Wednesday, October 26, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Paul Harrison

Making it to the NHL as a player requires a great deal of hard work and dedication to the game of hockey. It is not an easy path and unlike most professions, a life in pro sports is finite. By the time a player reaches his mid-thirties, he must begin to think about finding a new path to follow and contemplate life after hockey. When he left the game, Paul Harrison used all that he had learnt from his life in hockey, and not just his time in the NHL, to embark on a new career path helping his community as a valued member of the Ontario Provincial Police Force.

“It was difficult,” Harrison said of his transition to life after hockey. “I really do credit getting into policing as being a salvation for me. I retired in 1983 and immediately joined the Police Force, which gave me the chance to join a new team. It gave me that same sense of camaraderie and teamwork, so I think it was natural for me to get into policing. It was a challenging time though. You really question all your years of hard work to get to the NHL level because all of a sudden it’s gone.”

“I only played for eight years and certainly didn’t leave the game because I was tired of it,” he said with a laugh. “I couldn’t get anyone to pay me so it was time to find a different line of work.”

Harrison’s eight seasons as a goaltender in the NHL were with the Minnesota North Stars, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Selected in the third round (40th overall) in the 1975 entry draft after playing with the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League, he made his debut in the NHL during the 1975-76 season. Working as a backup goaltender for much of his career, he played a career-high 30 games in the 1979-80 season while with the Maple Leafs.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was an exciting time for young hockey players looking to break into the world of professional hockey. The NHL expanded from the Original Six era (Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and the New York Rangers) to twelve teams in 1967 with the addition of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Oakland. By 1974, the number of teams had risen to eighteen. As the NHL expanded, the creation of the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1972 also provided new job opportunities in the professional ranks.

“I think everybody dreams of playing in the NHL, but back when it was the Original 6 or Original 12, the likelihood of making it to the show was pretty slim. Expansion in 1967 and in 1972 certainly opened the door and of course, the creation of the World Hockey Association gave you even more options. I suppose from a fan point of view it diluted the talent to a degree, but it certainly gave players like myself a chance to play.”

“I was also drafted by Cincinnati, I think it was in the 5th round of the WHA Draft, but honestly, I was never even approached by them,” Paul recalled. “The only reason I knew about it was because I read it in The Hockey News.”

Harrison’s first NHL team, the North Stars, called Minnesota home from 1967 until 1993, when the organization moved to Texas and became the Dallas Stars. However, much to the delight of hockey fans in the state of Minnesota, the NHL returned in 2000 when the Wild entered the league as an expansion team. Despite losing their original franchise, hockey fans in Minnesota are well known for being passionate about the game. I asked Paul what it was like to play there.

“Minnesota was a fabulous hockey town, but it was a challenging hockey town,” he explained. “It is a lot like Toronto is, in the sense that the fans know the game and they demanded a lot out of you as a player. If we weren’t competitive, we had a hard time getting fans into the building and yet they would fill the high school rinks and the University rinks for tournaments. On occasion, we were outdrawn by high school hockey. It was an interesting place to play for sure.”

Harrison grew up in the Northern Ontario town of Timmins, which is approximately 550 kilometres (350 miles) north of Toronto. Paul explained that in Timmins, the hockey fans at the time cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs or their archrivals, the Montreal Canadiens. Although, with their proximity to Toronto and the success of the Maple Leafs in the 1960’s, it is easy to imagine that the Canadiens fans were outnumbered.

“It was a dream come true,” Paul said of wearing the famous blue and white of the Maple Leafs. “Timmins has such a rich history of Toronto Maple Leaf hockey players - Bill Barilko being the most famous from our area. Frank Mahovlich is from our area, as is Allen Stanley. If you want to look at the surrounding region there is Gus Mortenson and Dick Duff, and Ted Lindsay who is from Kirkland Lake - this is all a stone’s throw from Timmons. So, the Leafs and hockey were a big part of Northern Ontario culture.”

There is a shared bond amongst the hockey players that spent time in the NHL and friendships that will last a lifetime. Harrison cherishes the opportunity to see his former teammates and fellow NHL Alumni members when he travels to Toronto to watch games in person. He also takes part in the Alumni Hockey Tour games when he is called upon, although he said jokingly that he doesn’t think they call on him for his goal scoring ability.

In our conversation, Harrison spoke about the importance of the NHL Alumni Association and the programs that assist former players make the transition to life after hockey. He has taken part in several workshops himself, learning about broadcasting, public speaking and operating a small business.

“I just loved the opportunity to learn and bond with former teammates and people that you competed against,” he said. “I also enjoyed working with the newer guys that I didn’t even know before taking part in the workshops, but we were all coming from the same place. We were all looking to do the best with our lives after hockey and utilizing the skills we learned as hockey players. The Alumni Association’s programs are just amazing for guys looking to make that transition and I wholeheartedly endorse it for anybody getting out of the game now. It actually doesn’t matter when you got out of the game, they are there to help you - it’s incredible!”

As a member of the Ontario Provincial Police in Timmins, Harrison has been instrumental in the ongoing success of their local D.A.R.E program, which works with children of all ages to inform them about the dangers of drug use. Originally approached to help raise funds for the program, he has been actively involved ever since. When speaking about the early days of the program in Timmins, Paul reminisced about how the Leafs Alumni Association became involved and helped the fledgling program.

“Around the time that I was asked to help, Carl Brewer was in the area visiting,” he said. “Carl being the type of person that he is, he is always interested in what you are doing, so I explained the situation to him. Carl brought it up at the next Leafs Alumni meeting and they gave us $5,000 to go towards our drug prevention programs. When you don’t have any money, that was a huge amount and more importantly, it gave me that association with the Leafs Alumni and it has really snowballed ever since.”

Substance abuse not only effects the person involved, but their families and the community as a whole as well. Drug prevention and education at an early age is one of the keys to solving the problem before it even begins. Getting kids involved in a sport like hockey will not only give them something to focus on instead of possibly experimenting with drugs, it is also a perfect way to teach some important life skills. Through hockey, children learn the value of working together as a team, how to successfully deal with disappointment or failure and the importance of working towards common goals that are worthwhile and fulfilling.

“I was cut three times from minor hockey teams before I made it to the NHL,” Paul confided. “They were setbacks that you either dealt with and used as a steppingstone or you just gave up. I was never one to give up. I always had an ‘I’ll show you attitude’, so if someone said I couldn’t do it, that made me work that much harder to show them that they were wrong.”

As a way to fund and continue the D.A.R.E program, the NHL Alumni Hockey Dream Draw was created sixteen years ago. Registered with the Ontario Lottery Corporation, the draw not only helps with the drug prevention programs, it helps teams and minor hockey associations offset the rising costs for families with children playing hockey.

Tickets for the draw sell for $5, with $3 going directly to the team selling the ticket, making the project a tremendous way for teams to help themselves as they help others. As of October 21st, all tickets for this year’s draw had been distributed - an astounding 50,000 tickets.

“It has grown by leaps and bounds! Last year, I think we grossed almost $170,000 with it and we are hoping to reach $250,000 this year. With the rapid growth of the Hockey Dream Draw, we have been able to offer it back into other positive youth initiatives. That is the mandate of our local non-profit board, to help youth programs. It is my belief that playing minor hockey is the original drug prevention program in Canada. It is really important that kids have the opportunity to play and because of the high cost of hockey, a lot of kids are missing out. Yes, we do this fundraiser for minor hockey associations and minor hockey teams, but we are also involved in equipment drives, getting hockey equipment into the hands of kids that can’t afford it.”

“Growing up, I never had new equipment,” Harrison continued. “I don’t think I had brand new equipment until I played junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals. Everything I had was hand-me-down and I was happy to have it! With the equipment today, kids outgrow it long before they wear it out, so a lot of this stuff is in excellent shape. If we can recycle it and put it to good use, then I think that’s great.”

With the support of Leafs Alumni and the NHL Alumni Association, as well as the NHL teams and players that participate each year, the winner of the Hockey Dream Draw experiences a once in a lifetime trip. The grand prize is an all expenses paid trip to become part of an NHL team and experience life as a member of hockey’s greatest family. The winner and a guest will take in several games in the host city with VIP tickets, access to team practises and attend team or alumni events, with the opportunity to get autographs and pictures whenever possible. One unique aspect of the Hockey Dream Draw, which has helped make the project successful, is that the person that sells the winning ticket also wins the grand prize.

“The teams involved have been very generous and that is in large part due to the alumni associations arranging access for us to get into these areas like practices and locker rooms,” Paul said. “The players are down to earth people. More often than not, if you are polite and respectful, they will spend time with you and talk with you. The last two years have been amazing for the access that we have had.”

“That’s what makes this whole draw special - anyone can buy a hockey ticket and go to a hockey game, but we try to pull out all the stops and really let our winners experience what it is like to be an NHL hockey player. Short of getting out on the ice and taking part in the game, you’re right there with them - you’re doing the travelling, going to the morning skate, getting caught up in the excitement of the game. It’s just an incredible experience!”

Paul Harrison’s journey brought him from Timmins, Ontario to the National Hockey League and back home again. Dedicated to helping others in his community and determined to make a difference in the lives of young people, Paul truly embodies the spirit of the phrase ‘hockey’s greatest family’. With the assistance of the Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni and the NHL Alumni Association, as well as everyone that takes part in the Hockey Dream Draw, he is changing lives and sharing the dream.

For more information on the Hockey Dream Draw and pictures from previous winning trips, you can visit their website www.hockeydreamdraw.ca and you can also follow them on Twitter (@hockeydreamdraw)

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