Of the 50 plus hometown hockey heroes, be they former Fort McMurray Oil Barons or players that went through our local minor hockey system and then went on to earn a paycheque in their sport, there are two that stick out as young guns.
Up first is Brian Shantz, inducted into the local Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2011, who had back-to-back Central Hockey League scoring titles while suiting up for the San Antonio Iguanas: 1994-1995, 39 goals,80 assists, 119 points; 1995-1996, 54 goals, 85 assists, 138 points.
During the 1995-1996 campaign he would win the Bill Levins Trophy given to the MVP of the CHL.
Well, about seven years prior to Shantz prolific scoring stint, there was another Fort McMurray young gun making a name for himself in the world of minor pro hockey.
He too would lead a pro circuit and scoring and be named MVP.
It was with the Erie Panthers of the newly created ECHL in 1988-1989 that Daryl Harpe tallied an impressive 122 points in only 60 games with 38 goals and 84 assists.
It has been a long time since we last talked to Harpe, so we caught up with him in Edmonton where he now lives and works in the sports wholesale industry.
“I played my Pee Wee, Bantam, Midget and Junior B in Fort McMurray,” reminisced Harpe, 47. “Instead of playing (Junior A) for the (Fort McMurray) Oil Barons, I went to play for the Hobbema Hawks because my Jr. B coach in Fort McMurray (Terry Conroy) was friends with the coach in Hobbema and persuaded me to go play there. I also thought it would be a good idea as it allowed me to spread my wings, get out of town and get away from the weekend parties.”
Of note, also on the Hawks team at that time was another Fort McMurray product Shawn Wheeler. Wheeler would go on to play for the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point followed by six years of minor professional hockey. He would later become one of the first African Americans to be a head coach in professional hockey.
Following Junior A hockey, Harpe was introduced to the world of semi pro hockey signing on the dotted line with the Erie Golden Blades of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League.
Before he could even unpack his bags the team and the league folded.
With no agent or scouts on the lookout for a 5-foot-11 forward, Harpe hooked up with the Moose Jaw Generals, a senior men’s team that would skate their way to the Allan Cup semi-finals.
“I was working in a mechanical shop and at night calling BINGO,” recalled Harpe with a laugh. “I was 21 years-old…it was great.”
After a year hiatus, pro hockey was reborn in Erie with the creation of the ECHL and the Erie Panthers.
“I already had the connections so I was in like Flynn,” said Harpe of his return to Pennsylvania.
Of his epic scoring spree Harpe remains humble: “I may have been one of the top five players in the league but by the next year it got better and the players got better.”
Looking back he surmises that the over-the-top points performance may have hurt his career.
“It actually backfired on me. I was good but the thing is when you do something like that you have to follow up and improve yourself to do better. Did it improve me as a hockey player? Not really. Like I said, the league kept on getting better and better.”
The 1990-1991 campaign would find him in a Cincinnati Cyclones uniform.
“Cincinnati was great. We would get up to 11,000 fans at home games and they treated us well…giving me an apartment and leasing me a car,” said Harpe, who in 60 games that year had 18 goals and 40 assists. “The (ECHL) was now much better. The hockey was good. The fighters fought, the checkers checked and the goal scorers scored goals.”
Due to age and eligibility restrictions, “They did not want the league to become a bum league. They basically capped it. They didn’t want guys hanging out and playing six or seven or eight years, unless they were signed at least by an NHL club,” Harpe was released by the Cyclones.
He would last only two games (1991-1992) with the Knoxville Cherokees.
“It was terrible. It felt like I was back in Junior hockey. I knew that I was not going to go any further in pro hockey and basically it was now time to get a life and a job. I didn’t want to bounce around from league to league, team to team until I was 40 and then have nothing to show for it. The pro dream was over.”
After a summer back in Fort McMurray, Harpe would relocate to Grimshaw, Alberta in the fall of 1992 to play senior hockey.
A few years later, in 1995, he hung up the competitive blades for good.
“I had never missed a game in all of those years and my body was broken down. I tried one year of rec hockey but I started to beat on people and thought this was no good. I was done at age 27.”
Harpe said he has kept his hand in the sport by coaching for a few years and also watching his nephews and nieces play.
He credits Fort McMurray with giving him his start.
Aside from his Junior B coach Conroy, Harpe gives shout outs to a few coaches and players that assisted him along his way.
“Frank Lacroix was my midget coach and he was a huge inspiration. When he and Gates Genereux moved from Ontario to Fort McMurray they lit a fire under minor hockey here. They had a passion that had never been seen before.
Without them I don’t even know if I would have made it to Junior A hockey let along professional. There was also Wendell Hodgson my PeeWee coach.
“A player that I looked up to locally was Brett Phillips. He was the first local boy that I know of to make it to Junior hockey. He was a couple of years older than me and he was extremely tough. He showed us that a local boy could make it. There was also Billy McAvoy. He was the first guy that I played with that actually put on an Oil Barons uniform. I thought that was fantastic.”
“I look back now and think, all I had to do was work out hard and not party so much and I could perhaps have had a good career be it in Europe or the AHL. But that is looking back. I have no regrets. I am a hockey player through-and-through. I have played with hundreds of players and it has enriched my life. I have so many memories and good friends. I met my wife through hockey and got my job through hockey. Good, great memories.”
One could not ask for anything more.
Catch you on the rebound.