Former pro hockey defenseman Harlan Pratt moved to Colorado this summer after being chosen Aspen Youth Hockey's next executive director. All photos submitted by Harlan Pratt
Harlan Pratt has been around hockey for a long time, beginning his playing career in western Canada before spending 18 seasons across eight countries on two continents.
He saw new styles of play and differences in how players were developed at each stop. That vast scope of experience is one of the reasons the 41-year-old former defenseman is confident in his qualifications as the new executive director of Aspen Junior Hockey, a position he officially took earlier this summer.
“I got to see so many styles of play, and so many different coaches and cultures,” Pratt said. “There is really no right or wrong way. There’s so many different avenues that us as coaches can provide for kids. You get to think ‘is Canadian the only way to play? Or USA? Or Scandanavian?’ Everything has a piece that is beneficial for kids.”
Pratt retired from his pro career in 2013 and has since worked in coaching and development, with a recent stint working in administration for the Nashville Predators’ youth program. But he had previously spent time in Colorado and jumped at the opportunity to relocate west.
The Pratt brothers (from left to right: Jasen, Nolan and Harlan) celebrate Nolan winning the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004.
The move from Nashville gave Pratt the chance to live closer to Nolan, one of his two older brothers. Nolan was an NHL defenseman for 11 years, playing a season with the 2000-01 Colorado Avalanche team that won the Stanley Cup and he skated five seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning which included winning the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. Nolan is now an assistant coach with the Avalanche overseeing defensive play and the team’s penalty kill. Harlan’s move also allowed him to return to an area he was already familiar with, as Harlan and Nolan spent offseasons at Nolan’s Denver house to train together. Both enjoyed the area; with Nolan living there despite playing just his one season with the Avs and their time spent in Colorado foreshadowed their future prominent roles in the state’s hockey community.
“I think the fact that I’m here also brings us closer together which is great, but ultimately I think [becoming director] was an opportunity for him to continue doing what he loves to do and grow the game of hockey,” Nolan said of Harlan.
Harlan playing in Germany
Harlan was 27 years old by 2006 and had been playing junior or professional hockey for 12 years across five countries, but he had never seen anything like his home arena for the Augsburger Panther in Bavaria, Germany.
“They only had one wall,” Harlan said. “The other three were open air. That allowed wind and snow and rain to flow into the arena. I remember trying to skate a couple times and there were leaves all over the ice during the fall, and the [Zamboni] would go over and they’d freeze into the ice.”
Harlan doesn’t figure he’ll have to deal with a lack of walls around arenas in his new position with the Aspen Leafs, but he does know that the timing of his hiring amid the COVID-19 pandemic makes for some unique challenges. His priorities are engaging kids and growing the sport as much as possible in the area, no simple task given the current climate.
"We don’t know what can happen a month from now, to six months from now, to tomorrow,” he said. “So I think the challenge this year is just to make sure we can provide the same opportunities that kids had last year, and keep them on the ice and keep them engaged.”
Aspen Junior Hockey began in 1972 and now has boys’ and girls’ teams competing in the Western Colorado Hockey League, the Colorado Girls Hockey League and the Colorado Tier-2 Girls Hockey League. A non-profit organization, the Aspen Leafs are an affiliate member of the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) and USA Hockey. The organization serves approximately 300 youth hockey players in the Roaring Fork Valley. Harlan was preceded as executive director by Shaun Hathaway who is now director of hockey for Team Colorado.
A native of Alberta, Canada, Harlan grew up playing hockey and began his juniors career in 1994. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1997. From there, he was punted around North America — spending time with affiliates of the Carolina Hurricanes, Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders before beginning his European career in Finland for Turun Palloseura.
“It’s such an atmosphere that’s exciting and just energized,” he said. “Playing for a team, and a whole section in the stands is beating drums and chanting for the whole game. They don’t stop — they literally don’t stop. The time you get out there from warm-ups to the end of the game, they chanted and just non-stop energy.”
Harlan is trying to bring that same energy to the Leafs. With a life in hockey, he’s excited to keep making progress in the sport.
“[An] opportunity came up that allows me to keep doing what I’m doing, and then have an opportunity to see my visions come to fruition with the way I feel kids should be developed,” he said. “This just provides this opportunity for me, and it’s a win-win to get out west and continue to be involved.”
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