Harrington and Fellow Gophers Defensemen Help Lead Minnesota Resurgence
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Of the six regular defensemen in the Minnesota lineup this season, Chris Harrington is the only one not drafted.
But that didn't exclude him from Don Lucia's wrath when the Gophers' defensive breakdowns — actually, at times, seeming indifference — caused Minnesota to slip to 7-5-4 after a home sweep at the hands of Wisconsin in early December.
With offensive defenseman Nate Hagemo out since early in the season with a shoulder injury, and with all the wizards buzzing around up front, some of the defensemen got caught trying to do too much.
"Early in the season, it was one of those deals with (me) obviously having the most experience on the blueline, you kind of try to take it upon yourself to do everything back there," Harrington said. "And next thing you know, you're getting in trouble all over the place.
"You have to realize there isn't one guy on the blueline who has to carry it for us. As long as everyone carries their weight, it will be fine."
Harrington said it started to become a point of pride. It also was the focal point of many strenuous practices, with the emphasis on physical play and one-on-one battles — the types of things not exactly ingrained in Minnesota players when they arrive, but necessary to win championships.
"Our unit as a whole had a lot to prove," Harrington said. "Coming into the season the talk was how good our forwards were going to be, and I think part of it was the defense got overlooked. How can it not be when you have such high-profile players on forward? At the beginning of the season, a lot of guys were trying to get their name involved with some of those forwards, and next thing you know there's a lot of problems going on in the defensive zone."
Despite his undrafted status, Harrington has one thing going for him many other guys don't — the experience of his father to draw on. John Harrington was, among other things, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, and is the long-time head coach at Division III St. John's. Harrington said his father tapes the Gopher games and watches them later.
"I'm in the unique position where I get to have coaches on your team, and a person at home who knows as much if not more about the game than anyone else," Harrington said. "I'd be kicking myself if I didn't take advantage of that. ... He's just a pillar that you lean on. ... He's smart enough to know what Coach Lucia is trying to do, so he throws his two cents in and he has great observations."
To start the season, Harrington was playing with Alex Goligoski. Now, he is playing with P.J. Atherton. Whether directly because of the changes or not, everyone is thriving.
"I consider Alex one of the top two or three defensemen in the country," said Harrington. "He's just like a (former Gopher) Paul Martin."
Harrington said teams are so keyed on Goligoski, it has given the likes of Mike Vannelli and Derek Peltier opportunities to score. And Harrington himself got in on the act when he seeing-eye shot found the net for the game winner against CC on Saturday.
"It was fun playing with Alex for a while because you didn't know what would happen," Harrington said. "It was like playing with Keith (Ballard) as a freshman and sophomore. Either way, you knew something weird would happen. With P.J., he's establishing himself as a physical leader."
The defense doesn't have to take a back seat to the offense anymore, though in another sense, it's good that it now does. That offense is so talented, there is enough firepower there without the defensemen needing to worry.
The only question, ever, was whether there was enough pucks to go around. But Harrington said something like that has never been an issue.
"(Early on), every guy was trying to solidify themselves and what they bring to the table. But as the year has progressed, everyone has gotten more comfortable," he said. "You know you'll get opportunities, you don't need to freewheel."
"(Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler) have done a remarkable job composing themselves. For being as high profile as they are, they are the two most down to earth guys you can have on your team."
Harrington is happy not to have to defend them every night. Of course, there's plenty of other talent throughout the WCHA. It can became a mental drain, but Harrington manages to avoid that.
"That's obviously why you play for a team in the WCHA," he said. "It's a huge measuring stick to see where you're at individually and you know you have the same type of players — every other team is thinking the same thing.
"I wouldn't want to be in any other conference because of the constant battles. It's not wearing, it's just the opposite. You have three years of history against each team every weekend. It's more motivating than anything."
With the ship headed in the right direction, now the Gophers face another matter: The pressure of being expected to win this season. Of course, there's always pressure there, but with a team stocked with talent, a lot of whom may not stay too long, this year is an important one.
"In each of my four years it's been different," he said. "The first year, we were thinking it was rebuilding. The second year we thought this is the year. Last year we thought we were rebuilding and still made the Frozen Four.
"This year, (some say) we have to win or it will be broken up — like the Florida Marlins or something. But that's just part of the deal with playing at the University of Minnesota. ... Who knnows who will stay and who will go, but whatever happens, there will be new boat of new players."