On Tuesday, he signed a three-year extension with the Carolina Hurricanes, which locks him in through the 2015-16 season.
The new contract, which will pay the 29-year-old defenseman $1.5 million per year beginning in 2013, provides stability, a rather new sensation for a player that didn’t experience a full NHL season until age 27.
“It’s still kind of sinking in. Old habits die hard,” he said from his summer home in Ontario. “I’ve lived in a hockey survival mode, so to speak, for several years. We’ve had a lot of summers where we weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
After signing a two-year contract last summer, this July was the first since he had signed his entry-level contract that he didn’t have to make a decision about where he would play next.
“And now having signed this, we have a few more summers of that as well,” he said. “It’s definitely a welcome feeling.”
A feeling that didn’t come easily or quickly. After being drafted 82nd overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Harrison scraped his way through juniors and the American Hockey League. He made his NHL debut with Toronto on Jan. 28, 2006, under head coach Paul Maurice.
The following season, he again split time between the Maple Leafs and the Marlies (AHL), seeing only five games with the big club.
In 2007-08, Harrison spent the entire season with the Marlies, ranking second among team defensemen in scoring with 27 points (13g, 14a) in 69 games. In the Calder Cup Playoffs, he led Marlies defensemen in scoring with 12 points and ranked second overall on the team in assists (10), as the team advanced to the Conference Finals.
“I look at my time in the minors as a quality experience that shaped a lot of the characteristics of me as a player and a man,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without those experiences and what I learned going through the toil and hard work that it took to rise from that level to where I am now.”
That summer, feeling like his career wasn’t advancing at the proper pace, Harrison made what he called “a very pivotal decision” in leaving to play in Europe.
“You kind of feel like you’re cashing out on your dream and giving up on your hopes,” he said. “Often times it’s very difficult to return back once you’ve left.”
Married and caring for a daughter still not a year old, Harrison and his family packed up and left for Switzerland.
“We took the mindset that this was going to be our little European adventure, take it as it comes and enjoy every minute of it,” he said. “I had a great opportunity to go play for a coach that I knew and some players I knew in a wonderful country that led to some fantastic life experiences that I’ll never forget. I got to live a day-to-day life in Switzerland and tour Europe a little bit.”
As it turned out, the decision to leave behind professional hockey in North America was a difficult one, but one that ultimately proved beneficial to Harrison’s career. The Oshawa, Ontario native said his time on the international-size rink, which is 15 feet wider than its North American counterpart, forced him to handle and skate with the puck more than he was used to.
“Playing there on a regular basis and getting comfortable there allowed my poise with the puck and confidence in myself to develop a little more,” he said.
After Zug’s season ended in March of 2009, Harrison made the perhaps unlikely journey back to North America, signing again with the Toronto Maple Leafs and playing in seven games.
Another summer of uncertainty followed. Carolina came calling.
“I was looking for an opportunity to play, and Mr. Rutherford was very forthright saying, ‘If you come in and play well, there will be an opportunity to play here.’ I was comfortable with that,” he said. “All I was looking for was a chance, and Carolina had the best chance out there, and I was more than happy to give it a go.”
He again split the season between the NHL and AHL, playing in 38 games with Carolina and 32 games with Albany.
Then, yet another summer of uncertainty. Again, Carolina came calling, signing Harrison to another year-long contract.
The 2010-11 season proved to be a turning point, as Harrison completed his first full NHL season, playing in 72 games for the Hurricanes.
“That’s the biggest step that I look back on,” he said. “When you’re up and down, you feel as though your mistakes are magnified, and there’s a lot of pressure to play a clean game without any errors because there’s such a mindset that you’ll be sent back real quickly.
“It look a little while to overcome those survival instincts that I’ve had since I started as a pro to get to the level that you have an amount of self-confidence and ability to go out there when, even if a mistake happens or a bad shift happens, you know that the opportunity to get back out there and redeem yourself is going to be there.”
Harrison set then-career highs in games played (72), goals (3), assists (7) and points (10). He parlayed that into a two-year contract with Carolina and built on his success with a personal breakout performance last season.
Harrison again played in 72 games in 2011-12 and recorded new career highs in goals (9), assists (14) and points (23). He ranked first among team defensemen in goals and second among team defensemen in points. Harrison averaged 20:33 ice time per game, an increase of over five minutes from the previous season. He also saw time on the power play, averaging 1:20 per game on the man advantage compared to just seven seconds per game the year prior.
“I felt I really did myself proud and perhaps proved to some people as well that my game is maybe a little more rounded that I’ve been given credit for in previous years,” he said. “It was a confidence-building thing.”
Now, the Hurricanes’ confidence in Harrison is high. They rewarded him with a three-year contract extension on Tuesday, a day that Harrison and President and General Manager Jim Rutherford were on opposite sides of the collective bargaining negotiating table.
Stability, Harrison said, is a good feeling.
“The what-ifs start fading a little bit,” he said. “You’re allowed to focus and streamline your goals and where you see yourself going. There aren’t as many different variables.
“Now, I know where I’m going to be, I know where I fit in on this hockey club and I know how I can contribute,” he said. “My family is comfortable and loves Raleigh, and we know this is going to be our second home for hopefully many years to come.”
With his extension, Harrison joins the core group of Tuomo Ruutu, Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Tim Gleason and Cam Ward as players who are signed through 2015-16.
He might have taken the scenic route, but Harrison has finally found his home. Rutherford and head coach Kirk Muller certainly think so.
“They just stressed, ‘Make sure you come back and play with that confidence because we believe in you so you certainly should believe in you,’” Harrison recalled of his end-of-year meetings. “That meant a lot. It has a calming effect, and a player will always play his best when he is relaxed and comfortable. That is certainly the feeling I’m trying to project and promote, and I’m really looking forward to getting at it, that’s for sure.”