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Future of sports in the SCV: Harper reaches the NHL’s doorstep

Valencia native will play for the Philadelphia Flyers’ AHL affiliate as he continues his push to top

Posted: July 23, 2010 10:34 p.m.
Updated: July 24, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Shane Harper spent the past five years playing with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips.

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Although the future of hockey in the Santa Clarita Valley is unknown, there is no question about its present peak.
His name is Shane Harper.

The Valencia-raised prospect signed an NHL contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in March and will play on the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in 2010-11.

Harper will lace up his skates for the Adirondack Phantoms (N.Y.) in the AHL, which is one step away from the NHL.
Harper has advanced higher in hockey than any other Santa Clarita Valley product, but there is still work to be done.

“If you looked at it on paper, I think there are probably other guys who are draft picks that (have a better shot than I do),” Harper says. “But you can’t look at it that way, because everyone has a chance. I think I have a pretty darn good chance. It’s going to be a huge challenge, though. I signed an NHL contract, but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to make it. You’re so close, but you’re also far.”

He is close, but the facts remain.

He went undrafted. Teams saw what they thought was better talent elsewhere.

“Whenever you go through the draft and sign (later), there are deficiencies there,” says Mark Grieg, the Flyers’ amateur scout for the Western Hockey League, where Harper has played since 2005. “There is still going to be a work in progress. If he can learn those parts of the game, he has a chance.”

Harper signed after the best of his five seasons in the WHL, an elite junior league that covers Western and Central Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

He had a career-high 80 points (42 goals, 38 assists) in 72 games for the WHL’s Everett Silvertips (Wash.). Harper also had 10 points (six goals and four assists) in Everett’s seven-game loss to the Kelowna Rockets in the first round of the playoffs.

Grieg recognizes Harper’s talent but knows just how hard the journey can be.

After four seasons in the WHL in the late 1980s, Grieg was drafted 15th overall by the Hartford Whalers in 1990. He played 12 seasons in pro hockey, bouncing around from minor professional leagues like the AHL and the defunct International Hockey League to the NHL. Grieg played in parts of nine seasons in the NHL with the Whalers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames and Flyers, but never played a full season.

“He needs to compete better along the boards and in traffic,” Grieg says. “That has been the concern from most scouts. He needs to play harder, more determined and more passionate to win those little battles that are so important to win hockey games.”

Harper also sees plenty of room for improvement, especially playing in his first pro hockey season against full-grown men. Harper got a taste of what he would be in for when he suited up for five games for the Phantoms after the Silvertips were eliminated from the WHL playoffs. He scored a one goal in those five games.

“The game was different, for sure,” Harper says. “The game was faster, the guys were bigger and it’s more of a skilled game. Instead of such tight checking, it’s more of a flow game. The middle of the ice is used more.”

The free-flowing game should be an advantage for Harper, who has the skills and hockey sense around the net to be an offensive threat.

“He’s a talented kid,” says Grieg. “He’s got a nose for scoring around the net, he’s a good skater and has good hockey sense. A sense for a hockey player is not something we can teach or improve, it’s God-given.”

The 21-year-old Harper’s hockey voyage is not complete, but his unlikely path is certainly notable.

It all started at the fledgling Canyon Country YMCA roller hockey program. At the age of 5, he attended a tryout and was hooked.

“My parents just found an ad in the paper for it,” Harper says. “Before that I played the usual soccer and baseball.”

His family still teases him on his humble beginnings.

“They still laugh about it to this day,” Harper says. “Everybody makes the team, but they have a tryout to see who can skate and so they can make the teams (even). They had us backwards skate and I couldn’t do it, so I started crying.”

Harper quickly moved to ice hockey at the age of six and played for the local Valencia Express for one season before he went south to play for elite youth clubs with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings and the California Wave.

Even in his younger years, his superior hockey sense was apparent to coaches.

“He was very gifted as far as playmaking and puck handling,” says Jack Bowkus, who coached Harper for three seasons at the youth level. “He had a great head for the game, even at such a young age.”

In the offseason, Harper played in the Ice Station Valencia high school league, where he was a standout for Valencia High School, recording a staggering 39 points (14 goals and 15 assists) to lead the league in his sophomore season.

Then his life experienced a considerable shift. He went to a tryout for the Silvertips at the age of 16.

“I was a junior in high school and was already in school at Valencia for a couple of weeks,” Harper says. “I went up there and made the team, then came back and moved within a couple of days.”

Harper’s stats were far from impressive in his first two seasons with the Silvertips. He combined for 25 points in 120 games.

“Sometimes, in that league, it takes a little while, especially when you’re that young,” Harper says. “When you’re 16 and you’re playing against 20-year-olds, it’s tough.”

Things improved considerably in his third season, when he accounted for 43 points (17 goals and 26 assists) in 71 games. Even though he showed considerable improvement, scouts still weren’t sold on his consistency.

“He’d give you flashes of talent, but consistency was a problem,” Grieg says. “He statistically got better in his game and he made strides there. It made you think maybe there’s more.”

There was more.

He increased his output again in his fourth season, compiling 66 points (32 goals and 34 assists) in his first full season. Then exploded in his last season, catching the attention of multiple NHL teams.

“For the first couple of years, I wasn’t the best player on the team, that’s for sure,” Harper says. “But I learned a lot in those two years and that helped me for the future.”

Harper also stresses the importance of time he spends in the offseason training at home at Ice Station Valencia.

“I love coming home for the summer,” Harper says. “You recharge the batteries. You’re physically and mentally tired. I need a break and I love Valencia. It would be really hard to stay (in Everett). I don’t think I could do it.”

Harper’s future might be difficult to predict, but he’s taking the right steps. Even if he doesn’t make it, the soft-spoken prospect may be paving the way for a crop of talented players from the Santa Clarita Valley.

“If I were to give advice to kids up here, I’d tell them not to get discouraged,” Harper says. “Not everything was going my way when I went to the WHL and I just kept going. I’m happy to say that the work I put in paid off. I never gave up.”

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