 17.2 watts per kilogram last year.
There will continue to be some debate about just how much impact the combine can have, but teams will always take more information over less, while also understanding just how much value to put on certain things.
"The game is changing," Brackett said. "Good players are still finding ways to play, no matter the height, weight or strength output. If you're still committed to nutrition and taking care of your body and mind, those are the tools you're bringing to the office every day, but everyone doesn't have to be 215 pounds. There's no recipe for success."