Catching Up With ... Tyler Harlton
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
As you might expect, Tyler Harlton's college career was filled with highlights and disappointments. But the environment he found at Michigan State, he knows, is something that may never be recaptured.
And when Harlton looks around pro hockey, he sees many of his old friends enjoying great success. He uses that as inspiration to improve his own game.
"It's exciting to see these guys," Harlton says, running down a list of his former teammates who now grace professional rosters. "[Recently] I played against Mike Watt after he was sent down from the Islanders [to Lowell]. We were roommates for three years. You see the highlights — [Mike] York is lighting it up, Anson Carter, Steve Guolla is getting a chance ... It's pretty exciting, and it gives you hope, too, because you know you were at their level. These are some of my best friends in hockey."
These are also the players with which Harlton made four trips to the NCAAs, with various CCHA regular-season and postseason highlights mixed in.
Now, in his second year as a pro, Harlton is looking for that same success.
On the team level, that has yet to come. Playing for St. John's of the American Hockey League has been a test in perseverance, because although his team's parent club, the Toronto Maple Leafs, has one of the best records in the National Hockey League, the baby Leafs have the AHL's worst.
On a personal level, there has been progress despite a winding road. Harlton was originally selected by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round of the 1994 NHL entry draft. He signed with the Blues after college, and spent most of the 1998-99 season with their AHL affiliate in Worcester, but ended the season down in the East Coast Hockey League with Peoria.
That would be a death sentence to some players, but not Harlton, who started the 1999-2000 season with Peoria, then was called up to Worcester and traded to the Leafs.
"It was actually good to go to Peoria. I got lots of playing time," he says. "It's good to get your confidence.
"When I got called up [this year], I thought it was for just a couple days. I packed a couple outfits and that was it. I was in Worcester a week and a half, then was traded. I met the Maple Leafs on the road."
It's only been in the last couple of weeks that Harlton has settled in with his new team. He hopes this is his last stop before the NHL, but he's patient.
"I'm still positive," says Harlton. "Most defensemen who make the NHL who aren't skill players are guys who put in their time in the AHL. As long as I feel I'm improving, I keep a good outlook."
Harlton, a pure blueliner good enough to win CCHA honors as Best Defensive Defenseman twice, was never a goal-scorer — his career high in college was two, in his junior year. He had two last year for Worcester, and currently has three assists and no goals in 25 AHL games this season.
At 6-3, 210 pounds, Harlton is asked to play the role of stay-at-home defender, and he has done a respectable job, tallying a plus/minus rating of -3 for a last-place team. With just 31 penalty minutes in 22 games, one thing Harlton hasn't been called on to do much is fight, but he knows it's an aspect he has to be ready for.
"For me to get playing time, I need to be physical and aggressive," he says. "In the AHL there's a lot more of an intimidation factor than college. There's certain teams where we play them 12 times a year, whereas in college, it's only a couple times. You have to make a point of playing tough and intimidating so they're more wary of coming into your building the next time."
Of course, he participated in his share of intense CCHA battles, especially with the likes of rivals Michigan and Ohio State.
"The thing with those [college] games, say for a league title, is that it's a one-game shot. You can't go out there and run some guy and take his head off because if they score on that power play, the game could be shot."
The thing he misses about those battles, however, is the intense rivalries that went along with them. In a short college season, it's hard not to get up for those games.
"Those were the games we'd look forward to," says Harlton. "The games in Joe Louis Arena for Christmas where you'd fill the rink, and it was half and half [fans of both teams], both bands playing. It's definitely what you played for. Here, there's some nights where you play four [games] in five [days] and you're not playing in front of a lot of people. It's hard to pick yourself up. The college crowd brings a lot of enthusiasm with it."
At least he never has to hear the Michigan fight song anymore.
"I hate that song," Harlton agrees.
Harlton, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan, came to college to develop his skills. When he was 16, he wasn't as big and he wasn't as skilled as some other players.
"I wasn't a star player and I felt I needed some time to develop," Harlton says. "It was a perfect situation because I'm not a terribly skilled player. It seems to me, with juniors, if you don't pan out in a couple of years, you're done, whereas in college, there's four years to develop."
Developing was made a lot easier, Harlton says, by the man who was there to guide him: longtime Spartan mentor Ron Mason.
"He's an excellent teacher, and learner as well," says Harlton. "It's a different group every year, and he took those players and found their strengths and turned them into the best team. What sets him apart is, even though he's coached so many years, he's still learning and he's willing to change his ways."
Typical of his team-first mentality, Harlton says his best collegiate memories have nothing to do with individual accomplishments.
"When we won the GLI [Great Lakes Invitational] against Michigan [in 1997], or when we clinched the regular-season title versus Lake State ... Those nights were very rewarding."
Nevertheless, there is a lingering disappointment in the national championship that never was. Harlton anchored a sensational defensive corps, but despite some highly-successful regular seasons, the Spartans have not been able to win a national title since 1986.
Still, the disappointment hardly detracts from the good times Harlton enjoyed. And he refuses to allow anyone to say his Spartans ever choked.
"It's difficult where it's just a one-game shot," Harlton says. "I don't think you can put a finger on it. I thought my last year we had the most success. That was the year we stuck to our game plan. We had a great defense and we carried that pretty far."
"It was awful and disappointing losing to Ohio State," adds Harlton of the Spartans' 4-3 overtime defeat in the 1998 NCAA West Regionals, "but I don't think as a team we would've done anything differently.
"My measuring stick is, 'Would we have done anything differently that year?' And I don't think so."