On November 17 a video of Nick Harper leading a locker room celebration was featured on ESPN after going viral on Twitter. Surrounded by teammates, Harper’s Ric Flair imitation was a portrait of a young man who leads his college hockey team behind closed doors.
The third-string goaltender for Fredonia Men’s Hockey, Harper has played in just four games during his four-year career. Despite the lack of ice-time he trains as intently as any of his teammates: in one year he’s lost 25 pounds while trimming himself to 12% body fat. More importantly, Harper provides the care and compassion that great teams are founded on.
Unlike his teammates, Harper did not play junior hockey before coming to college, opting instead to enter as an 18-year-old freshman:
Jon-Ryan Maloney: It’s unusual for a college hockey player to not play juniors. Can you tell me how you thought about playing hockey in college?
Nick Harper: I didn’t know much about junior hockey growing up–it’s not too big in Syracuse. But I really enjoyed playing for my high school: I got to play there for four years with my best friends. By my senior year I was a captain. Junior hockey wasn’t really an idea for me. I got the opportunity to come here for an open house and meet Coach (Head Men’s Hockey Coach, Jeff Meredith). He told me he needed a third-string goalie and I was like, “Absolutely. This is the only chance I’ll get to be a part of a college hockey team.” It was rare; I was very lucky.
Maloney: Did you always want to play college hockey?
Harper: I knew I wasn’t done playing hockey after high school; I wanted to play club wherever I went. Honestly, I didn’t think I was good enough to play in juniors. I just wanted to play with my friends in high school and play club in college after that.
Maloney: Was it scary to come in as a freshman with all these guys who are older than you?
Harper: Yes, a little bit: playing with 24- and 25-year-olds when you’re only 18. I was a little nervous going in but those seniors welcomed me right away like I was part of the family. That’s something that we wanted to do for this year’s freshmen.
Maloney: Who were those seniors at the time?
Harper: Cory Melkert, Brian Doust, Jared Wynia, and Stephen Castriota. It’s funny because I still talk to those guys four years later. We’ve become good friends even though they’re five or six years older than me.
Maloney: You put as much work, or even more work into this sport than anyone else on your team. What’s the motivation to keep training so hard knowing that you’re unlikely to play much.
Harper: Coach Meredith always told me, “You might not contribute that much on-ice but there’s so much you can do off-ice.” So if the freshmen see a senior third-string goalie who’s only played in one or two games in his career working his butt off, hopefully they’ll think, “Wow, this guy is working harder than anyone else. That means he really cares about this. I want to follow in his footsteps and show that much care.” And when I do get those rare opportunities I want to make the most of them; I want to be prepared.
Maloney: Can you see the effects you have on younger athletes now?
Harper: I think I can in terms of respect. Coming in I was a little nervous that when I got older the younger guys wouldn’t look up to me: “Whatever Nick, you don’t play. I play more than you already and it’s only my first semester.” But these guys are asking me questions, which is cool because we’re the same age. I think they look up to me a little bit just because of the experience I’ve had here.
Maloney: When I was thinking of guys on the hockey team that I would look up to if I were a player you struck me as that person. I would probably pick you out of anybody.
Harper: Thank you.
Maloney: Can you speak to what it is about you that would make me have that sense? You don’t speak a lot, but when you speak people listen.
Harper: One thing I’ve learned about being the third guy is that there are certain times to talk and there are certain times to listen. There are certain guys you can talk to before a game and certain guys you leave alone; just understanding that role–knowing who you can mess around with and knowing who just needs a fist bump and a “let’s go.” Since I don’t play very much I try to contribute as much as I can in other ways, whether it’s doing the starting line-ups, post-game celebrations, or trying to keep the guys fired up.
Maloney: What was it like when that video came out on Twitter?
Harper: It was awesome. So many alumni got in touch with me: “Harps we’re so proud of you, it was awesome to see this.” That was pretty cool. I didn’t think it would blow up that much.
Maloney: In the past year you’ve gone from 225 pounds to 200 pounds, and what’s particularly impressive is that you’ve also gotten stronger during that period. How did that happen?
Harper: Last spring after the season Coach told me, “you came in out of shape.” And I did: I gained weight during my sophomore and junior years and I wasn’t in shape. That just showed that I didn’t care that much, and that’s not who I am, so I was upset about it. When he told me that it was like. . .
Maloney: A wake-up call?
Harper: Yes, a wake-up call: “Okay, I’ve got to get my act together.” So I talked to Sam Wilbur because he put in a great off-season a couple years ago, lost a ton of weight and gained muscle. I asked him what he did and he sent me his workouts and his diet plan. That’s when I decided that I needed to be committed because I was running out of time to play college hockey. He was very helpful during that process. During the summer I would text him and call him; he would keep me motivated.
Maloney: What specifically did you do?
Harper: The first phase was ten sets of ten: deadlifts, squats, bench, and then my favorite were Fridays where you’d be pushing sleds, flipping tires. That stuff was more fun to me than going out and running two miles. It helps that I’m skating every day now too; during the summer it’s hard to find ice.
Maloney: What about nutrition? That must have played a big role in it.
Harper: It was all lean meats: fish, chicken, ground turkey, ground beef, sometimes steak. And veggies, too. That was the main thing for me because my diet used to be terrible. I used to drink a lot of milk and the occasional soda, but this summer all I drank was water and coffee and sometimes a protein shake for breakfast. I just had to come clean with that. I’d get mad at myself if I ate the wrong thing; I’d wake up at midnight kind of hungry and go to the cookie jar and scream, “No!” at myself. I’d wake up my mom (laughs).
Maloney: A lot of hockey players major in business or something similar, but it’s rare to see one major in education. Why education?
Harper: I started as a sports management major my freshman year. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with it and eventually I felt like it wasn’t for me. My mom’s a teacher; I’ve had great teachers and coaches in the past and I see the impact that teachers and coaches can have on students and on athletes. I think I can have a positive impact on students and athletes and I’d really enjoy doing that.
Maloney: Has it been hard to do both education and hockey?
Harper: At times, yes. You have to miss practice every once in a while for placements or meetings. It took a while but you can find a balance doing it. You just have to get in a routine.
Maloney: What’s important to you for the rest of this season?
Harper: Just to enjoy it as much as I can. There’s never going to be another opportunity like this–playing college hockey with your best friends. Obviously we want to win a SUNYAC Championship, and I think we have the ability to do that, but when it comes down to it I just want to enjoy this time. I have to have fun with these guys because I don’t know the next time I’m going to see a lot of them. I’ve got to make the most of that.
Maloney: Is there any advice that you’d give to a freshman athlete, or advice you’d give to an athlete that’s not getting the results he wants?
Harper: For a freshman athlete: you have to develop a routine. It’s going to be a whole new experience at first but you have to trust that process. Get in a routine that works for you and helps you balance everything you’re doing. For athletes who aren’t seeing results: if you’re not playing ask what you can do to play. Put in a little more effort. Don’t just quit–your teammates won’t respect you if they just see you giving up.
Maloney: I’ve seen so few athletes intentionally go to their coach and ask, “What can I do to get better?”
Harper: And when you do that the coaches see that you care. Just because you do that doesn’t mean that you’re going to play, but it does mean that the coach sees that you care. And the coach will be straight with you and tell you what you can do better. The coach doesn’t not want to play you–they don’t recruit athletes just to sit them. Coaches care about their players; you’re not just a name. If they recruit you you’re part of the family. We know we’re a family here.
Maloney: Is there anything else that’s important that I didn’t ask about?
Harper: I watched this video last night of UConn’s women’s basketball coach talking about body language (Body Language Matters — Geno Auriemma). I think that plays such a big role in being an athlete. If something’s not going your way–even during a practice or a workout–if you have bad body language other guys are going to feed off that. You’re just bringing negative energy to the team. You can say whatever you want in your head because nobody can read your mind, but you have to have positive body language. Other guys feed off that–if they see positive body language they know they can get through this, together.