Harper hopes to gain more than hockey experience this season

Axemen top scorer returns for fourth year

WOLFVILLE, N.S. – Last spring, returning for a fourth season with the hockey Axemen was not in the cards for Stephen Harper. After graduating with his business degree in May, the 24-year-old Harper had expected to be elsewhere this fall, possibly playing hockey at a high level.

“It’s crazy sometimes how things change,” Harper said in a Sept. 30 interview. He was invited to the Buffalo Sabres training camp and rookie camp and “felt I did okay,” but “the right offer didn’t happen.”

He chose the option of returning to Acadia and taking “a lighter course load. I had thought about going elsewhere, but I’ve been here for three years, and I love it here.”

Since arriving at Acadia in the fall of 2016, Harper has always been impressed with “how big hockey is here,” and especially how the community embraces the Acadia student-athletes. “This program,” he said, “has a fan base very similar to major junior.”

Admittedly, Acadia hosting the University Cup in Halifax at season’s end was a factor in his decision. “At the end of the day, it was a no-brainer,” not to mention a win-win scenario. “Why not come back?”

With his return, Harper, Acadia’s leading scorer the last two seasons and the 2017-2018 AUHC scoring champion, believes he “can be a leader and role model” for his younger teammates, many of whom are in their first or second years.

“I see myself as a team leader,” he says. “I try to lead by example. I’m kind of low-key in the dressing room, but I believe my best asset as a leader is my play on the ice. It’s important to do the right things for the younger players, whether or not you’re wearing a letter (which Harper is this season).”

Harper played in Acadia’s pre-season games, scoring the winning goal in an overtime win over Dal, but did not dress for the first two regular season contests due to an injury. This allowed him a unique vantage point to watch the team, and in particular the large group of second-year players.

“I’m liking how our games so far have gone,” he said, even despite an upset 4-2 loss to Moncton in the home opener Sept. 27. “I really like the way the second-year players have been stepping up. Even one year of experience makes a huge difference at this level.”

The Axemen rebounded from their loss to Moncton with a character-building 6-4 win over UNB, the defending national champions. “We played well against UNB,” he said. “They know how to win. The road to a national title goes through UNB. It’s huge for the locker room and the team mentality.”

Harper has been playing on a line with Ryan Foss, “a good friend from back home (in Ontario).” The two have become “pretty good buddies off the ice,” and Foss’s on-ice play has benefited from playing on the same line as Harper, a first-team conference all-star and second-team all-Canadian in 2017-2018.

As part of his course load, Harper is doing a joint internship with Acadia and Sports Entertainment Atlantic, working (among other things) on the organization for the 2020 University Cup, “to try and make it the best possible experience for Acadia” and for the other participating teams.

“That kind of experience, and the things I’m learning, will help me once I’m done playing hockey.”

Needless to say, Harper hopes the end of his hockey playing career won’t happen anytime soon. “The reason I’m back and have a lighter schedule is to allow me to work out, get into the best possible shape, and maybe get offered a (professional) contract once our season is over.”

Attending the Buffalo training camp was “a great experience. It was nice while I was there to see the pace I played at wasn’t out of place.” He is “still confident in my abilities,” and believes he is well-positioned in terms of strength and conditioning training. “I feel I’m in a good spot.”

His priority now is, first, to get 100 per cent healthy, and then help the Axemen be the best team they can be. “I think with everyone healthy and back in the lineup, we’re going to be pretty strong. If everybody is on the same page – and I believe we are – the sky’s the limit for this team.”

He added, “our goal as a team is to win nationals.” As the host team, the Axemen receive an automatic berth at the University Cup, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to at least make the AUS final,” if not win the conference outright, and make it to nationals through the front door.

Overall, “all the signs are there” for the 2019-2020 Axemen. “There will be some growing pains, but the idea is to peak by the end of the season. Our leaders need to be leaders, and the veterans have to show the way” for the younger players. “If we can do that, we’ll be successful.”

After his playing days are over, Harper’s goal is to use his degree and “maybe get into the business side” of sport in general “and if I’m lucky,” hockey in particular. He has always been intrigued by “the general manager/hockey ops side of things. My dad always thought I’d be a GM someday. Hopefully, I’ll be able to prove him right.”

While Harper admittedly “weighed some other options that were pretty convincing” over the summer, he has no regrets at his decision to return to Acadia. “The school has done a lot for me. Right now, this is the best place for me to be.”

NOTE: After this story was filed, Stephen played this past weekend and was named the Subway Player of the Game in his OT Penalty Shot goal that defeated StFX 5-4.