Breath of Fresh Air
Harris' Return Comes After Three-Year Absence
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Imagine how difficult it is to breathe when you have a cold. Now imagine having that last for two years. First you try to ignore it, then you work harder to overcome it, then doctors misdiagnose it. And worst of all, not just your coaches are doubting you, but you are too.
Then try being a still-immature 20-year old trying to handle it all, one that was a highly-touted recruit who had a tremendous freshman year, helping his team pull off a storied NCAA Tournament upset. Now your numbers have tailed off and you are lost.
This was Randy Harris' life, and by the end of his junior year in 2002, with things not really improving, Harris' hockey future seemed non-existent. By "mutual consent," the Niagara coaching staff cut Harris.
That he returned from all that — after not playing for three full seasons — is remarkable. That he scored two goals in his re-debut, and added two assists in his second game, is nothing short of magical.
"I thought it would be a great story for our guys," said Niagara coach Dave Burkholder. "How many people get a second chance in life? He's put himself in great position with his fitness level. Between his fitness test and how he looked in individual skill sessions, he really won his teammates over. He fit in right away."
But it wasn't that easy.
Just after Harris' freshman year — a season in which he scored 13 goals — he started developing respiratory problems. He didn't know what it was. Was it allergies? Was it a cold that would go away? He had never experienced anything like it. He figured he was just out of shape and tried to fight his way through it.
"There's a professionalism that comes along with taking care of your body," says Harris. "So I tried to fight my way through it, and continue to work hard and hope it gets better. But it wasn't getting better and it wasn't until end of the year I went to doctors and said I was having trouble breathing."
At first, they thought it was a form of asthma, and prescribed some medication. But during his junior season, it didn't seem to be working very well. He wasn't in top shape, and still couldn't perform up to freshman year levels. Nobody was sure what to believe.
"I sat down with the coaches, they saw I was having a real hard time," says Harris. "They were curious what was going on. I didn't know what to tell them. I can't breathe, I'm having trouble sleeping, having trouble eating. ... I wasn't good at that time expressing myself with a lot of maturity. I was more of a kid than a man. And I was struggling to figure out what the heck was going on."
His frustration was manifesting itself poorly. And because he couldn't understand it all, or process it, the coaches were mainly in the dark. Harris was cut.
"My favorite thing to do is play hockey. But my sophomore and junior years were so bad physically and mentally, not just at the game but away from the game, I found myself questioning my love for the game because it had become so difficult," says Harris. "It was a combination of the two. [It was] the worst thing in the world, but at the same time, I was a little bit relieved.
"At first there were [hard feelings] but I think I had a pretty good perspective on it and the situation surrounding it. It wasn't like I was doing real well and it was just a misunderstanding. Things were really going bad in all areas. I wasn't performing well, and I was a pretty immature kid at the time. I was getting frustrated and it was showing."
It wasn't until after his release from the team that doctors finally concluded Harris needed an operation to clear up inflamed and damaged nasal passages. Essentially a severely deviated septum. The surgery — a septoplasty — was performed in winter of Harris' senior year.
He continued to go to school, and graduated Niagara in the spring of 2003. By then, his medical condition had improved dramatically, but for a guy who once played prep hockey with three former NCAA champions — Ben Eaves, Max Bull and Ryan Caldwell — Harris' hockey career seemed over prematurely. A native of nearby Grand Island, he took a job in the area, and did some youth hockey coaching on the side, got engaged. It was the life of a typical 23-year old, just graduated from college.
"I was all set to grow old that way," says Harris. "Playing around on the ice a little bit, I started feeling so much better physically. I couldn't breath for a long time, and I could finally breath again. It's nothing you can describe to anybody who hasn't gone through it. It really started stirring up those feelings as a kid playing hockey."
Last winter, Niagara had a ceremony commemorating the team's landmark NCAA Tournament win over New Hampshire in 2000, when Harris was a freshman. Harris, who never had any lasting hard feelings towards the Niagara coaching staff, started talking to Burkholder and assistant Jerry Forton about returning.
"We were kibitzing and hanging out with some of the older players, and he mentioned to Jerry Forton — we were talking about his 13 goals — (Forton) said. 'How would you like to have those back?'" says Burkholder. "He ended up pursuing it and called us on Monday to say he was going to grad school, and would petition the NCAA to get medical hardship and get his year back. And I said, 'If you get all that, come and see us.'"
Burkholder told him that Harris could wind up being anywhere from first power play, to the video coach. Harris didn't care. The road back was filled with the typical amount of bureaucratic red tape. He needed the NCAA to declare him a medical hardship case. He also needed to earn his way into Niagara's graduate program.
"It was pins and needles waiting for the NCAA, waiting to see if they would grant me eligibility," Harris says. "Each step was a huge wall to climb, then you get over and see there's a bigger wall."
The good news came through. Now Harris had three months to get in shape.
"I knew I could still skate, but it was different putting all the equipment on and having to do it," Harris says. He got the help of some key people in the area, though, who gave him ice time and helped him with workouts. They included Dave Smith, a one-time strength and conditioning coach with the New York Rangers, whose brother Barry is an assistant coach for the Phoenix Coyotes. "I tried to be like a sponge with him.
"I was out there with 10-11-12 year old kids. Full equipment. I had to re-learn how to skate backwards. I couldn't turn to the left. I couldn't stop on one side.
"Little by little, I made these advances. And by the time I got to training camp, it was great preparation. My summer was like most college hockey players' winters are. I had so far to catch up. I wasn't ahead of anybody, but I wasn't behind."
By the time camp hit, Burkholder was pretty convinced Harris could be in the mix.
Stepping out onto the ice at Dwyer Arena for the season's opener was like floating on clouds.
"I was as nervous then as I'd have ever been," Harris says. "The first couple shifts, I don't think I felt my feet on the ice. I was trying to be as accountable as I could be. I was right in front, got the puck, held on, made the shot and got drilled pretty good. But I got up."
Not to be outdone by the sheer fact that he'd returned at all, Harris opened the second period by coming out from behind the net and sliding a shot past Clarkson goaltender David Leggio. The return was complete.
"I took time with it, walked to the front of the net, and got tripped a little bit (as I shot)," Harris says. "Everybody was cheering, my teammates came over to me. It was a pretty special feeling. It reinforced what I knew already — that I could play at this level."