“My mom and dad signed me up for a YMCA roller hockey league when I was six and I still remember it to this day,” Harper said. “It was an open tryout and everyone makes the team, but they told us to skate backwards and I started crying because I couldn’t.”
Harper recovered, learned to skate backward, and fell in love with hockey that season before switching from roller to ice the following year. Fast-forward about 17 years later and the 25-year-old Harper has come a long way from being the child in the roller rink.
The Valencia, Calif. native left home when he was 15 to pursue a hockey career, moving north to Washington and joining the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League. While leaving his parents and younger sister was difficult, it was a decision that paid off.
Undrafted at 18, Harper had a breakout season and made large strides the next three years. He signed a free-agent contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 and moved across the country to join their American Hockey League team in Adirondack, N.Y. after five seasons in the WHL.
“Every year I seem to get better,” Harper said. “I seem to take a little more time than some guys, a little bit more of a late bloomer I think.”
The winger spent the next three seasons in the Flyers’ system. There he continued to adapt to life as a professional hockey player and made some lasting memories, including scoring the overtime winner in the 2012 Outdoor Classic in front of a crowd of 45,653.
In the offseason, he split time between Adirondack and California. While at home, he trains with the likes of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby at the Los Angeles Kings practice facility in El Segundo.
“Getting to skate with them, that definitely improves me every year,” Harper said. “It’s cool to see the level that they play at and try to compete with them.”
Wolves general manager Wendell Young brought Harper in this summer, and the Californian has quickly become a fan favorite for his effort on the ice and upbeat personality off of it.
So far this season, Harper has already doubled his AHL output from last year and is close to matching the AHL career-highs he set in 2011-12 in fewer games. A healthy scratch to start the season, Harper has worked his way into the lineup and produced more consistently in the second half of the schedule.
Away from the rink, he has been active in the community. Often interacting with fans both in-person and on Twitter, he has also appeared at numerous Wolves events including Keg Tapping at Hofbrauhas Chicago, Bowl for a Goal, and multiple Read to Succeed appearances. This month, the St. Patrick’s Day specialty jersey Harper wears on March 15, 16, and 21 will be featured in a blind auction benefitting Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago and Chicago Wolves Charities.
While he appears to be fitting in comfortably in Chicago, there is one thing that the West Coast native cannot get used to.
“This year has been the toughest winter I’ve gone through in my life. One hundred percent,” Harper said. “I think I definitely bundle up more than anybody else on the team.”