Harper juggles leadership and mentoring roles with Otters

By Jason Menard

Stephen Harper - Erie Otters

Photo: 2013 prospect Stephen Harper of the Erie Otters is taking on the dual roles of captain and mentor in his draft year (courtesy of Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

 In the last federal election, Canadians gave Prime Minister Stephen Harper a vote of confidence by granting him a majority. Over the summer, the Erie Otters extended a vote of confidence to its own Stephen Harper by not only bestowing him with an ‘A’ for his sweater, but also granting him his wish to mentor the club’s prized addition — exceptional player Connor McDavid.

The latter, he asked for; the former was somewhat unexpected.

“It’s definitely a huge honor”, admitted Harper. “I thought that I had a chance of getting a letter based on the season that I had last year, but I never expected it,” Harper explained. “It shows they’re trusting more in me as a second-year player and that does great things for my confidence.”

Last season, Harper scored 24 goals and added 11 assists in his rookie campaign. He said he’s fully aware that this year he needs to do even more.

“I have to score goals this year,” he said. “Even though I’m still young, for this team to be successful, I need to put the puck in the net.”

It all adds up to a whole lot of pressure for the young forward — a fact he acknowledges with a knowing sigh and smile — but he’s confident that he’s got the make-up to successfully juggle having the ‘A’, taking on an additional goal-scoring load, and doing it all in his draft-eligible year.

“Obviously it’s a lot to think about and there can be a lot of pressure,” he said. “I just need to play my game and keep it simple.”

His coach, Robbie Ftorek, said he believes Harper is up to the tasks. “I don’t think it’s pressure,” he said. “It’s something he can handle very easily, he’s a well-rounded kid.

“He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”

If that weren’t enough, Harper asked for an additional responsibility — helping to transition the Otters’ superstar of the future into the league.

“He asked,” Ftorek explained. “Harps is rooming with Connor, he took on the role as a mentor. He’s taken Connor under his wing at school, helped to show him how to handle the OHL.

“It’s difficult to find your way during that first year.”

Harper said he wanted the role due to his own experiences last year.

“When I came in first year, I went through many of the same things that he’s going through,” he said. “I’m there to keep him intact. But he’s so mature for his age, he’s one of the brightest people I’ve met, and he’s polite almost to a fault — he says please and thank you after everything!”

Harper’s offensive game is the strongest component, but he added that he knows he needs to work on his physical attributes. Last year, he only accounted for 14 penalty minutes, but due to his linemates, he foresees a slight change in his role.

“I think I’m more of a shooter — I don’t really need to be a playmaker with both Connors on my line,” He’s referring to, of course, Erie captain Connor Brown, Toronto’s sixth-round draft pick from 2012, and McDavid, the 15-year old who gained exceptional player status and is centering the line. “Definitely, being a big guy, I need to be more consistent. I think I’m a power forward and definitely my objective is to get bigger and put more pucks in the net.

“Both Connors are smaller-stature guys, so I need to be a bit more physical and sometimes stand up for them a little.”

He’s already started that transformation. Over the summer, he worked on getting bigger. “I think I lost five pounds at first and replaced it with 10 pounds of muscle,” he said, adding that he also worked on developing both his shot and his skating ability.

Having a coach who has been to the NHL before is a definite asset, Harper added.

“Definitely his attention to detail is crazy,” he said. “He’s always stressing the little things that will give you an edge — practicing, stopping in front of the net, using both your backhand and forehand.”

It’s fairly rare for a player Harper’s age to be given a letter, but he’s embraced the role. More importantly, so too have his teammates.

“The team’s been good so far. They’ve recognized me as a younger leader and I haven't taken any heat for it,” he said. “Of course, I don’t try to boss them around.

“I see myself more as someone who leads on the ice and I try to get the boys going on the bench. But I’m not afraid to step up and say something if it needs to be said.”

Harper’s commitment to keeping his game simple should help him during this draft-eligible year, he explained. But he also believes that lessons he learned last year will help carry him up the rankings.

“During my first year last year I looked at guys like Adam Pelech and saw how players like him handled the pressure on such a bad team,” he said, adding that he’s confident the Otters may not be a ‘bad team’ much longer.

“We’re still a young team, but based on what I’ve seen during last night’s [home opener, a 4-2 loss to Niagara] — and once we get players like Dane Fox back from injury, I think we’ve got a good enough team to make the playoffs.”