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Getting Inside The Minds Of The Prospects

Thursday, 06.19.2008 / 12:10 PM / 2008 Draft
By John McGourty  - NHL.com Staff Writer
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Getting Inside The Minds Of The Prospects
One of the components of the draft process is examining the parts that scouts can’t see – the mind of the player. One way to do that is through psychological testing. The NHL employs Dr. Ralph Tarter and EXACT Sports for just that purpose.


Prospects, such as Jamie Arniel of the Sarnia Sting, must take two exams in addition to physical testing. A pre-workout exam is compared with one given afterwards to see how much a player's game will suffer when he's physically exhausted.
OTTAWA -- Keith Gretzky had questions.

Dr. Ralph Tarter had answers.

By the end of Tarter's explanation to the Phoenix Coyotes of how his psychological testing of players can help teams, Gretzky had answers.

Tarter was explaining a component of his testing in which players take a test before and after exhausting physical testing. He explained that they use the comparison of the tests pre- and post-workout to measure a drop in decision-making ability.

Gretzky asked how that correlates to on-ice performance.

Tarter offered blood samples as an example. A small sample is reflective of the entire blood supply, he said.

"You have to have predictive validity," Tarter said. "It's crucial that this test accurately reflects on-ice decision making. How can you measure that without putting the players on the ice? Skating around pylons is not predictive because it's not a hockey game. This testing can indicate what needs to be changed in a player's game."

Tarter is Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Psychiatry, and Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. He was joined by his son, Barry, an accountant with a master’s degree in business administration who is the executive director of EXACT Sports, which conducts the psychological testing for the NHL's Central Scouting Service.

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Gretzky, the Coyotes' director of amateur scouting, was joined by Assistant General Manager Brad Treliving and Strength and Conditioning Coordinator Mike Bahn. Bahn had attended Tarter's seminar the previous day that was directed toward strength coaches and those who will be doing the hands-on work for their teams with Tarter's information.

Bahn also was an adjunct faculty member at the University of Puget Sound’s Exercise Science Department for four years, teaching biomechanics and serving as the strength and conditioning coach for the men’s basketball team. It gives him a foot in the hockey and academic worlds.

"Dr. Tarter uses a lot of jargon specific to his field, as you would expect, but you don't always hear these words around a locker room," Bahn said. "But I got my master's in this field and I'm pretty conversant with the scientific matters he's discussing.

"The link between fatigue and mistakes is well established. We want to be able to find ways to delay fatigue. The neurological testing is fascinating and an important facet. We're trying to take as many facets as possible into account – this testing, our scouts and the Central Scouting Services data."

Tarter listened to Bahn and smiled.

"Basically, you just gave my spiel," Tarter said. "And it was very accurate."

"All we're doing is the computer technology that can serve as a prosthesis to decision making," Tarter said. "You're seeing what the computer can do that the human mind can't do – gather tremendous amounts of information, organize it, analyze it and prioritize the importance of the information."

"You're compiling information from different areas to try to predict an outcome?" Treliving asked. Of course, that's what general managers and scouts already do before making draft selections. Treliving, Gretzky and Bahn were here to determine what value Tarter's work has to their decision making. They wanted to know if it is accurate, if it's been tested and how much weight to give to it compared other sources of information.

"Using the Central Scouting data, we can predict if a player will be on an NHL team five years from now,” Tarter said. “I can tell you whether he will score 30 goals, plus or minus 5, with 90 percent accuracy. We have 16 years of data and can predict whether a player will have an NHL career with 78.3-percent accuracy, based on 5,000 prospects evaluated from CSS data."

Gretzky then touched on an important point. Team scouts' opinions invariably will differ from the Central Scouting scouts – it's just human nature. If they didn't differ, we wouldn't need to have a draft. The teams could just take players in the order in which they are ranked.

"The Central Scouting rankings are different than ours," Gretzky said. "I know what I'm looking for when I scout a kid. I don't know if I can pick players from a machine. CSS might have a 5-foot-7 kid who is the fastest skater or a 6-foot-7 kid who is the strongest and I might not want either of them. I will always go with what I see."

"Every team has important additional information," Tarter said. "If you want to know the risk factors, I can help you. Just take one question on the test: ‘Is your father an alcoholic or drug addict?' Fifty percent of those answering yes will have behavioral problems.”

"Can it tell me anything about a kid's coachability?" Gretzky challenged.

"We have identified a dozen characteristics or traits that will reveal that," Tarter answered. Treliving asked if the information could be customized, giving more weight to things he might be interested in than is in the standard program made available to NHL teams.

"It can be customized," Tarter said. "We do it all the time."

"We are not interested in the CSS rankings," Tarter continued, explaining that is a different area of expertise undertaken by other people. "We look at raw data in a way that is mathematically correct. This is useful not so much for picking a Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby, but for further down the draft when you are getting into shades of gray."


Author: John McGourty | NHL.com Staff Writer