The last time the Otters selected 12th in the OHL Priority Selection in 1998, they selected Brad Boyes. It was a pick that surprised many league scouts, even though Boyes was an accomplished scorer with the Mississauga Reps and led his team to a championship.
Today, Boyes still holds several team records as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, with an OHL Championship and his No. 16 jersey hanging in the rafters at Tullio Arena. It would be 13 years until the Otters selected in the 12th position of the OHL Priority Selection.
With the 12th selection in May’s OHL Priority Selection, the Otters selected left wing Stephen Harper from the Burlington Eagles. He was a player that the Otters highly coveted in the months leading up to the draft, much like Boyes in 1998.
Working in both the Otters and Harper’s favor going into May’s draft, was perhaps the most wide open OHL Priority Selection in years. After a top three of Aaron Ekblad, Nicholas Ritchie and Darnell Nurse, it was hard to predict who could go where in the rest of the first round.
In the end, the Otters got their man in Harper, a talented prospect who like many top minor midget players in Ontario, found out at Saturday’s Ontario Minor Hockey Association Under-17 Camp about getting drafted into the OHL.
“I found out just before my game day skate at ten o’clock (in the morning),” Harper said. “All of the players were getting text messages and checking their phones. When my name popped up (in the first round), I was shocked. I’m very excited to be drafted.”
The process of scouting Harper began long before the draft for the Otters. Head scout Walt Wingfield observed most of Harper’s home games this season and came away impressed by the power forward. Then Otters General Manager Sherwood Bassin and Assistant Manager of Hockey Operations Dave Brown paid their own visits to Harper’s games in the playoffs, and a visit to Harper’s home all but assured the Otters had found their future star.
“Mr. Brown saw me about four times, including at the (OHL Development) Combine,” Harper said. “When the staff came to my house, that’s when I knew coming to Erie would be a serious possibility.”
Before playing up front, Harper was a defenseman through most of his hockey career. He recently made the switch to left wing, where he has excelled.
Bassin told the media in May that Harper, along with second round selection Jake Evans, were skilled players who work hard, a staple of recent Otters squads. It’s something that Harper can hope will translate into the OHL with the Otters.
“I would consider myself a power forward (that’s) hard to play against,” Harper said. “I like to model my game after (St. Louis Blues forward) Chris Stewart, and hopefully I can put the puck in the net with the Otters, as well.”
Harper was also complementary of some of the players he’s played against who could be his future teammates in Erie, including Evans.
“I played against Jake,” Harper said. “He can get under people’s skin, and he’s got a great skill set. (Fourth round pick) Corey Foster is a big goalie, he can stop the puck very well. (Fifth round pick) Patrick Murphy may have been one of the biggest steals of the draft, he didn’t get as much attention playing for Hill Academy, but he could make (the Otters) this year.”
For Harper, his selection in the first round was the culmination of a lot of hard work and a new chapter of what could be a successful hockey career. A model student who has made honor roll in most of his academic career, Harper is part of a draft class featuring many excellent students. But what sets apart Harper from the rest is that he was selected first by the Otters, and that he was the lone player from the draft class to participate in last weekend’s Team Ontario Under-17 Development Camp in Thunder Bay.
“It’s great to be a first round pick,” Harper said. “Since I was playing for Burlington, I wasn’t known that well. I didn’t mind going under the radar but I’m really happy to be a part of the Otters and I can’t wait to wear the Otters jersey, which is hopefully this year.”