Zach Harrison has become kind of a big deal over the past week and a half. His stick is going to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. He got his own post on Deadspin, complete with trying-to-hard-and-failing-to-be-funny comments. He no doubt had a bevy of co-eds at his disposal, lined up all the way down that gigantic hill in Mankato.
Harrison is a microcosm of this year's Maverick team. Perhaps no more so than the other 6 junior forwards on Minnesota State's team. Seven forwards, all of whom are regulars in the lineup, tend to have a fairly impact on the team at-large. But for the sake of familiarity, we'll focus on Harrison.
Zach Harrison was a good player at Shattuck-St. Mary's Prep School, but far from a superstar. In his senior year, he put up decent numbers, but was outshined by other players. Tyler Ruegsegger led the team in scoring, with Brian Volpei next, followed by Harrison. His junior year, he was the lowest scoring forward on the Shattuck Prep team(though that was arguably the best Shattuck team, ever). Usually a player in his position would head off to play junior hockey somewhere before jumping into the WCHA. But Minnesota State had had a tough summer. Thirteen different players from their 05-06 roster would not be on the roster the following year, be it because of graduation, signing a pro contract, academic troubles, or other troubles. They needed players
Harrison committed to the Mavericks that April, and joined the team straight out of high school. By comparison, Eli Zuck committed to Minnesota State nearly two years to the date after Harrison did, and was a candidate to join the Mavericks for this season, but because this year's team wasn't as hard hit by defections, he's currently playing for the Tri-City Storm of the USHL. So Harrison, along with 7 other freshman, got a lot of ice time that first year.
That season was far from a disaster. It probably could have been a lot worse, all things considered. But it wasn't that great either. Harrison had talent--his best attribute has always been his ability to skate like the wind--but also very raw. He had no shot to speak, and lacked some of the strength needed to really push around. The Mavericks finished 13-19-6, 7th in the WCHA. Personally, Harrison had 3 goals and 9 assists on the year, in 36 games. Nine of those 12 points came in season's final 20 games.
That summer was contentious for Minnesota State hockey and it's fans. Head coach Troy Jutting had just finished off four consecutive losing seasons, and his contract was up for renewal. The Mavericks weren't great the previous year, but who could expect them to be with such a young roster? Ultimately, athletic director Kevin Buisman saw the promise in that young team, and gave Jutting a two-year extension to prove he could win with the young group of players he had assembled.
The next season was another step forward for both Harrison, and the team as a whole. After being picked for another dismal finish in the league, MSU surprised everyone by going 19-16-4, and finishing fourth in the WCHA. Harrison's offensive numbers improved to 6 goals and 13 assists. But Harrison, and his team ended up one goal short of what they needed. The Mavericks lost an epic three-game playoff series to Minnesota on their home ice, with all three games going to overtime. The next weekend, a bizarre set of circumstances and some poorly applied mathematics eliminated Minnesota State from the NCAA tournament and ended their season.
The most enduring, and painful image of that Minnesota series--and ironically, the picture Deadspin chose for their feature of Harrison--is Harrison earning a breakaway and coming in alone on Minnesota goalie Alex Kangas in the second period of the decisive Game 3 of that series. Harrison made an outstanding fake to his backhand, before pulling the puck back to his forehand. For a split second, there was nothing but daylight and white mesh. But just as soon as the hole had opened, it was closed, as Alex Kangas' left leg came out of nowhere to jam Harrison as he tried to stuff the puck into the net. And just like that, it was over. A season's worth of amazing work gone, thanks to a weekend of sensational goaltending.
Which brings us to this year. Harrison and his cronies are now juniors. Upperclassmen. The Mavericks have an experienced, battle-tested team. This is their year to prove themselves. To prove last year wasn't a fluke. To prove they belong in the NCAA tournament. To prove they belong among college hockey's elite.
So far, that's what they've done. The group that got swept at home by Bemidji State as freshmen, and eked out two ugly victories at BSU last year, dominated Bemidji at home to start the season. After going 0-7-1 against North Dakota in their first two seasons, they got their first win against the Sioux two weeks ago. This weekend, they'll go toe-to-toe with what looks like one of the country's best teams.
And then there's Harrison and his beauty of a hat trick. Three straight goals that not only proved how good he is, but also just how far he's come. The first is a pure goal-scorer's goal. He brings the puck down his off-wing, cuts to the middle of the ice and snipes a shot over the goalies glove from the top of the circles. A freshman Zach Harrison would not have scored that goal from half the range. On the second, he uses that great speed to put himself in scoring position, but then has the skill to finish off the play. He gets the goalie stretched out, then makes sure to get the puck up in the air to avoid the pad of the North Dakota goalie. I'm not really sure what the third one means. It's hard to draw much from a spinning backhanded golf shot, but I guess when you're on a losing team, like he was as a freshman, you don't get too many opportunities at empty nets.
There has to be something that draws people, myself very much included, to college sports over professional sports. The pros, afterall, are athletically superior--bigger, stronger, faster, etc. For some people it's a sense of connection to their school. But I also think it goes beyond that, and I think that reason is here. There's something inspiring and uplifting about watching a group of kids come from nothing and develop themselves into something, through a lot of hard work and sacrifice. It makes them easy to cheer for, and makes it really fun to see them succeed.