Interview w/ Scott Norton – an agent’s perspective

Continuing with the draft coverage, in this article we’re going to turn our attention away from the individual players and take a deeper look at the process of drafting a player – including the scouting, the draft combine and working with the teams in advance of the draft.

For some insight into these areas The Mayor sat down with Scott Norton, an NHLPA certified player agent, who has been doing this for 17 years. He knows a thing or two about managing NHL players…he represents the Kings former first round draft pick and current captain, Dustin Brown.

Let’s start with the draft combine. How do you prepare a guy for that whole experience of physical testing and the interviews with all the teams?

Every player and every agent probably handles it differently.  However, I don’t think it’s an event that is weighted as heavily as the NFL combine. I’ve had some athletes that have just blown some people away at the NHL combine.  Yet, at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem to really matter much in their draft position. 

Saying that, I had Nikita Alexeev, who went in the first round to Tampa Bay, 8th overall…and after the draft (General Manager) Rick Dudley told me “He just blew us away at the combine, with what great shape he was in.  Our thoughts were ‘If he got into that great of shape for the combine, imagine what he’s going to do to be in the NHL.'” That’s a great story to hear, but now it’s 10 years later and we’re sitting here saying “Nikita who?” because he’s back in Russia, having never panned out as an NHL player. 

So, I think hockey people are smart enough to understand that the combine is just one of 100 pieces to the puzzle.  Just because a kid is great at the V02 or the bench press…or gives a great interview…doesn’t mean he’s a great hockey player.  Most guys still try to put their best foot forward.  It’s just that you also don’t have the signing bonuses like you do in the NFL, where the difference in being drafted five spots earlier could mean a $20 million signing bonus.

Some teams are known for asking crazy questions at the combine.  Are you in the room with your guys and/or what do you do to prepare them for the interview portion of the combine?

I’ve never been in a room and I’ve only been near the combine one year.  I’m a big believer in that young men are going to make or break their careers and this is part of the responsibility of growing up.  I don’t think I need to hold somebody’s hand by sitting in the lobby when he comes out from one meeting to another.  If my client wants to get a hold of me, I don’t think there is anybody in my business that’s as accessible as I am.  They’re going to call me, text me, tweet me, whatever it may be…just to give me an update.  But, I don’t think I need to be there for an 18 year old to be a cheerleader.

I’ve heard about the strange questions though, like “If you were a fruit, what would you be?”  There are teams that put a lot of homework into it and put a lot of weight into it.  I head stories years back of San Jose having a room full of 15 laptops, just rattling off one question after another.  Some players felt like they were sitting in the middle of a courtroom being sentenced to life, rather than being drafted by the NHL.  I’ve also had cases where a player was asked by a team if he had brothers or sisters, when that team had drafted his brother the year before.  So, some teams do a lot of homework and some teams obviously don’t (he laughs).

What’s the purpose in some of those strange questions like “If you were a fruit…” or “If you were given a machine gun…”, things like that?

You got me?!?  I’ve never asked them when I’ve interviewed a potential client.  I guess they’re trying to see how creative a player can be or how quick he can think on his feet.  Me personally, I like clients that have personality.  I like them to be able to go back and forth.  I like them to be able to open up about life.  We’ve all met people who were quiet people, but that were outstanding in whatever the filed was.  So…

Sometimes I think scouts think ‘If I show up at that meeting and I don’t have anything to ask, maybe the GM is going to think I’m not doing my homework.’ So, they just think of random things to ask.

It’s been reported that the Kings had more people in the room this year than nearly every other team.  Is it typical for Dean Lombardi to have that many people in the room or is this a more recent thing?

From what I remember of years past, there’s always been a fair showing.  It’s probably depended more upon how many picks they had that particular year and where the guys on their list are from.  If you have a draft list of 80 players, and if 60 of them are from the OHL or U.S. colleges, you’re typically going to have more of those scouts involved in the meeting than maybe you’re European scouts or your Western Canadian scouts. 

Dean has always been somebody that relies heavily on his staff, from the current group or even in the past.  I know he does give people a lot of responsibility.  From his standpoint, it’s probably a good thing and he probably wants as much insight as he can get.  Saying that, Dean is very strong willed and there’s no doubt the bottom line is Dean’s when it comes down to the final say.

This year there is pretty much a consensus on the top two picks.  Yet, Tyler Seguin said he met with about a dozen teams at the combine.  Why would 10 other teams waste their time on him, knowing that they had no chance to draft him?

I would say two reasons.  One is there is always a trade possibility.  They like to say ‘Wayne Gretzky was traded, so you never know what can happen.’  Maybe Mike Milbury will be named GM of a team the week of a the draft.  You just never know what can happen.  So, that’s probably first and foremost.  The other thing to remember is it’s very rare for a player in this day and age to be drafted, signed and play his whole career with one team. 

If you’re looking at a Hall or Seguin 3, 4 or 8 years from now, unless you met with him when he’s 17, you’re probably not going to get another chance to meet with him.  All these teams are now computerized and they will pull up a scouting report or a meeting report from 10 years ago on a player.  They might be looking at him saying ‘We know we’re not going to get him now, but in four years who knows what’s going to happen and we want to know what this kid is all about.’

After the combine there is about a month before the draft.  How common is it for a team to contact an agent requesting a private interview or some sort of follow-up?

There’s not a lot of teams that do workouts other than the combine.  There’s a few.  There’s some that do it in the draft city, two or three days before.  Although, the NHL really frowns upon that.  In terms of meetings, it’s more with the guys that aren’t at the combine.  Guys that are off the beaten path that maybe a team is going to take a flier on or they feel is highly underrated by Central Scouting.

The other thing – and I don’t have any players in this year’s draft – but, in the past what would happen was once I made the determination of what players were actually going to attend the draft, I would then contact all 30 teams and say “Hey, just to let you know, Joe Schmo is going to be in LA two days before.  Do you guys have interest in a follow-up meeting or an initial meeting, if they’ve never met with him before?’ 

I’m only speaking for myself though, I don’t know how other agents handle it.  I know there is usually a second round of interviews around the draft.  Sometimes you have a situation where a family takes a vacation to the draft city.  They don’t need to be there, the kid is maybe going to be a late round pick.  But, they want a vacation or the experience.  If you tell teams he’s in town and available, sometimes they say ‘Heck yeah, why not.’

Why does the NHL frown upon the workouts the week of the draft?

They don’t want to put too much on the kids and they don’t want them running from one place to another.  There was a time when four or five teams started doing their own testing.  All the sudden it’s Thursday afternoon and the draft was on Saturday morning in those days…you have five teams asking a kid to do this or that and you literally have him going right from one workout to another.  So now they’re doing three V02 tests in a 24-hour period.  It’s hard for a player or an agent to say no because you don’t want them thinking he’s not interested or he’s not willing to do whatever it takes.

That got back to the league.  I think the league said ‘If you want to meet with him, that’s fine.  But, enough with the testing.’

Along those lines, was there ever a request that a team made that you did have to decline leading up to the draft?

I’ve had a number of teams that should have been more organized.  They would call me at 4:00 on a Thursday and say ‘Look, I know we passed on this opportunity before, but can we have Billy come in at 5:30 today?’ And we were already booked up.  That’s why I tried to be more proactive with the schedule.

I remember when the draft was in Carolina one year the Devils were in Chapel Hill.  On that map it was like a six mile drive, but in reality at 5:30 on a Thursday it was about an hour and half drive with traffic.  I made the trip there with one client in the morning.  They asked me to come back later that day with another client.  I said yes, figuring the traffic would be the same as the morning.  We were on the road to the meeting and then about 20 minutes before we were supposed to be there I called and said we were stuck in traffic and it wasn’t going to happen.  I felt awful, but there was no way we were going to make it.

The year the draft was in Toronto I had a client who did a full physical test for one team and then received a call from another team asking if we’d go over to another fitness facility.  We got there and they give us a list of what they wanted him to do and I had to step in and say ‘Hey listen, he just did X, Y and Z.  I’ll get you the results if you want them.  But, to put him through the exact same workout for another hour, you’re grinding the kid down.’  They understood and were receptive to it.

The combine is just part of it.  There are all the tournaments too – the World Juniors, the prospects game, etc.  How important are those things compared to the combine?

I think it depends what level the player is playing at.  The bottom line is the regular season games and the playoff games for the league he plays in are the most important.  The NHL team wants to know how the player is going to do over the 82 game grind and potentially a 30 game playoff.  The CHL Top Prospects Game is highly overrated in my opinion, in terms of the emphasis it gets in the media and online.  For example, I had Robbie Shrimp – he was the MVP of the Top Prospects Game.  He lit everything up, then he went 26th in the draft.  So the bottom line is the scouts think of you what they think of you at the end of a complete season.

I think the World Jrs are much more important for the Europeans than they are for the North Americans.  Again, if a player is playing major junior or college or on the U.S. national team, the scouts are going to see them 20, 30 or 40 times.  Where as Europeans are not nearly as highly scouted by the GMs or by the head scouts who are based in North America.

The other thing with the World Jrs, is it depends on location.  If the World Jrs are in North America, played on NHL sized rinks, now you’re getting to see a player in an environment like what it’s going to be in the future.  Whereas if it’s in Europe on a 200×100 ice sheet, he may look like a world beater out there because there is limited contact, different skating and footwork, etc.  Get into the grind of a Windsor-Kitchener playoff series and maybe that player would disappear.

In general, everything adds up to the sum of the parts – with the regular season and playoffs probably being 85% of the equation.

Does that mean drafting a European is still the crap shoot it was 10-15 years ago or have things changed?

It’s drastically changed, the value of a European player – and I want to walk a fine line here so I don’t sound like Don Cherry – the value of a European player, not only on the ice, but even in the locker room…I think you’re seeing out of Sweden, Finland, etc. some real character, grinding and gritty type players.  They’ve won a lot of Stanley Cups.  I think the Baltic countries – the Czechs and Slovaks – are going right along with them.  Some people still have the presumption on the Russians that they’re a little different.  I’m not saying this is my view.  Just saying that some people still have the thought process on a lot of the Russian players in the past that when the chips get nasty, how bad do they want to win a Stanley Cup.  Or do they just want to play in the World Championships or go back and play in he KHL.  That along the with the transfer situation, or lack thereof, makes the Russian player, by far, the most difficult to draft in this day and age.

If you’re the GM or a scout based in Detroit say, you can see an OHL player 40 times.  If you’re looking at a player from Europe that might go top-5 or top-10, realistically how many times are you going to get to see him play during the year if you’re based in North America?  Three or five?  In most situations it’s just a comfort level you have in taking a player that you’ve seen over and over.

For that reason, when you talk to young players from Russia do you advise them to come over and play in the CHL?

I don’t really work with the younger Russians anymore.  I used to work in Russia quite a bit.  But, with the transfer agreement being what it is and the rule changes, it made things more difficult to bring players over than is used to be.  So, I just don’t do much there anymore.  So, I may be the wrong person to ask.  That being said, I do think there is a lot of value in a European player coming over, learning the language, learning the culture, learning the North American game before he tries to make it in the NHL.

Once you get past the first round of the draft you end up with  a group of guys that usually can be taken anywhere from the 2nd to say the 4th or 5th round.  As such, how do you advise players prior to the actual draft weekend and what do you do to prepare them?

My favorite quote to the players is ‘Draft day is the least important day of your life.’  I say that somewhat in jest, but somewhat seriously.  We can all go through the logs of NHL draft picks who never made it in the game.  One of the problems is the players get their hopes so built up…and they either get smashed because they don’t go as high as they want or they start floating because they think ‘I’m a high draft pick, I’ve made it.’

The realization is, and any player will tell you this – the day after the draft, the work ethic, what you do to start your career is way more important than the draft.

A lot of times, the organization, their depth chart, etc. is way more important than how high you go.  Look at Dustin Brown.  He went 13th.  But, it was an incredible draft.  Maybe the best draft in NHL history.  He went to an organization that not only could he start at 18, but he could develop, he could learn from some great vets.  He could be the building block of an organization – although it took a few more years than we had hoped – they needed a player and a character guy like Dustin.  Some guys go very high, but they go to an organization that isn’t very good at developing players and either they never get signed or they get signed and stuck in the minors…or they get a chance for five minutes a game in the NHL their rookie year and don’t develop, then they end up getting shipped back or put on waivers.

So, I’m not a big fan of attending the draft.  If you’re a first rounder, especially a first rounder, go – go up on stage, have the excitement.  For other players, I tell them to take their hobby – golf or fishing or whatever – go out and enjoy the day.  I’ll contact you when you’re drafted and/or the team will contact you.

I’ve attended over 10 drafts and let me tell you, as good as you feel about the client that goes in the first round, you feel that much worse about the client that is still sitting there in the 5th, 6th round.  It makes for a long, long weekend.  It’s very difficult.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Thanks to Scott for stopping by MayorsManor and offering some perspective on the draft from a different angle.

We’ll be back in a few days with part two of Scott’s interview, where he talks about how he first hooked up with Dustin Brown, the similarities in some of his clients, the impact of Brownie wearing the “C”, players using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter…and just the overall experience of being an agent in the NHL.

Look for that early next week.  [update: part two available here]

The Mayor

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