WOLFVILLE - It takes a special type of player, with a particular blend of skills, to have a real impact in Canadian university hockey today.
It's becoming more apparent by the day that second-year hockey Axeman Stephen Harper is one of those players.
A 22-year-old native of Burlington, Ontario, Harper arrived at Acadia in the fall of 2016 after a solid major junior career in the OHL, where he played with several teams and has had four invites to NHL training camps, most recently that of the Ottawa Senators in 2016. At six-foot-three and 215 pounds, he is a strong skater with solid hockey instincts.
“I started out in Erie,” he said of his major junior career. “Then I went to (a rebuilding program) in Belleville, which then switched cities and became Hamilton. I did pretty well there, and I was close enough to live at home.”
In his final year in major junior, he was an overager and was traded again to Niagara, where he ended up making it to the OHL final before losing to a London Knights team that went on to capture the 2016 Memorial Cup. Between Hamilton and Niagara, Harper had 25 goals and 71 points in 68 regular season games his final season in junior, then added 16 points, including six goals, in 17 playoff games.
Harper said the NHL camp invites – to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Jose and Ottawa – were an “unbelievable, a great experience. They were crazy, but in a good way. It's rigorous, and you're pushed to your limit, but it's worth it for the experience.”
During his major junior days, he says, “My focus was on signing an NHL contract. If that didn't happen, I had to look at my future.”
After finishing junior, he received “a couple of AHL offers,” but ultimately “decided to go to university and get a degree. I can still play hockey afterwards if that ends up happening.”
Once he chose the Canadian university stream, Harper did his research “on the best universities for both hockey and school.” He received “multiple offers, from almost every CIS school,” but eventually narrowed his choices down to Ryerson (in Ontario), Acadia, Saint Mary's and UPEI.
There were a lot of factors involved in his decision, including scholarship funding.
“I decided to come east. This looked like a really competitive conference, I was happy with what Acadia had to offer, and Burnsie (Axemen head coach Darren Burns) is a good recruiter.”
Some former Erie teammates, Brett Thompson and Mike Cazzola, had also chosen Acadia. Cazzola had just graduated by the time Harper arrived, but Thompson was in his fifth and final year.
Because of attending the Ottawa training camp, Harper was late arriving at Acadia. Then, an injury cost him a few more games.
While the on-ice adjustment from major junior to university hockey wasn’t difficult, Harper said, balancing playing with academics was more of a challenge.
“The biggest thing was being back in school. I hadn't really taken classes since I finished high school,” he said. “Having classes, doing schoolwork and then having a game that night took some getting used to. Since I found the right balance, it's been great.”
Harper finished his first season at Acadia with nine goals and 25 points in 26 games, good enough to earn a berth on the AUS All-Rookie team.
“If I had been able to be in school earlier, I might have ended up with better stats,” he added.
As it was, he ended up with a trip to the University Cup, and was part of a U Sports national bronze medal-winning team. He had five goals and eight points in eight playoff games, and added a goal in a 4-1 win over Alberta at the University Cup.
“I was happy with my year, but I knew I could do better,” he said.
He has certainly done that this season - as of Nov. 23, he was leading the AUHC this season with 29 points, including 11 goals, in 14 games.
“I'm obviously happy with how I've done so far, and how the team has done, but I know if I put my mind to it, I can take my game to the next level. It's about getting better each day, and getting it done in the classroom.”
On the ice
One factor in Harper's play this season has been having Kyle Farrell as a linemate. The pairing has also been beneficial to Farrell, who had nine goals and 19 points in his first 15 games.
“He's a good friend off the ice, and our chemistry on the ice stems from that,” Harper said, adding, “We’re not afraid to give each other a kick in the pants if needed.”
The Axemen have been among the top teams in the AUHC so far this season despite losing several key players, notably fifth-year defenseman Geoffrey Schemitsch, to injury.
“The injuries have been a challenge,” Harper said. “You can't lose players like we have and it not have an effect.”
But, he adds, “we're better than our record shows right now, and we should be right there in the second half” and into the post-season.
Harper is committed to being a success academically as well as athletically, and believes “staying disciplined” is a key to success in both.
“I'm really focused on both school and hockey,” he said, – “in fact, right now I'm overloaded academically,” which he is hoping will allow him to graduate with his business degree on schedule, if not slightly ahead of schedule.
“I try to take care of my schoolwork first,” he said. “When I stay on top of my classes, it helps with the hockey. In my down time, I like to hang out and chill, but there hasn't been a lot of down time so far. The key is to have fun and enjoy what you're doing. Right now, I'm feeling pretty good. It's a joy to come to the rink each day.”
As for the remainder of the season, Harper says he likes the make-up of the Axemen. The AUHC, he says, “is the best conference in the country. The results at nationals show that, year after year.”
That will keep Acadia on their toes.
“Our ultimate goal is to compete for the national championship. We're one of the best teams in the country. All the guys in the room know that. Once we get everybody back and healthy, (a national championship) is an attainable goal,” he said.