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Athleticism key to Bolt prospect's transition from soccer to hockey

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

Getting together with friends to play soccer was easy for Brian Hart when he was growing up. The high school fields were basically in his backyard.

There was premier soccer in the spring and summer, then trips to the rink to try to score into a smaller goal during most of the other months for the Cumberland, Maine native.

“It was 50/50,” Hart said with a smile, “until this point.”

Hart now has his sights set on taking the first steps toward a spot in the NHL. The 6 foot 2, 216-pound forward, heading the Harvard in the fall, was picked 53rd overall by the Lightning in the draft June 20 in Pittsburgh.

Lightning Director of Amateur Scouting Al Murray said the team likes his goal-scoring potential on the ice, but his ability on the pitch doesn’t hurt. Hart netted 35 goals in soccer, shattering his own school record set a year earlier (22), and 31 in hockey his senior year at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Hart was named Gatorade State Player of the Year in New Hampshire for soccer.

“The fact that he broke the record for goals by such a wide margin shows that he’s driven to be successful and he really wants to be good at everything he does,” Murray said. “You want athleticism, drive and competitiveness. When you have that it reinforces some of the things you hope about the development of a player.”

You want athleticism, drive and competitiveness. When you have that it reinforces some of the things you hope about the development of a player. - Al Murray

Hart was a midfielder at a younger age, but moved to forward when he got bigger. He said playing soccer for so long has helped him on the ice.

“In soccer you always have to learn to settle the ball, shield off a defender and turn,” Hart said. “That’s been advantage for me as a bigger guy, battling in the corners.”

Murray said Hart is coming from the furthest point of any of the players at the Lightning Development Camp this week. New England prep school hockey has produced some outstanding talent, such as Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick and Bolts prospect Alex Killorn, but the competition on the whole is not equal to Canadian or European juniors and the United States Hockey League.

Hart will face tougher challenges, starting with this week and continuing at the USA Hockey Junior Evaluation Camp in early August. He said once he got on the ice for the first day on Tuesday, he felt comfortable.

“I think this is a great opportunity for him to come in here and take another step in his development process,” Murray said. “This allows him to start to understand the level of player that he’s going to be playing against and competing against for jobs.”

Hart’s journey to the Lightning has already been filled with learning experiences.

During his freshman year at Greely High in Cumberland in 2008-09, he helped his team win the Class B state public school championship in hockey for the first time. He spent his sophomore season at Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., but it wasn’t the right fit for him. He averaged about a goal per game in hockey his three years in prep school hockey, including the last two at Phillips Exeter.

“Three high schools in three years isn’t ideal,” Hart said. “But I still talk to people from all three places.”

Hart decided he would attend Harvard during his junior year.

“I have three cousins who have gone there,” Hart said. “Both my parents went to Bowdoin [Brunswick, Me.], so academics are very important to our family. When the opportunity came along to go at Harvard, I could see myself playing there.”

Hart said the coaching at Phillips Exeter was very skill oriented. His main focus when he arrives at Harvard will be improving his two-way game.

“I want to become more of a complete player,” Hart said.

Hart is a very good straight-line skater for his size. Murray said he will have to improve his quickness to win those races to pucks and get to the net first. He has plenty of time to develop in college, where the Lightning will own his rights until his eligibility is up. He will play with fellow Harvard recruit Jimmy Vesey, picked in the third round by Nashville. The two roomed together at the NHL combine.

The second round was where Hart expected to be picked at the draft, but he didn’t know who would call his name. Toronto and Montreal talked with him, among others. Hart said he preferred the warm weather and he got his wish.

It was quite a fit for Hart, whose grandparents live in Zephyrhills, and have become Lightning fans. Hart has been down to visit almost every year in the spring. He remembers the 2004 trip, going to a playoff game against Montreal and having a blast.

“The atmosphere at the rink was crazy,” Hart said. “The fans were great.”

Hart is now on the road to making those fans cheer for him.

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