If you were on social media yesterday, you probably saw a pretty peculiar question come out of the NHL Draft Combine. Via NHL.com:

Forward John Farinacci of the Dexter School in Massachusetts, at No. 35 on Central Scouting’s final ranking and the highest-rated United States high school player, said he got an interesting hypothetical question from one team.

“There’s a 50/50 chance of a 20-foot python who hasn’t eaten in five months is in the hallway,” Farinacci said. “There’s five of us in this room. Which one’s going out there?”

Now, if we’re being honest about this, that question is insane. Straight up insane. Here’s where my thought process would go if asked that:

  • How are we only 50% sure that there is a 20-foot python outside of our door?
  • Most snakes move at about crawling speed (~1mph). How could it have possibly waltzed this far into the building anyway?
  • Why can’t one of us five use our cell phones to call animal control, or at least call the building security guards to double check if there’s a 20-foot snake in the hallway?
  • If it hasn’t eaten in five months, shouldn’t it be dead?
  • How was I supposed to know that snakes can go 6+ months without eating? How do YOU guys know that?
  • If this is a question to show if I’m the type of person to lead the charge, why are there 50/50 odds? Shouldn’t it just be out there?
  • You guys are all, like, 40 years older than me. Why am I the one risking my life?
  • What kind of metaphor are you looking for here?

Farinacci’s answer was, of course much more generic. “I think it almost relates to the ice a little bit, sacrificing for your teammates,” he said. “The message [the team official] tried to get across was basically if you’re a leader you go out there and there happens to be a snake, what are we going to do? You work your way around it, you communicate with everybody beforehand, figure out the plan if there is a snake out there.”

It would be one thing if this was the only weird question we’ve ever heard come out of the draft combine, but it’s not. We’ve had baby monkey math riddles. Questions about photos of buses. Whether these (presumably underage) players prefer beer or liquor. Some teams will ask you carefully crafted questions about yourself to make sure that you’re not too quiet.. or too narcissistic?

A lot of it seems very galaxy brained, and designed to put players on the spot. Which some think is great, because how they act in the room will reflect how they act on the ice. But.. we know how they act on the ice, and a teenager being a little nervous in a room with a bunch of menacing adults during the biggest job interviews of their lives is normal, no matter how stoic and skilled they might be when the social brain turns off and the hockey brain turns on when they get on the ice.

Instead of putting pressure on these guys, or making them play serpent roulette, there has to be a better way to learn from these interviews, right?

I’ve had exactly two public sightings of music figures, and they’ve both come in the exact same place about a month apart from each other – just outside Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square. The first involved bumping into a brand manager friend who was showing producer Ryan Lewis around town. I didn’t talk to him much, because I didn’t have a lot to say.

The second was while running around town, having sit-downs with various people that I wanted to get on board with The Leafs Nation as I was taking over as the site’s managing editor. That’s when I saw John Ruskin, best known as Nardwuar the Human Serviette, from “Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada”. I did not stop him, and to this day, that moment remains my only regret in not bugging a famous person.

Nardwuar is a musician and a music journalist, that occasionally gets himself into other hijinks. But his interviews are at the core of his fame, and while they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, they’ve received all sorts of praise within the music community – particularly within Hip Hop, where getting the “Nardwuar Treatment” has become a rite of passage.

In a weird way, Nardwuar would probably be a great asset to a hockey team – at least on combine interview day. His interview style is extremely abstract compared to the rest of the industry, relying on deep research to find out about artists’ childhoods, the music that inspired them, the projects of old that they have connections to, and anything obscure that lead them to where they are today.

He also takes on an eccentric persona while doing so – partially for the camera, partially to lighten the mood. It doesn’t always work – he’s had people give him the cold shoulder, tell him off, or straight up run away from interviews. But more often, it works well, with many artists pouring their hearts out, telling their stories, calling their chats the best interviews they’ve ever had. Narduwar’s interviews can often tear the mask off of music’s most carefully-crafted personalities and reveal the person beneath, telling so much about themselves while almost never directly asked about themselves.

I think the combine should be more like Narduwar. When prospect writer Hannah Stuart asked yesterday what people’s weird interview question would be, my mind didn’t go to an absurdist joke question like I thought it would.

My mind went serious. It went to “don’t ask them about themselves, ask them about their surroundings”.

Seeing things like the Python Scenario, or the NFL’s obsession with the Wonderlic test make me have doubts that front offices and scouting departments are being particularly considerate of the people they’re interviewing, or the usefulness of the information they’re gathering – rather using the combine to make them feel like armchair lawyers and psychologists.

What I like about the Nardwuar approach is that he gets people to talk about themselves comfortably without making it about the person. He researches what they like, who they know, and what they have experienced, and asks about those things, which leads to an unlocked guard, a rise in comfort, and transparency/uniqueness in answers.

Naturally, you can’t go super absurdist with it like Nardwuar does, given the closed door, private, non-entertainment driven nature of the interview (not to mention, I don’t trust the 200 Hockey Men to have that kind of self-deprecating charisma). But the subject matter can be stolen and applied.

Instead of asking about Pythons, baby monkeys, and whether the kid thinks his own mother is attractive (a real NFL combine question), do your homework on his past. Ask them about the rinks they grew up in, and the little secrets to them that they used to get home-ice advantage. Ask them about teammates and opponents, present and past, and what he saw out of them that made them as good as they were. Ask them about coaches and their systems, skills trainers and what their favourite drills were. Ask them about a big goal they scored last year, or their team’s system. Ask what they like about their favourite athletes. Find out their favourite musician, movie, food, video game, or whatever else and ask him what they enjoy about them.

Taking this approach, first and foremost, turns the environment into one where the player like they’re being sought out for their expertise, rather than being interrogated – a much more comfortable, relaxed situation. Again, some might be opposed to that, and prefer that the teenager sitting in front of them squirms and sweats, while they pretend that the body language in that room means more to them than the 40 goals they scored last season, but I’d imagine you’d get better insight from a comfortable kid that feels free to be honest than one who is walking the tightrope of calculated answers, whether they’re doing so confidently or nervously.

Through these answers, you’ll probably also learn more about their mindset that’s applicable to the game. Some might want to know if the prospect will save you from the mystery snake, but I’d rather see if their description of his linemate in midget boils down to “they were skilled”, to having the hockey IQ to describe what it is about their play that made them successful. I’d like to figure out if they were paying attention to drills, and learn more about them in ways that we can later use to make them more at home with the group.

Not to mention, you’re gaining information on others in the process. You can find out about the player – and probably get a more honest answer than the calculated interview answer – through their teammates, their coaches, their agents, their family, and the like. Through their answers, you’ll find out more about others you may have to speak to down the line. If you go into the personal stuff like hobbies and interests with enough players, you’ll probably have a better understanding of how to better accommodate your young players. It’s much more useful information to gather than riddles and trap scenarios.

Maybe some teams already have the hang of this – we only really hear about the insane questions, after all – but so long as we hear about the absurd, I can’t help but wonder if this is a better direction.

Doot doola doot doo…

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