“What is 25 times 25?”
When you’re given some time and a pen and paper, it’s not the most difficult question to answer. But when asked by the Flyers’ scouts and front office staff, the question suddenly becomes way more intimidating.
“When you’re under pressure, and you’ve got nine people staring at you, kids kind of freeze,” Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr said.
The Flyers enter each of their interviews, which dominate the first four days of the NHL draft combine in Buffalo, N.Y., with the same basic set of questions as they try to better get to know the prospects ahead of the 2022 draft in July. During the 20-minute conversations, the person who scouts the region the player comes from takes the lead, and then others jump in as they see fit.
The conversation grows organically from there based on the player’s personality, background, and responses. They each turn into a unique experience, and the questions run the gamut.
Sometimes the Flyers have to try to work hard for more than one-word answers. This might be because the player is shy or nervous, something much more common when they’re one of the player’s first interviews.
“Usually they’re a little uptight, but by the end of the week, they’ll be bored to death,” Flahr said. In one case, a player was shaking a little because he was so nervous, but Flahr said they already rated that player highly and didn’t put too much stock in his nerve-filled interview.
The short answers can also be the result of a language barrier. Some international players speak English well but not enough to fully get their points across, and others have to go through a translator. In those cases, it’s difficult because the interviewers and interviewees can’t know for sure if the questions and responses are being conveyed in the same way they meant them.
There are other times when the conversations flow easily. In those cases, the conversations can turn fun or even deep, like one that veered to the topic of spirituality, leaving Flyers special assistant to the general manager Danny Brière impressed with the player’s maturity.
“It was like we were talking to a 60-year-old man,” Brière said with a laugh. “He looked like he was 12. He was awesome.”
Since the scouts do their homework ahead of the interviews, they sometimes know the prospects are “good kids, and there really isn’t much to quiz them on,” Flahr said. But sometimes they have concerns about a prospect’s play or off-ice behavior. In those cases, they challenge him, giving him a chance to defend himself while also giving themselves an opportunity to watch how he responds to the stress test.
“And that pressure isn’t going to get any easier if you’re playing in Toronto, Philly, or anywhere else,” Flahr said.
With that in mind, the Flyers try to challenge every candidate, whether he’s a good interviewee or not, at some point. That has gotten harder over the years as the agents have gotten better at coaching their prospects ahead of time.
“We come from different angles, ask them different things that force them to answer your question without a scripted answer,” Flahr said.
In addition to the math queries and any of the silly questions the others come up with, Flahr has some go-to questions that he won’t give away. Brière, who is learning how the combine works, said he likes to ask the players who their favorite NHL teams are.
“And if the answer is Pittsburgh, then they’re in big trouble,” Brière said.
They also like to ask players how long they think it will take them to get to the NHL and which NHL players they compare themselves to. They want to see if the player has a good understanding of where he is in his progress, and sometimes the answers are “laughable,” Flahr said.
“We already know the answer, but it’s interesting to hear them describe themselves,” Flahr said. “Some kids are accurate. Some kids have no clue. Which is mind-boggling sometimes.”
Talking with prospects about their teammates is another useful exercise. It tells the Flyers how much the prospect respects and gets along with his teammates while also giving them “inside information.” Flahr said that during this combine, the Flyers have started to rethink their evaluations of one prospect because of how often other players talked about him.
As the week goes on, the interviews start to blur for the teams as well as for the players. While good things can stick out — like the talk about spirituality — it’s often the bad interviews that Flahr remembers best. A few years ago, one player’s interview was so bad regarding his lack of self-awareness and his tendency to blame other teammates, Flahr said they cut the conversation short. Now, that player is an All-Star, Flahr said with a laugh.
With that in mind, Flahr said they have to be careful not to place too much weight on the interviews. They realize that all the players have different backgrounds, different educations, and different levels of maturity as 18-year-olds. Teams have had years of scouting to already form opinions about these players, and they have years after the draft to develop them before they reach the NHL. The interviews just add another dimension to the process.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got a gut feeling basically, like any normal interview for any business,” Flahr said.