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“The driver, not the passenger”: Patrick Harper on heading to the next level

When Patrick Harper laced up his skates for Boston University on March 7th, 2020, he probably wasn’t thinking his college career would end that night. The senior was playing on the wing of the Terriers’ top line and had a nice season going (with 14 goals and 23 assists) when COVID-19 brought everything to a screeching halt. With his opportunity to finish the season in jeopardy, the former 2016 fifth-round pick signed his entry-level contract with the Nashville Predators.

In December, Harper joined Nashville’s ECHL affiliate, the Florida Everblades, and got back on the ice for the first time in months. The BU product rocketed off to a red-hot start, netting five goals and four assists over just five games. For a prospect whose name was never listed among the top prospects while he was in college, this kind of production was outstanding, but those who paid close attention to the young winger’s career weren’t shocked. Before the untimely end of his senior year, Harper averaged 1.16 PPG; in the ECHL he was averaging 1.8. This was a big jump that could easily be chalked up to a small sample size, but how Harper chose to spend his days in between seasons clearly has a lot to do with it too.

I had the opportunity to interview Harper right before he was called up to Nashville’s training camp (more on that later) to get some insight into how he spent his break from hockey. While many players at all levels of the sport didn’t use their time in quarantine to full effect, Harper took advantage of the rare extended break in a way that would make any organization proud.

The young winger explained, “[The break] was long and unexpected. For me personally it was a combination of keeping my mind in ‘game shape’ and giving my body what it needed, in the gym. Of course I have a great group of people where I live that I rely upon and I wouldn’t be here without them!”

Harper cited the Nashville development staff as an instrumental part of his mental and physical development as well. One of the major unknowns Harper had to deal with was not knowing when he needed to be ready. “Timing was a factor to make sure I was ready to go whenever I needed to be. I felt I found a balance with timing. Long periods of time can make it easy to deter from the process or fall into ruts, so I made a conscious effort to wake up determined and fall asleep grateful.”

Harper had every reason in the world to be resentful of the way his season ended; it wouldn’t have been unfair for him to be unhappy with a missed opportunity at winning a national championship, or to dislike how little attention his signing got. He could have spent time lamenting his position, stuck in the purgatory between the amateur and professional world. Instead, he chose gratitude. It speaks to Harper’s maturity that he chose to be grateful for the opportunity that dropped in his lap, to use his time to improve himself and ensure he was prepared for the next step, whenever (or wherever) it came.

How did he put this plan into action? “For me that included long days filled with film study as well as different types of visualization and meditations. Other than that, I read my favorite book Chop Wood, Carry Water by Joshua Medcalf; that speaks about falling in love with the process of becoming great & self-mastery. I also got to spend a lot of time with my family which was nice, as it’s been rare to be with both my older brothers for extended time along with my Grandfather, who was around regularly.”

Something that’s often lost on fans about the youth hockey experience is the time spent away from family. Through staying with a billet family, training with and playing for your country’s junior national team, college training camp, practice, and travel schedules, Harper maintained a strength of spirit that’s difficult to produce when you’re away from the rock of your family.

The journey never truly ends, even when you reach the pros; you don’t go home much until the season is over, and even then you eventually have to head back out into the larger world to further your professional career. Despite the grind of the road to the show seeming daunting, Harper seems to revel in the challenge, relishing the time away from the game as a rare challenge that he could thrive in. The results speak for themselves.

I asked Harper about the differences between playing in the NCAA and the ECHL. He answered, “From an off-ice perspective there is an exponential difference. You are expected to do whatever you need to do to be ready physically and mentally to compete. In college, I think everyone is a little more hands-on with those little prep protocols, from the moment you step on campus. For me I think that has been an advantage because I’ve taken the reins of my career a long time ago. So I’m not reliant on it being provided, I take a lot of pride in my preparation and expanding that process as the driver, not the passenger. Every 0.01% more complete I can be, counts. I enjoy that side of being an athlete.”

Of course, there are also major differences on the ice as well: “The pro game is different in the sense that you are playing against more mature men. Some guys have their own families and mouths to feed. In college the players are obviously younger with less miles traveled.” This is a major factor in making the jump from college to the professional levels. In college, the age of competition is fixed: older teenagers and young adults in their early 20s. However, once those younger players hit the pros, they can quickly find themselves up against full-grown men.

Professionals fight for roster spots that make or break their careers; the intensity is a far cry from the world of guaranteed scholarships. The fact that Harper not only held his own, but flourished is quite impressive. However, Harper wanted to make it clear that his success cannot be attributed solely to himself. “Obviously, it helps playing with some great players down here who have all competed for long periods of time in the American Hockey League as well as a detail oriented coaching staff.”

It wasn’t long after this interview that Harper was called up to training camp with the Nashville Predators. Harper and several of his Everblades teammates will have the opportunity to make the Predators roster or to become a part of the “taxi squad,” a reserve group of players that can jump in and play as needed due to illness or injury on the main roster.

Of course, the much-heralded “youth movement” Predators General Manager David Poile spoke of during free agency has shifted a bit with some UFA signings, but the addition of the taxi squad expands opportunities for younger players to find their way onto NHL ice sooner. During his media availability on Sunday, January 3rd, Poile stated the need for younger players to make their mark quickly.

Though this comment from Harper was not a response to Poile’s statement, it certainly gives you confidence in his ability to prepare for when his moment arrives: “One area I’ve spent a lot of time with, is being mindful and more aware of my self-talk. Using words the right way that can positively help impact me throughout the course of a long year. Everything takes time and it’s part of the maturation process.

“For me at a certain point, when I think about my own training, it’s concepts like this, as well as continually growing my hockey IQ combined with a good balance of on ice, off ice gym work and getting in the shooting room. So when the puck drops I feel my prep work is done and I let go and trust my training and preparation will take over and do what makes sense. I also love to bring a smile everyday to the rink with passion and enthusiasm. Everything always reflects the process and journey.”

If Patrick Harper can fall back on his training and self-improvement from the off season and sustain his outstanding performance with the Everblades, he’ll have a shot to wear Predators gold this season.