March 26, 2011

From NEHJ: Castleton's California kid on a roll

by Chris Carlson

Josh Harris (photo: Ennis Duling/Castleton State College)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

The stories make Alex Todd look bad. The production makes the Castleton State head coach look quite good.

Every weakness that Todd saw when scouting sophomore forward Josh Harris has turned out to be a strength, a leading reason that — heading into the ECAC East quarterfinals — Harris was leading the country in scoring (14 goals and 34 assists in 25 games) and already had been named a Joe Concannon Award semifinalist.

“It doesn’t make me look good,” Todd warned.

Todd wondered whether Harris was passionate enough. He found an unflappable competitor.

He wondered if Harris had been drilled strongly enough. He found a forward whose work ethic turned him into a sophomore leader.

He wondered if Harris freelanced too often. He found a free spirit, whose outside-the-box thinking surprises opposing defenseman and has him on pace to become the school’s all-time points leader.

Just one glance at the Torrance, Calif.-raised Harris is often enough to tell he’s different.

In the dead of the Vermont winter, he can often be spotted on campus in shorts, sometimes with socks yanked high up his shin.

Fortunately for the Spartans, Harris’s unique characteristics don’t stop there.

While most of Castleton State’s roster — particularly the 14 Canadian-born players — grew up steeped in hockey tradition, Harris is relatively ignorant to the history of the sport.

His teammates often give him hockey quizzes they consider basic, with Harris bombing their tests.

He doesn’t follow an NHL team and rarely watches games. He prefers beach volleyball and surfing, sports which, before dedicating himself to the weight-room last year, he called “cross-training.”

“It was always a good workout,” Harris said.

Out of this came a player with few pre-conceptions about how the game was played, no ingrained habits based on history.

He sees passes that others don’t and attempts to make plays others consider too daring.

When most scorers would cut to their forehand, freeing themselves for a wrist shot, Harris will surprise by going to his backhand and lifting a sharp-angled shot over the goaltender.

When most players try to receive a pass cleanly in traffic, then try to make a move, Harris will ramp the puck over a defenseman’s stick and into space, then try to make a play.

“He does a lot of things that are unique, and usually they end up in a goal, if not a good scoring chance,” senior and linemate Stuart Stefan said. “He’ll pass between his legs or behind his back, when he’s one-on-one he’ll try these ridiculous spin moves.”

None of this initially impressed Todd, who grew up with the game in Wisconsin and played college hockey at Union. He worried about how a wild-card would fit into a carefully planned system.

But in the fourth game of the season, a 5-1 win over Brockport, Harris back-checked and won the puck deep in his own end and saucered a breakout pass to his teammate. By the time the Spartans had worked the puck up the ice, Harris was finishing the length-of-the-rink possession at the back post.

“All of a sudden, I saw this blur,” Todd said. “It was basically a give-and-go, but we had to pass it to three or four guys to keep up. I knew then he was taking care of his responsibilities.”

Harris, who led Castleton State in scoring last year as a freshman, is “California cool” about all the success.

Along with the scoring — he’s on pace to become the school’s all-time points leader — Harris has led the Spartans to a school-record 15-game win streak, a school-best No. 3 ranking at one point and a potential NCAA bid.

During his freshman season, Harris’s calm demeanor had Todd questioning what issue he was pondering.

Leading the team in scoring should have been a heady experience for a freshman, but Harris marched into practice calmly each day. The 9-12-5 record should have been frustrating but Harris seemed unfazed.

Now, Harris’ personality exemplifies all that’s right with the Spartans.

While he’s mellow, Todd’s learned not to question his passion, which now requires the coach to suggest a day off every now and then. His linemate, Stefan, is the team’s second-leading scorer and an intense competitor — at times last season too tightly wound — who has benefited from both Harris’ laid-back approach and playmaking skills.

“I’ve always stayed within a system,” Harris said. “I think once he saw how hard I worked, that’s all it took.”

While the team used to resort to finger-pointing after falling behind, this season they’ve stayed collected winning six games that were tied in the third period.

“Everything I wondered about turned out to be just the opposite,” Todd said.

Chris Carlson can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com