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Harper, Pither Thankful for Opportunity

by Al Alven / Philadelphia Flyers
These are exciting, whirlwind-like times for Shane Harper and Luke Pither.

In addition to preparing to lead their respective junior teams into the postseason, both players - undrafted through their amateur careers - were signed to professional contracts, the Flyers announced on March 4.

"It's a validation of sorts," explained Harper, a 5-11, 193-pound right wing for the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League. "It's been a long road, but to finally get to this point, to join the Flyers organization... it's an incredible feeling.

"I was on the team bus heading to Kamloops (British Columbia) when my agent called with the news. I can't even begin to describe my excitement [at that moment]. It still hasn't worn off, and I don't know if it ever will."
Luke Pither is currently the top-line center for the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. (photo courtesy Barrie Colts)

Pither, a 6-0, 195-pound center with the OHL's Barrie Colts, shared similar emotions.

"I was almost like - 'Whoa, this actually happened,'" he explained. "I never heard my name called on draft day, and that's something that always drove me, personally. But, I feel like the journey also helped round me into a better player, a better team guy.

"Things definitely worked out, in that sense. Now I have an opportunity - I'm one step closer to my goal of playing in the NHL."

Both players will be in training camp next season, when their deals officially kick in. At that point, they will be expected to compete for roster spots with the AHL's Adirondack Phantoms.

Different trails

A native of Burketon, Ontario, Pither followed a relatively conventional route to the Ontario Hockey League.

He worked his way through the ranks, catching the attention of scouts along the way. At the midget level, he starred for the Clarington Toros, the team from which he was selected fourth overall by the Kingston Frontenacs at the 2005 OHL draft.

Not surprisingly, Pither was a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs while growing up.

"It was always the Leafs for me, and Mats Sundin was my favorite player," he noted. "I'm sure countless kids growing up around Toronto idolized him, and tried to emulate the things he did on the ice."

Harper was a fan of Sundin's as well, but the Valencia, California native always revered a certain "Great One" the most. When Harper's parents signed him up for his first organized ice hockey league in Van Nuys, he found himself, by chance, on the same team as Wayne Gretzky's son Ty and daughter Paulina.

"Gretzky came out to the practices and, believe it or not, he actually came to my seventh birthday party, after we invited all of my teammates. He brought some great gifts, too. It was unreal.

"The L.A. Kings were my hometown team, and Gretzky, well, it was Wayne Gretzky. You can imagine the impact that had on me, as a seven-year-old."

Harper, who also played baseball and roller hockey as a youth, went on to play locally for the Junior Kings, and eventually at the minor level with the California Wave.

It was as a member of the Wave, a team that traveled through Western Canada, that Harper caught the attention of WHL scouts. 

Late bloomers

Harper joined the Everett Silvertips as a 16-year-old in 2005-06. He appeared in 62 games as a rookie, tallying 10 points (6g, 4a).

"I think I weighed about 155 pounds when I arrived in Everett," he recalled. "I was a short, skinny kid with a lot to learn, and I was in for a real education."

In the years that followed, Harper would display gradual improvement in just about every facet of the game. He gained strength and muscle over time, and along with increased responsibilities and ice time, saw his offensive numbers pick up.

He notched 15 points as a sophomore, 43 in his third year, and 66 in his fourth year, before finally averaging better than a point-per-game this year. He presently leads Everett and ranks 20th in the WHL with 76 points (40g, 36a) in 69 games.

"He is something of a late bloomer," explained Silvertips head coach (and former Flyers assistant coach) Craig Hartsburg. "To look at Shane's development, you really have to look at how he's progressed over his five years at this level. He's always had tremendous puck skills and skating ability.

"But it took him a little while to put it all together. Now, he's an all-around player, very responsible in the defensive end and able to take on any assignment."

For Pither, much was expected from the start of his OHL career. And, admittedly, he had a difficult time dealing with the pressure.

"When I came into the league as a high draft pick, I think some people thought I was going to dominate right away," he said. "That was unrealistic, but I was also very hard on myself. It took me a while to feel comfortable with my role, probably not until my third year, when I was with Guelph."

Pither began his OHL career in Kingston, where he registered 13 points (4g, 9a) in 68 games his first season. He was traded to the Guelph Storm during his sophomore year. In 2008-09, Pither registered 42 points (19g, 23a) in only 23 games after being dealt to the Belleville Bulls. He followed that up with a terrific postseason that saw him tally 19 points (6 g, 13 a) in 17 games. 

After the season, he was traded once again, this time to the Barrie Colts.

"He has been absolutely outstanding for us all year," said Colts head coach Marty Williamson. "He's third in the league in scoring (93 points in 65 games), but as our first line center, he does everything well at both ends of the rink. He might be a bit of late bloomer, if you look at his career path, but he's reached the point where he's definitely a star in this league.

"And I think, certainly, he's ready for the next level."

First things first

Pither is perhaps the main reason that the Colts will enter the OHL playoffs as the favorites to win the league championship. With a record of 55-9-0-2 (112 points), the team has dominated all season.

As Pither reflects not just on this season, but his OHL career, he has no problem putting things in perspective.

"I know exactly where I'm at, personally, and I'm very comfortable and proud with the way things have turned out," he explained. "Sure, I wish I could have had more success early on, maybe. But, like I said, it all worked out.
Originally from Valencia, California, Shane Harper was a big fan of the L.A. Kings and Wayne Gretzky as a child. (photo courtesy Everett Silvertips)

"Signing with the Flyers last week... it's almost given me an extra confidence boost. I am ready to head into the playoffs, and for everything that comes after that. First things, first, though - I'd love to win that OHL championship and have a chance to go on to compete for the Memorial Cup."

Meanwhile, in the WHL, Harper has led the Silvertips to the fifth-best record in the circuit at 44-20-3-2 (93 points); the team looks to enter the postseason as the third seed in the Western Conference bracket.

"I've been here for five years, my entire junior career. That's a long time, but it's gone by so fast. Part of me doesn't want it to end, but it has to. I just want to lead the team in the playoffs and do my best."

Like Pither, Harper can't help but look ahead - if only briefly for now - to turning pro next season.

"I'm so excited about it, but, you know, there is another reason why signing with Philly is so important to me," he said. "My grandmother lives in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. We have gone out to visit her over the years, so I'm actually familiar with the area.

"She was thrilled when I signed with the Flyers, along with the rest of my family. This is a great time for us all."
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