by John D. Hubbard
Late one night early this season a campus safety officer discovered a student skating in Starr Rink. "Get off the ice," the officer ordered. "You've got to be kidding," the student replied.
And so credit Campus Safety with accomplishing what ECAC hockey teams have been trying to do for years - stop Mike Harder '97.
Not many Hobey Baker candidates (hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy, emblematic of the best player in the country) would have been quite so gracious about getting tossed, but then, the captain of this year's Red Raider hockey team is hardly typical.
"Mike is a tremendous kid all the way around, what every Colgate coach or professor would want," says hockey's head coach Don Vaughan. "He's done so much for our program in so many ways. Mike really wants to be involved - on the hill, with the team, away from campus."
In addition to being on a pace (he averages more than 50 points a season) that would make him Colgate's all-time leading scorer, Harder is an ECAC all-star, winner of Colgate's Steve Riggs Memorial Award for gentlemanly play and has assisted on 10 game-winning goals.
Beyond statistics, Harder leads the nation in good deeds done and smiles per game.
"My parents, my mom especially, wanted me to smile. If you're not having fun out there what's the point?" says Harder, who brings the same sense of joy to his relationship with community children. "There are tons of good kids. I just play with them; that's the best way to reach them."
Harder, without fanfare or his coach's knowledge, volunteered to work with Hamilton Central School kids every week.
"This community really does love hockey, so right away we have credibility." Along with teammates Billy Baaki '98 and Dan Bren-zavich '98, Harder meets with students to help with chemistry and social studies. The sessions sometimes begin with recaps of the weekend or evolve into snowmobile discussions and, more often than not, concern "life matters," as Harder puts it.
Kids often knock on Harder's door to ask if Mike can come out and play. Harder is easy to spot in the street hockey games he can't resist. He's the one having the most fun.
Mike Harder grew up in the tiny French community of St. Adolphe in Manitoba, part of a close-knit family where he learned about the benefits of hard work, enjoying life and loyalty. Mike's grandfather worked at the town's rink and the kid was on skates at the age of nine months.
Snow days and Hockey Night
"Grandpa let me on the ice before school," says Harder, grinning with the memory. "Snow days were the best; we were on the ice all day." Eventually, Harder played his junior hockey in Saskatchewan where he was spotted by then Colgate assistant coach Stan Moore, now the head coach at Union.
"Mike had an odd skating stride, kind of hunched over and weebling from side to side," remembers Moore, "but he broke the puck out of the zone so well."
Harder also led the league in scoring and turned down a number of full rides to come to Colgate.
"Everything was so perfect on my recruiting visit. Plus it sounded cool to go to college in New York," says Mike, who wasn't so sure he had made the right decision when he played his first collegiate game.
"The speed was unbelievable. My head was spinning. We played Boston University and I thought I'd never score another goal. Fear of failure caused me to work hard every day."
That first goal came two games later when Harder converted a pass from Chris Deprofio '96. "I held the puck the whole trip home and found a special place in my room to put it."
There have been plenty of goals since. Already this season Harder has 23 points in 14 games during what he describes as a slump. His sophomore season he went 11 games without a goal and still ended up with 23 scores on the year.
"Mike is as dangerous giving the puck up as he is shooting it," says Moore, whose Skating Dutchmen lost 4-1 to Colgate in December. "He involves everyone on the ice and that's dangerous. Mike has such an unbelievable hold and control over the game."
Harder resists the temptations that accompany recognition. "I want to be the hardest working, toughest guy who never gives up, but I'm not that tough. I'm more of an opportunist, a play maker.
"When I work hard I can see the ice better, know what Dave [left winger Debusschere '97] is doing. When I get soft we lose to Dart-mouth 3-2 or something stupid like that.
"We have some talented guys but we have to be the hardest working team. If we're not working, we're done for."
As team captain, setting an example is important to Harder. Before the season opener Mike caught a glimpse of himself in the glass with the captain's C on his sweater. "I couldn't believe it. Honor doesn't begin to describe what it means. You know that picture of Karl Clauss '90 holding up the ECAC championship trophy, that's what I think of as the ultimate in being a captain - it's all about finding a way to win."
Winning for Colgate
Sometimes a game requires more grit than trick, however.
"When Mike goes over the boards he's all business," says Vaughan. "He gets this look in his eye and you know he's not going to let us lose."
Harder had four of Colgate's six overtime shots in last season's win against Harvard and as a sophomore took the second Vermont playoff game into his own hands, scoring on a designed play off of a face-off and then creating another opportunity out of what one long time rink observer calls Harder's "magic."
"Mike wants it," says Vaughan. "He really wants it and he puts a lot of pressure on himself but he's not afraid to be accountable." Harder is so engaging it is sometimes easy to lose sight of his steely determination. His character is as vast as the plains of Manitoba and runs as deep as the rich top soil of the western provinces where he was raised.
His parents have seen Mike play only a few times for Colgate but they remain avid fans. His father listens to the games on TRZ's Teamline over the phone. One time when there was a bad connection he called the press box and got a play-by-play account from a member of the sports information staff.
"My parents might as well fly out here for the amount they spend on the telephone," says Harder.
The rink was the center of activity in St. Adolphe and Starr Rink is the center of Harder's universe at Colgate. He gets on the ice early each morning to skate, sneaks in late at night (when he can dodge campus safety) for extra practice and he writes papers on the computer in the team lounge.
"Academics have given me confidence," says the international relations major. "I know I'm becoming a better person. By better I mean educated. There's a calming sense. I'm taking the right steps."
It is in the locker room where Harder takes the surest steps.
"It's the guys, the friendships, the feeling of belonging. We all have the same goal, striving to be the best. You'd do anything for the guy beside you. We are all so far from home, you really do feel the guy beside you is your brother.
"I love the game. I love everything about it. Being on the road, the time on the buses, in the hotels, the traditions that get passed on. It's just loving the game."
Don Vaughan had a realization last year that shook him awake. Mike Harder had already played more games for Colgate than were left in his career. The senior is aware of the fleeting nature of time as well.
"I just love going to the rink every day, especially now because my days are numbered. It gets the blood flowing."
Before each game Harder pauses behind the net, looking up ice, while his teammates head to the bench. He takes the time to reflect, to think about his parents and the sacrifices they made on his behalf. He uses the ritual to remember those who have cheered the Red Raiders but have passed on. He takes the time to get comfortable, to prepare himself to play a game that will make his parents proud.
Mike Harder has made us all proud.