"WHO'S GOT NEXT?" is a term usually associated with the basketball business. Lately, though, an increasing number of hockey industry people - specifically, those in the scouting and player development fields - are posing the same question.
In this case, "next" is Next Testing, a fledgling, Wisconsin-based company some believe is revolutionizing the manner in which competitive hockey players are evaluated.
Currently, the North American League's got Next. So does the British Columbia Jr. A League and the Montreal Canadiens. And if stellar word of mouth continues spreading, Next Testing may serve as the gold standard, utilized from the NHL to minor pro and amateur leagues even The Hockey News isn't familiar with.
"Next Testing is pretty revolutionary in a number of different ways," said Canadiens strength and conditioning coach Scott Livingston, who put Habs rookies through the Next combine in early July. "Some of their technologies will modernize the way we approach testing. They also approach what they do with a level of synchronicity and sophistication the hockey business frankly hasn't seen before."
Co-founded two years ago by former American League and University of Wisconsin goaltender Mike Valley and Ron Johnson, who coached the Richmond Sockeyes to back-to-back British Columbia Jr. B titles in 2003 and 2004, Next Testing went from theory to reality when Christopher Hornung - founder and former CEO of bicycle giant Pacific Cycle - bankrolled the project.
After months of consultation with hockey coaches, scouts, GMs, strength and conditioning coaches and doctors, Valley said, it was clear there was a need for the measurement of players' skills to be modernized.
"People wanted objective data, based on an independent standard created through scientific methods and cutting-edge technology," said the 30-year-old Valley, who once platooned in a Swedish league net with Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom. "I thought the old guard in the industry would be of the mindset that, 'I know a good player when I see one,' but it was quite the opposite. People were very receptive. They'd say, 'Right now, I can't even get accurate heights and weights for players.'
"We don't want to replace scouting, but we want our clients to feel comfortable they're comparing apples to apples."
Here's how Next Testing works: During a one-day combine with on- and off-ice components, players submit to dozens of biometric, cognitive, physiological and sport-specific tests. With the aid of a high-tech bracelet each player wears, their test scores are deposited into an online data bank and the information is made accessible to any pro, college or junior team the player specifies.
As part of Next Testing's fee (plans cost $99 to $499), players also can connect with the company's online community, comparing themselves to similar-aged players, or to the pros themselves. As well, they can measure their progress over a number of years ("vertical tracking," Valley calls it).
And, thanks to state-of-the-art analytical tools - including a 3-D body scanner and a net with a virtual laser curtain comprised of 180 optical sensors - players who've experienced the program have a better understanding of how to improve specific aspects of their game.
"Players liked that they were given more tangible information about themselves," said Livingston, who is incorporating Next Testing into Montreal's NHL training camp this season.
"I could tell them to improve their VO2 max (cardiorespiratory endurance), but they have a hard time relating to how that makes them a better player. But if you say, 'I need you to initiate your speed more quickly,' or 'Be faster when you handle the puck,' guys see how that affects them directly."
Now the official testing provider for the NAHL and BCHL, Next Testing hopes to expand operations worldwide in the coming years. As well, there are rumors that the company - whose advisory board includes Anaheim Ducks GM Brian Burke, USA Hockey chief medical officer Dr. Michael Stuart and Los Angeles Kings co-director of amateur scouting Mark Yannetti - may soon supplant the NHL's annual draft combine.
However, E.J. McGuire, director of the NHL's Central Scouting Service, cautions against expecting an imminent change.
"The NHL combine is more than a testing ground," McGuire said. "We evaluate the prospects on a basic health level, as well as a fitness level. One of the top priorities is bringing in top-rated players and having team managers interview them face to face in one location. Those meetings are very subjective and scouts and teams believe they're extremely valuable, perhaps even the most important part of the process.
"What Next Testing could add to the process is the science of their on-ice components and the picture provided by their longitudinal testing. We strongly applaud their efforts. They may not replace the combine altogether, but I think on a team-by-team basis, NHL teams are going to jump at the service they provide."
The article reprinted with permission from The Hockey News.