BUFFALO, N.Y. — By the time he was 17 years old in 2013, now-retired Flyers defenseman Sam Morin effortlessly handled the pressure on some of junior hockey’s biggest stages.
Morin earned gold with Canada at the 2013 U18 World Championships, starred for the Rimouski Océanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and played at the CHL Top Prospects game all before the Flyers selected him with the No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft.
But nothing prepared him for the swaths of scouts and their scrutiny at the NHL combine that year.
“When you go do those tests, you take your shirt off for the body fat and all that stuff,” Morin said. “So they all see what you look like shirtless, and you’re like, ‘Whoa, that’s weird.’ You know? You take your weight shirtless, like, ‘Ah, my little teenager body.’”
For former and current Flyers including Morin, the combine isn’t complete without the attentive eyes of scouting staffs, the occasional bizarre question in an interview, the stench of vomit after intense fitness tests, or a run-in with a childhood idol who had transitioned to a role in an NHL front office.
Now, for the first time in two years because of COVID-19, a new batch of draft-eligible prospects will create their own combine memories this week in Buffalo, N.Y. Even though Morin participated in the combine nine years ago, he vividly recalled those vulnerable moments born from the place where anxiety met excitement.
“It’s pretty wild at 17,” Morin said. “I can tell you that.”
‘I did pretty well. I puked, though.’
A couple of days before the 2013 combine in Toronto, Morin headed to Montréal to prepare for two of the event’s most formidable fitness tests: the VO2 max and the Wingate test, which are performed on a spin bike.
Morin struggled to get used to the sensation of breathing through a mask and felt tempted to rip it off midexercise.
On the day of his official testing, Morin recalled walking into a dark room that “smells really bad” to get on the bike. According to winger Isaac Ratcliffe, whom the Flyers selected with pick No. 35 in the 2017 draft, there was an area near the bikes complete with buckets for prospects to use at their discretion.
Morin channeled his nervous energy into sensational performances on both bike tests, tying for first place in the Wingate and tying for third in the VO2 max.
“I did pretty well,” Morin said. “I puked, though. But I did pretty well.”
Ratcliffe dreaded the bike tests going into his combine, too, but he placed third in the VO2 max.
“I didn’t puke, and I was proud of that,” Ratcliffe said.
The bench press, however, ended up being the exercise he enjoyed the least. Measuring 6-foot-6, Ratcliffe’s length did him no favors in the bench press.
“I’ve never been strong,” Ratcliffe said. “I just have such a long reach that it’s such a long way for me to go, and doing bench press, that one was never one of my favorites, either.”
‘They asked if they could go through my phone’
At the 2017 combine, Ratcliffe went through a gantlet of interviews, meeting with 30 of the 31 teams at the time. Each interview lasted 20 minutes, and, while most of the questioning revolved around hockey, Ratcliffe received the occasional odd inquiry.
“There was a couple, if you’re stranded on a deserted island, name three things that you would bring or something,” Ratcliffe said. “Another one, they asked if they could go through my phone, like go through my photo album on my phone. I don’t even know the reason behind it.”
Ratcliffe’s first interview of the week was with the Flyers, bright and early at 7:30 a.m. He recalled that the Flyers didn’t grill him too hard.
The interview was especially memorable because Ratcliffe was eager to meet former general manager and Flyers Hall of Fame goalie Ron Hextall.
“I just remember staring across at Ron Hextall, and he’s a pretty scary looking guy, too, [I was a little bit] intimidated,” Ratcliffe said. “But I was able to get through that one. It must’ve gone well.”
Going into the 2007 combine, Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk was projected to be one of the top picks in the draft. During the week of the combine, van Riemsdyk met with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who held pick No. 7.
In the interview, the Blue Jackets hit van Riemsdyk with a question he wasn’t sure how to answer — So, how are we going to get to draft you?
Apparently, van Riemsdyk learned after he struggled to come up with a response, the Blue Jackets asked that same question to their 2002 No. 1 pick, Rick Nash.
“They’re like, ‘You know what Rick Nash said to that?’” van Riemsdyk said. “And I’m like, ‘No, what did he say?’ He said, ‘Well, you’re gonna have to trade up.’ That’s what they did to get him.”
The Flyers selected van Riemsdyk No. 2 in the draft, and the Blue Jackets took Jakub Voráček at No. 7. After spending three seasons in Columbus, Voráček was traded to the Flyers in 2011.
‘That was our first interaction’
Van Riemsdyk met Voráček for the first time at the 2007 combine.
He recalled Voráček approaching him and Patrick Kane, whom the Chicago Blackhawks ultimately selected with the No. 1 pick. At the time, van Riemsdyk said Voráček’s English was “a little choppy.”
“He comes up to me, he shakes my hand and he goes, ‘Best season,’” van Riemsdyk said. “It was a quick thing, and he walked away. I was thinking, best season? What’s he talking about? Then Kaner looks over to me and he’s like, ‘I think he means good season. Like, you had a good year.’”
Years later, van Riemsdyk and Voráček still laugh about the encounter — “A memorable one with him, for sure,” van Riemsdyk said.
While the combine served as a place for van Riemsdyk to make new acquaintances, Ratcliffe remembered bonding with fellow Ontario Hockey League players who were invited. He traveled in a pack with players, including Flyers forwards Morgan Frost and Owen Tippett, during the testing portion.
“There was a big group of us there who were not necessarily trying to compete against each other, but we were definitely in there together and going through it together,” Ratcliffe said.
Ratcliffe roomed with Boston Bruins forward Jack Studnicka. Every night after interviews, they would swap notes on the teams they met with.
“You go into different ones and you kind of hope that he’d gone in to that same team before,” Ratcliffe said. “So you kind of have an idea of some of the questions that they might ask or some of the heat they might put you under there. So it helps you prepare, definitely.”
‘Be genuine to who you are’
Despite their varied experiences at the combine, Morin, Ratcliffe, and van Riemsdyk had the same advice for this year’s draft class: Be yourself.
“It’s tough to be in the moment and think this, but it doesn’t matter as much what pick you go,” van Riemsdyk said. “You want to go to a place that’s a good fit for you. So the best way to do that is just to be genuine to who you are and that will resonate with a certain team and take it from there.”
And it doesn’t hurt to tell an innocuous lie once in a while.
“I can’t remember who told me, but it might have been my dad or my brother at the time,” Ratcliffe said. “He said go into each interview and tell them that you had their team’s pajamas when you were growing up. So there’s another little fact that any of those kids should throw in there, too, if they’re going into any of those interviews.”