Meet Jay Harrison, the NHL’s brainiest blueliner

Ken Campbell
Jay Harrison

There are a couple reasons why Jay Harrison has never had his IQ tested. First, he thinks the process is inherently biased. Someone from an aboriginal culture might have a lot of wisdom and knowledge, but doesn’t know how to do trigonometry. Does that make him less intelligent? Secondly, he thinks of himself as more hardworking than intelligent. But when he ends a conversation, he’s the kind of person who will say, “Be well.” How many hockey players would say something like that?

The way Harrison sees it, using language properly is just a function of being aware. Somewhere along the line, a teacher made him aware that Superman does good and he’s doing well, and it stuck with him.

“Ignorance is bliss until someone points it out, right?” Harrison says. “Then it’s not so blissful anymore. I like to pay attention to details and sometimes I’m a little more qualitative than quantitative.”

In case you haven’t guessed, Harrison is selling himself a little short. A defenseman with the Carolina Hurricanes, he’s easily one of the deepest thinkers in the game today and intelligent and hardworking enough to earn a degree in psychology from Athabasca University in the summer. He’s self-taught on guitar, violin and piano. And most of all, he was smart enough to realize that after eight years of playing in the minors and Europe he was good enough to be a regular in the NHL. All it took were a few adjustments. The talent that made him the first overall choice in the 1998 Ontario League draft made him basically an average player in the NHL. And that meant he had to have a little more meat and potatoes in his game, a lot more defensive awareness and an injection of toughness.

The result is a solid, but unspectacular presence on the blueline. And in the first year of a three-year deal worth $4.5 million, he has an NHL paycheque for the foreseeable future. All of that is great, but you get the sense Harrison doesn’t define himself solely by his profession. There seems to be a higher calling there – hence the decision to pursue psychology. Harrison isn’t sure where it will take him, but he’s really interested in family counselling, developmental psychology and the unique dynamics that go into family relationships. With three young daughters, Harrison is applying that to his life every day.

And he has some pretty good real-life experience to give him perspective. He has taken the scenic route to the NHL, spending three years in Newfoundland with the Toronto Maple Leafs’ farm team, then going for a one-year adventure in Switzerland before finding his way back to the NHL.

“All of it has enriched the education experience because I’ve lived it,” Harrison says. “So I see when my daughter says something to me, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s the (text)book alive.’ I can see it.”

As far as the circuitous route he has taken to get to the NHL, Harrison, 31, has a good perspective on that, too. A lot of guys who spend that much time in the minors think they’ve been getting screwed and are being miscast or not appreciated. Harrison never felt that way. He knew his game needed work and he continued to get better each year. For a young man with so much intelligence, he had a habit of making questionable on-ice decisions early in his career, to the point where there was serious doubt whether he would ever reach his potential as an NHLer.

But once Harrison realized sometimes less is more, his game became much simpler and he began having more success. It also didn’t hurt that he became more willing to drop his gloves and engage in a more physical style.

Part of that evolution has been finding and fitting into an organization that believes in him, which has happened in Carolina.

“I needed to evolve as a player and I needed to be comfortable in my own skin and get some self-respect before I gained respect around the league,” Harrison says. “I don’t beat myself up over too many decisions I’ve made at 21, especially as it pertains to hockey.”

Then there’s the music. Harrison began playing guitar at a young age and though he’s never been paid to play, “I think I’ve had maybe a few bar tabs or something.” Along the way, Harrison also picked up the piano and during his youth and in his three years with the St. John’s Maple Leafs, used his off-ice time in an attempt to perfect playing the violin, East Coast style. Now he shares the gift of music with his daughters. Perhaps he had far more time to learn the instrument in Newfoundland than he intended, but it was all part of the growth process for him.

“I can show her a little bit and pass on that passion and expression,” Harrison says of playing with his six-year-old daughter. “It’s really a form of communication for me and it’s one of the most basic and fundamental forms of human expression, regardless of language and culture. With folk music, it’s a very primitive form of music that doesn’t require an intense intellect to understand what’s on the sheet of paper, but it’s an expressive type of music and requires feeling and passion and a lot of things you hear in the song aren’t actually written on the page.”

Last season, Harrison appeared on a Raleigh classic rock radio station and proved to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every genre of music, from new wave to grunge to folk. His playlist includes everything from Joy Division to Arcade Fire to something called Tool, which recorded a song called Stinkfist on an album entitled Aenema. He waxed poetic about each of them, but related almost all of them back to his connection to them through playing them on his guitar.

Harrison’s all-time favorite is Guns N’ Roses, saying it was the iconic rock group that inspired him to begin playing guitar. He loves all the band’s work, even Chinese Democracy, an album that might have had the longest gestation of any in history and failed to live up to the hype. The critics were lukewarm about it, many calling it a multi-million dollar dud.

“The hype was that it was going to be the best record of all-time,” Harrison says. “Imagine facing that down and (front man Axl Rose) still put it out and I give him a lot of credit for that. He said, ‘This is what I’ve done and I’m proud of it. This is my record.’ That was ballsy.”

Living up to the hype is something Jay Harrison has a certain familiarity with. Like Axl Rose, he faced it down and here he is. And he’s all right with that.

This feature originally appeared in the World Junior Preview edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.