Scouting for Character in Draft Eligible Hockey Players

Shortly after resigning as President of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Tim Leiwicke told an audience of Ryerson University students that while certain Toronto professional athletes may have great statistics, their ‘lousy’ character dooms their teams to failure. The comments were widely reported as a parting swipe at several of Toronto’s more prominent yet underperforming professional athletes. They were also seen as a warning to the analytics crowd who dice and slice all manner of on-ice/field/court data for breakthrough insights. The quant jocks may well revolutionize the assessment of talent but they would be wise to remember that it is qualitative attributes such as character that makes or breaks teams.

I was recently invited by a successful NHL team to spend a day with their global amateur scouting staff to discuss general interviewing techniques and how to assess character traits in young athletes. For generations scouts were mostly retired players who had found a way to stay involved in professional hockey. Their primary responsibilities were assessing on-ice attributes such as skating, scoring, passing, checking and defending. The evaluation of intellect, if at all, focused on ‘hockey smarts’, while character was likely gauged via a single question on the degree to which a player was, or was not, a ‘good guy’.

Going into my session, I was uncertain how much scouting had actually changed, especially after I read a recent article in which an NHL General Manager touted the deep insights he gleans from asking young players whether they wear ‘boxers or briefs’. But the group I met genuinely surprised me. Most were former college hockey players with undergraduate and post-graduate degrees in sports management or business. They were young, bright, informed and inquisitive. They came across as aspiring executives climbing a professional sports management career ladder. They wanted to know not only how to evaluate character in players but also how to weigh it among a basket of other attributes. In a word they were impressive.

Assessing character is, at the best of times, more challenging than assessing personality. The latter reveals itself rather quickly in whether someone is funny, extroverted, energetic, analytical, moody or confident. These traits are mostly inherited and relatively stable. Character, on the other hand, is a set of traits that reveal themselves only when tested, traits such as honesty, kindness, resilience, and perseverance. Character is often described as how people act when no one is looking. We see personality and infer character. Observing that someone ‘looks’ honest or ‘doesn’t look’ like a quitter is of little value in actually evaluating those traits.

Assessing character in adults involves probing key life experiences and how they were dealt with. Amateur scouts must try to accomplish the same with very young men who have limited life experiences and verbal dexterity with which to recount them. The scouts’ task is even more difficult as they are assessing hockey ‘stars’, young men who have always played for the best teams with the best players. Many of these individuals have yet to experience the type of adversity or failure from which qualities such as resilience and perseverance can be assessed. Many already have agents who school them carefully in how to conduct themselves and what to say during interviews. And finally, the primary sanctioned vehicle for evaluating players is the annual NHL entry draft combine, a four day event in which interviews, medical screenings, and fitness tests take place. Every NHL team sends scouts to observe the testing and to take part in individual interviews with the prospects. A paltry 20 minutes is allocated for each team to conduct one-on-one interviews with each player. For scouts, sophistication in advanced interviewing as well as assessment tools and techniques are minimum table stakes to do their jobs.

Hopefully our day together will in some small way prove beneficial to the participants. It certainly was for me as I came away with a new found appreciation for the complexities of the scouting profession. I also saw firsthand what happens when sports become multi-billion dollar enterprises and players become assets, brands, ambassadors and yes, liabilities. As the stakes go up, the need to more deeply understand player personality, character, intelligence, learning styles, motivation, the role of culture, etc etc also go up. And almost overnight old-school rink rats are replaced by new school MBAs, and soon perhaps, PhDs.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

Contact Robert by email at [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

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