The Brampton Battalion chose 275 players over the course of 15 Ontario Hockey League Priority Selections. Jay Harrison was the first.
Harrison, the first overall pick in 1998, was the first of 32 players the Troops tabbed over 28 rounds in its inaugural Priority Selection. The defenceman from Whitby, Ont., went on to be a key figure on the Battalion blue line for four seasons.
“We knew that first season would be tough,” Harrison said recently via telephone while on the road with the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League. “We had one of the youngest teams ever assembled in the history of the OHL. We had only one overager, a boatload of 17- and 18-year-olds, two underagers in myself and Tyler Hanchuck, and Jason Spezza as an under-underager. We knew there’d be a pretty steep learning curve, but it was a great season despite the wins and losses.”
The Troops managed just eight wins and three ties in 68 games, and Harrison, who contributed 15 points, including one goal, in 63 games, credited Stan Butler, director of hockey operations and head coach, with keeping the team motivated to play every game.
“Stan instilled in us that you can’t always base or judge your performance strictly on the result. All you can do is go out with the intention to compete and do everything you can to give yourself a chance to win.”
Four wins that first season came in six games against the Battalion’s Peel Region rivals, the Mississauga IceDogs, a 1998-99 expansion twin.
“We gave it to them pretty good in that first season,” said Harrison, who was named to the OHL’s All-Rookie team. “Our competitiveness was a reflection of the preparation of the coaches, scouts and management who put the team together. It’s tough to put expansion teams together and hope to be competitive in a league where some teams have been building for three or four years for that time. I remember playing teams like London, Plymouth and Sarnia that were like fine-tuned machines, and we were still trying to find our footing.”
The addition of defenceman Rostislav Klesla in the Canadian Hockey League’s 1999 Import Draft and prospects Jay McClement, Chris Rowan and Paul Flache helped the Battalion build from its first season. The Troops won 11 of their first 14 games in 1999-00 and went on to earn their first playoff berth.
“We had some big things going for us coming into that season,” said Harrison. “Raffi Torres was coming into his own, and Klesla was huge as well. As our ability to compete increased, we became a better, more consistent team. We were really moving in the right direction that season.”
The Battalion met the Erie Otters in a Western Conference quarterfinal, the first of two bitter postseason battles in as many years against the Midwest Division rival, but was ousted in six games.
“I always seemed to play my best when there was an edge to the game,” said Harrison, who had memorable run-ins over his junior career with Erie antagonists Jason Baird, Brad Yeo, Brandon Cullen, Adam Berti and Michael Rupp. “The battles with Erie seemed to bring that out in all of us, Stan included. They had a pretty good team then, and it was unfortunate we had to run into them at that time. They were an extremely well-rounded team.”
Butler made a major deal at the trade deadline the following season, sending Hanchuck, Matt Grennier and goaltender David Chant to the Barrie Colts for netminder Brian Finley. The Troops won 18 of their 28 games following the trade before sweeping the Guelph Storm in a conference quarterfinal. The Battalion faced the Otters in the second round and was eliminated in five games in another hotly contested series.
“You could see what Erie was building there, and we ran into them again,” said Harrison, who won a bronze medal in the first of two appearances for Canada at the World Junior Championship. “For Stan to make that trade to make us even more competitive is a true reflection of how far we had come in three years. It was great to have a chance to win every night, and it was great to sweep Guelph in the first round. We were a really strong team that just came up a bit short.
“The time frame for success in junior hockey is shorter than it is in other sports. When you’re dealing with talented young players who can be taken away from you to the professional ranks, you have to seize the moment and seize the opportunity. It was a great chance for us to do that.”
Harrison, who was chosen by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the third round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, enjoyed the finest offensive season of his OHL career in 2001-02, scoring 12 goals and adding 31 assists for 43 points in 61 games. He won a silver medal with the Canadian junior squad, coached by Butler.
Late-season injuries to 11 players, including overagers Kurt MacSweyn and Aaron van Leusen, and inconsistent goaltending conspired to keep the Battalion out of the playoffs. The Troops haven’t missed the postseason since.
“We took a bit of a step back if you just look at the results, but I don’t look at it as an unsuccessful season,” said Harrison. “It might have been the closest team that I was a part of there. We had some real character guys, like Sebastian Savage and Ryan Bowness, and guys like McClement coming into their own.”
Harrison, who plays with brothers Eric and Jordan Staal with Carolina, got to play junior hockey with his younger brother, Tyler, who was a rookie that season.
“That season was an opportunity for me to play with my brother, and I look back on that with some fond memories, and that’s really special,” said the elder Harrison.
Tyler Harrison contributed six points, including two goals, in 45 games in his first season. He scored 62 goals and added 51 assists for 113 points over the next three seasons before going on to a fine career at York University.
“I’m proud of what he was able to do there,” said Jay. “He’s a late bloomer physically. He’s always been the gifted player in our family. He sees the ice well and has the ability to make the players around him better. I’ve always admired him for that. He’s my best friend, and among the fondest memories I have of my teenage years was getting the chance to play with him.”
The elder Harrison was off to the professional ranks within days of the end of that season, skating in one game with the Memphis RiverKings, a Maple Leafs affiliate in the Central Hockey League. He then played seven playoff games for the St. John’s Maple Leafs, Toronto’s American Hockey League affiliate.
“It was a bit of a whirlwind to tie up my junior career. I didn’t have much time to reflect on it or celebrate it, and I quickly signed a contract and was thrown into the pro ranks very quickly. I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, but that was a great opportunity as a 19-year-old.
“I look back at my junior days fondly. One of the great things for me was the chance to play for Stan, and a lot of things he spoke about and stressed and tried to teach us are still relevant as you get older. I was always grateful for that. It was great to be close to home. I met my wife in Brampton and I still have ties to the city.
“Pro hockey is a job. You have to perform or you’re gone. It’s more of an employee-employer relationship. Junior hockey is a little more innocent, and you miss that.”
Now 30 and with three young daughters, Harrison traveled a long road to become an NHL regular. He played three seasons with St. John’s and three more for the Toronto Marlies when the Maple Leafs relocated their affiliate. Harrison, who got into 20 NHL games with the Maple Leafs over three seasons, played 41 games with Zug of the Swiss League in 2008-09. He signed with Carolina as a free agent in 2009, played 38 games for the club that season and has been a fulltime NHLer ever since.
“There’s no doubt that any player who rides the buses in the minors for any extended period of time wonders what he’s doing,” said Harrison, who has been paired on occasion this season with Bobby Sanguinetti, who manned the Battalion blue line five seasons after Harrison left.
“You wonder if you can keep doing it and, if so, for how much longer. Eventually, that comes when you have other lives that are dependent on you and it’s not just about yourself any more. I had a wife and child at 25, and there are people counting on you in the long term. You start to think about what it’s going to take to provide for them. I realized to endure what I endured in the minors that I must really love the game.
“To go through what I went through, being passed over and injured and the ups and downs of a minor league career, you have to really love it. I decided I owed it to myself to stick with it and, sure enough, I got a break with Carolina. That’s all I can ask for. All I wanted was a chance to succeed. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to get that, but I learned a lot about myself as a player and a person and wouldn’t be who I am without those experiences.”