ATTLEBORO — There are plenty of recent high school graduates out there who don't have a clue as to what their immediate future may hold.
Connor Harrington, who in mid-June received his diploma from St. Raphael Academy, definitely isn't one of them.
On Tuesday morning, the unassuming, modest 18-year-old loaded his belongings into his car and trekked by his lonesome to New Jersey. His wants: Not only to begin his odyssey at Bergen Community College (he plans on becoming a veterinary technician), but also follow his dream of playing junior hockey for the New Jersey Renegades.
He claimed he's not particularly stressed about the drive, or beginning a new chapter in his life. It's easy to see why: The map of his future is laid out before him, due to intense planning, not to mention a bit of good fortune.
He will stay at the Mendham, N.J. home of his father Jim's fiancee – Dr. Randi Case, a renowned animal/human chiropractor – and work with her on some days for a bit of income. He'll also have a short drive to school each morning.
“I'm leaving, and I can't wait!” Harrington grinned while chomping on pizza in his father Jim's kitchen, just off Oak Hill Avenue. “I'm not really nervous because I'll be staying with my new step-mom and her family. She has two boys – Peter, 16, and Sam, 12 – and a daughter, Hannah, who's 14.
“I get along really well with all of them, but especially the youngest,” he added. “Me and Sam are buddies. I get along with everybody pretty well. It's a gift, I guess.”
Harrington also will begin the Renegades' training camp in Flemington on Sunday, and will prepare for a 45- to 50-game regular-season schedule (with tournaments included) that will last from early September to March.
“I'm really excited about that,” he noted. “We'll spend an hour and a half on the ice each day, and another hour and a half doing dry-land drills. We play in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League (considered a mid-level Division III Junior squad), and I can't wait to get going.”
Harrington, the oldest of two boys (Spencer is 14) born to Jim and Laura Harrington (she has since remarried), didn't start playing the game until he was six, considered old for hockey instruction, but his dad always knew his eldest would want to compete.
“His first word wasn't 'Mommy' or 'Daddy,' it was 'hockEEEE!'” Jim Harrington III said with a laugh. “He was eight months old and sitting on my lap; we were watching the 1994 Stanley Cup finals between Vancouver and the New York Rangers. He had always been an active baby, and – during an exciting part of a game – he pointed at the TV and whispered, 'hockEEEE!' That's when I knew.”
His father, Jim Jr., played goalie for St. Raphael back in 1955, and he and Spencer are proud owners of their grandfather's ancient Northland stick, still featuring that sticky electrical tape. Up near the handle is written, “SRA 2, MSC (Mount St. Charles) 1.”
“He gave me his old stick when I was six or seven; it means a lot,” Spencer stated, perusing the stick. “I'll always remember the stories he told us, that when he played for Saints he lost a lot of teeth, because those were the days before goalie masks. He used to stick out the partial plate in his mouth, and we'd laugh.
“We miss him,” he added, mentioning Jim Jr. died of cancer in 2010 at age 73.
Explained Harrington III: “Dad always had a special bond with my boys. He'd come down to Maryland when we were living there, and we'd go to Bruins-Capitals games. If we were up there, we'd go watch the P-Bruins.
“Hockey was always the bond that tied this family together.”
It's always been Connor's goal to play at Boston College, but it didn't happen, as he lacks the size and talent it took to get there; he's only 5-9, 150 pounds, though he's anxious to get to New Jersey and begin lifting weights with his new teammates.
For years now, Connor has represented youth squads from Pawtucket and points north, and later became a four-year defenseman at SRA, the alma mater of his, his dad and grandfather. He indicated he wasn't quite sure whether to play as a senior this past winter because kid brother Spencer was about to begin his freshman year.
Back in October and November, Connor started taking college tours, and actually became quite interested in Seton Hall University, located in West Orange, N.J.
“That was his first choice,” Jim Harrington stated. “He wanted to go into pre-vet, and it had a club hockey program … I just wasn't in the cards.”
Connor explained his father researched where he could play hockey in that area of the Northeast, and happened upon the New Jersey Renegades.
“We explored some options, and we looked at the geography,” Jim offered. “I did some legwork, and we got him a pre-tryout tryout with the Renegades. After the practice session before a playoff game, they were ready to take him. Because Spencer was there, too, I asked the coaches if he could take part.
“As a dad, you never want to leave anything on the table, and I wanted Spencer to have a shot as well,” he continued. “I know Connor is a tremendous player; a disciplined, smart defenseman, and Spencer can play anywhere. We had nothing to lose, putting them both out there.”
When Connor received a contract offer from the Renegades' coaches, one of six new players to do so, he flipped. Seconds later, the head coach, Chris Ceransky, said, “We'd really love to sign your other son, too.
“I totally expected it,” the eldest Harrington said.
Noted Connor: “I think he's going to be better than me, the reason being he's more aggressive, and had the advantage of skating on my under-18 team when he was only 14, meaning he should've only been playing Bantams. He also was the fourth-leading scorer on the team (named the New England College Development League Classics, which skates out of the CDL Arena in Raynham).”
The high school campaign at SRA had yet to start, and the Massachusetts Maple Leafs Juniors head coach Kris Metea had offered Connor a chance to play with them. He politely declined, as he wanted to play one season of interscholastic hockey with Spencer.
“There were a couple of days he was really on the fence,” Harrington III claimed. “I know he was thinking, 'Do I go with the Leafs and improve individually? Or do I play with my brother at Saints and try to win a state championship?'
“He went back to most of his coaches he had over the years and asked them, and, to a man, they all said, 'Play high school! You'll be skating with your brother, and you'll have great memories.”
Stated Connor: “I can honestly say, if it wasn't for Spencer, I would've played with the Leafs. I would've chased my dream of playing Juniors. I'll also say Dad has always been there for us, and I wanted him to have those memories, too. He coached me from a little kid in Mites through high school (age), and also in baseball and lacrosse. He didn't force me to make the decision. I thought I owed it to him.”
In his final campaign, one in which SRA fielded a co-op club with Providence Country Day and Wheeler, Connor finished with six goals and 17 assists; then again, he was playing defense.
More importantly, however, his “plus-minus” – a statistic revealing how many goals are scored by your team and against it when you're on the ice – was a stellar plus-23.
The bad news: The squad finished the regular season at 8-8-2, then suffered a first-round playoff sweep.
“Ironically, we lost two and were bounced (from post-season contention), and the Renegades lost in the national championship game to the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs,” Connor shrugged.
To describe exactly what Junior hockey is in the Northeast region (not Canada, of course), it consists of two divisions (previously three), and D-I is made up mostly of elite players competing for spots on the U.S. Olympic Developmental Team or the U.S. Hockey League, stationed in the Midwest.
“That's it; everything else is D-III, and within D-III, there are certain leagues that are stronger than others,” Harrington III mentioned. “Connor's Junior team is in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League, which is considered middle-of-the-road.
“This year, the Renegades just had their first two players drafted into the NHL,” he added. “They are Matt Beattie, a kid from New Jersey and a Yale student who was taken by the Canucks; and Joakie Ryan, a Cornell student taken by the San Jose Sharks.”
Indicated Connor: “The reason I wanted to do this so badly is I love hockey and always have, but also because every game has a lot of college and pro scouts looking for talent. I'm just going to throw myself out there and see if I get noticed.
“I know I can play with them for two years, and that's awesome,” he continued. “I grew up with it; like Dad said, my first word was 'hockey' … I had tryouts with other Junior teams, like the New Jersey Hitmen, which is in the (more talented) Eastern Junior Hockey League, and that's the best hockey in D-III; then with the Jersey Wildcats.
“I went with the Renegades first because I had the best feeling about them. When we went down in February, I did a pre-tryout tryout with the Hitmen, and I felt isolated; I didn't feel like I was part of the team.
“The next day, I did the same with the Renegades, and I walked into the locker room. They made me feel right at home. It was like being welcomed into the family. Their coaches genuinely cared.
“Then again, if you did something wrong technically, they'd yell at you, and – boy – did they get your attention! But I knew immediately, 'These are the guys I want to play with.' I also got one of my future teammate's cell numbers, and we still keep in touch.”
As for Spencer, he's an official member of the Renegades' Midget squad (under-18).
“I want to represent the Renegades someday, and it's because I kind of idolize my brother,” said Spencer, who spent the summer playing both baseball and hockey, and now hopes to make the SRA varsity football team as a running back and punter. “He's such a good hockey player and technician. I also like the way the coaches run the workouts and the showcase tournament games.”
Still, it's not all about hockey for Connor. To prepare for entering the veterinary field, he worked this summer as a docent at Capron Park Zoo, also in Attleboro.
“I was a volunteer helper who would answer questions visitors had about certain animals,” he smiled. “I walked around with a baby crocodile, and even a Bal python. I did that from February until July, and I liked it.
“And my step-mom brought us to some stables in New Jersey and she taught me how to clean a horse, its shoes, and she explained the physiology of a horse, how she took care of such a huge creature. It was amazing. I saw her actually adjust the hip joints of a former racehorse.
“I've always had a certain passion for animals; I've always loved them,” he added. “I just have a connection with them, and I think that comes from having pets and stuff my whole life.”
He paused, then noted, “Animals are very important to me right now, but not quite as much as getting started in Junior hockey.”