by Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat Archive
Like so many parents, Mike and Daria Harper wanted to plan the greatest 7th birthday party ever for their first-born. Like so many children, Shane Harper wanted to have his 7th birthday party at the coolest place imaginable.
“You ask your kid, “Do you want to go to Chuck E. Cheese?” said Mike Harper. “ ‘Do you want to go to Disney?’ ”
Nope and nope. Shane wanted to tie his birthday to ice hockey, a sport he had picked up a few months before. He wanted to party where his house team played. So the Harpers reserved a banquet room at the Iceoplex in North Hills, Calif., — the same place where the Los Angeles Kings practiced — and invited every player on Shane’s team to the bash.
This might be a good time to mention that Paulina Gretzky and Ty Gretzky – the two oldest of Wayne Gretzky’s and Janet Jones’ four children — were among Shane’s teammates on his first ice hockey team.
“They had RSVPed that they were coming, but you never know,” Mike Harper said. “Then, boom, the Gretzkys walk through the door and everybody’s jaw was on the ground. They were very generous and the nicest people.”
Wayne Gretzky was in his eighth and final season making hockey popular in Southern California. Everybody on that house team was already a fan, but his presence at the party only deepened the connection.
“He showed up with tons of gifts,” Shane said. “It was crazy. It was amazing. He gave me a pair of his Gretzky sneakers. I already had a pair at the time because I loved them so much. He gave me a pair of Gretzky rollerblades. He gave me his new video game that came out for Nintendo.
“I don’t think he was trying to show off. He just thought, ‘I’ll give this kid all the stuff I can give him.’ He seemed like such a nice dad. He would come and watch his kids’ games, even though he was playing full-time with the Kings.”
Mike Harper, who recalls Gretzky bringing autographed gifts for every kid at the party, remembers one house league game when Gretzky took a turn as the official scorekeeper.
“Shane scored some goals…and Wayne gave his daughter and son a bunch of assists all over the scoresheet,” he said with a laugh. “We still have a pink carbon of the scoresheet with Wayne Gretzky’s signature on it.”
Less than one month after the Great One joined Harper’s party, he was traded by Los Angeles to the St. Louis Blues. Popular wisdom at the time suggested hockey would return to second-rate status in SoCal, but that proved to be false. Harper was among those who was smitten by the sport and wouldn’t let it go. In fact, he became devoted to both roller hockey and ice hockey.
“I just know it was so much more exciting than soccer and baseball to me,” said Harper, who grew up 30 miles north of Los Angeles in Valencia. “I never really played video games as a kid. I would play outside after school every day. I would put on my roller blades and try to play street hockey either with the neighbors or, if they didn’t want to, I’d play hockey in my driveway.
“It was never raining. As a kid, I never realized kids in other parts of the country couldn’t play outside every day. We were outside every single day.”
Harper picked up roller hockey and ice hockey equally quickly. On the house team he shared with the Gretzkys, he stacked up 88 goals in 23 games.
Within two years, Harper started on travel teams for roller and ice hockey. Keep in mind, while Gretzky made ice hockey more popular in Southern California, there weren’t nearly as many rinks as there are in, say, the Chicago area. In both sports, Harper needed to travel long distances to be on teams with players of similar skill and interest level – particularly for ice hockey.
“My dad would come and pick me up around 5 p.m.,” Harper said. “He’d drive from Burbank to Valencia. That was probably about 30 minutes. So he’d pick me up and drive another 60 miles. It’d probably take an hour and a half. Coming back wasn’t as bad, but it’d still take a little more than an hour. He did that so many times.”
“He was doing his homework in the backseat with a little light so he could see,” Mike Harper said. “And he was eating a lot of drive-thru food. We did it because he loved it – and he was really good at it.”
And his teams were really good at it. Harper’s primary roller hockey teams were the Anaheim Mission Bulldogs and the OC Blades – and the latter captured the North American Roller Hockey Championship (NARCh) Pee Wee Platinum Division national championship in 2004.
While California teams were expected to dominate the roller hockey scene, the ice was a different story. Harper’s California Wave squad reached the USA Hockey Tier I national championship finals two years in a row — losing to a Detroit-based team in 2004 and a Connecticut-based team (that featured St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk) in 2005.
“Our team name was the California Wave, so going into tournaments we’d get a lot of flak,” Harper said. “When we were younger, nobody respected California hockey until we started getting more known. We’d come to tournaments and beat teams and they’d be getting upset. In fairness, we were more of an all-star team. We were gathering players from a larger area, but we also didn’t have as many hockey players as other areas.”
Harper’s team featured at least six players who became professionals, including Jonathan Blum (Iowa and Minnesota Wild), C.J. Stretch and Scooter Vaughan (Bridgeport Sound Tigers) and Colin Long (a fourth-round Arizona Coyotes pick who’s playing in Germany).
Harper, meanwhile, left Southern California when he was 16 and spent five years in the Western Hockey League with the Everett Silvertips, where he ranks first all-time in games (335) and third in goals (100) and points (214).
The Philadelphia Flyers signed him to a three-year deal on March 4, 2010, which led to three seasons spent primarily with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms highlighted by his game-winning overtime goal on Jan. 6, 2012, in front of the second-largest crowd (45,653) in AHL history as part of the outdoor Winter Classic in Philly.
But when Harper’s three-year Flyers deal expired after the 2012-13 season, he looked for a place to play. This is where Harper’s SoCal roots — and the locale’s attractiveness to another NHL superstar – paid dividends for him and the Wolves. Jack Bowkus, Harper’s California Wave coach, invited him to skate with NHL pros at the Los Angeles Kings’ practice rink in El Segundo. That’s where Harper met, among others, Pittsburgh Penguins great Sidney Crosby and Vancouver Canucks goalie Ryan Miller in the summer of 2012.
“It was pickup games and there were a lot of pros out there,” Harper said. “I would always try to wear the same jersey as Sidney so I could be on his team for 3-on-3 at the end of practice. The next summer, he came out to California for the whole time, so I saw a lot more of him and got to skate with him a lot more.”
Harper also played a few rounds of golf with a group of NHL veterans that included Crosby and Nashville left wing Eric Nystrom. But it wasn’t Harper’s golf prowess that had Crosby singing his praises to Wolves general manager Wendell Young when they crossed paths at a charity event in Nova Scotia in July 2013. Crosby put in a good word about Harper’s skills and, not too long afterward, Harper signed a deal to play in Chicago.
“We were still skating [in California] when I signed with the Wolves,” Harper said. “We were joking about it in the locker room. Nystrom said I owe Crosby 10 percent of my contract. Sid laughed.”
Harper has lived up to his end of the deal with the Wolves. When the team hit its stride last season during the second half, Harper’s line with Pat Cannone and Michael Davies was remarkably productive. After posting 13 goals and 20 assists last year, Harper re-signed with the Wolves and has delivered 10 goals and 6 assists through Dec. 23.
Wolves head coach John Anderson, another pretty fair NHL scorer in his day, has only one complaint when it comes to Harper’s game: “I wish he’d shoot more.”
What player doesn’t want to hear that?
“Oh, I love it here,” Harper said. “I’m happy here. I love playing here.”