From top prospect to top P.E. teacher: Jeff Harding opens up about life journey after horrific injury

In January of 1989 rookie right winger Jeff Harding was partaking in a three-on-two drill at the Coliseum, the Philadelphia Flyers’ old practice rink. Harding, a power forward by trade, received the puck out wide and began to skate down the wing with it. Defenseman Kjell Samuelsson was in Harding’s way, and Harding tried to skate around him and still control the puck.

Samuelsson did his duties as a defenseman on the drill. He stopped Harding from skating towards the net. But, he did so by taking Harding’s feet out. Harding therefore lost control of his skates and slid into the boards knees-first.

Getting up, Harding knew that it was a big collision with the boards, but he tried to just shake it off. The players were telling him to just skate it off, and that’s what Harding did. From behind him, he heard teammate Mike Bullard say, “Hards, you got some red stuff coming down the back of your leg.”

Harding was cut from his collision with the boards. After inspecting it, he went into the team room to get it checked out by the medical team. He took off his skates, shin guards, and socks.

The laceration was more than just a cut. His patella bone, also known as the kneecap, was sticking out of his leg.

He had suffered a compound fracture of his patella bone and tore his ACL and MCL. He was rushed the hospital, and on the way, he blacked out.

Harding grew up in Toronto, Canada and learned how to figure skate from his mother who was a figure skating instructor. It wasn’t until he was around nine years old that he decided to make the switch from wearing tights and figure skates to hockey pants and skates. His figure skating background gave him the foundation he needed to become a good hockey player.

“If it wasn’t for the figure skating,” Harding said, “I probably wouldn’t have been as good of a skater as I was.”

That power skating eventually led to his Junior B start with the Henry Carr Crusaders in 1985 and then to the St. Michael’s Buzzers in 1986. In 45 Junior B games, he scored 54 points. This scoring pace made many teams aware of him, as scouts from NHL, college, and Major Junior teams were sent to find a pulse on who Jeff Harding really was as a player.

The Philadelphia Flyers were one of those teams that sent scouts to his games.

“I knew there were Flyers people there, geez, since I was either in Bantam or Midget,” Harding said.

But it wasn’t just the Flyers that were interested in him; the Calgary Flames were, too. In fact, the day before the Draft, Calgary set Harding up with their team psychologists for a psychological evaluation, something that the Flames did with all their potential prospects. Needless to say, Harding was a hot commodity among NHL teams.

Even though the Flyers never made official contact with him, they were looking for someone who could play in a similar style to Tim Kerr and Scott Mellanby. Harding was a power forward, and he played against tough competition in Junior B. That’s what the Flyers wanted.

The 1987 NHL Entry Draft was held at Joe Louis Arena on June 13. Harding knew he was going to be a first or second round pick, based on where the rankings were showing him, so he made the short trip to Detroit with his family to attend the Draft. And in the second round with the 30th overall pick, the Flyers chose Jeff Harding.

Before Harding would go pro and sign his first NHL contract, he went to Michigan State and played for a season under US Hockey Hall of Famer Ron Mason. Mason won 924 collegiate games, which was the most ever won by an NCAA hockey coach until Jerry York won his 925th game in 2012. With many NHL players and Olympians under his name, it was no surprise that he was a major factor in Harding’s decision to join Michigan State. Harding said, “At that time, it was between MSU and [University of Michigan]. I just really loved Ron Mason, and I loved what that program was all about.”

“I think he really had his pulse on the type of person you were,” Harding continued. “Some guys need a kick in the ass, some guys need motivation, and some you can kind of tell them and they can figure it out as they get going and you can re-visit certain issues with them. What I really liked about him was that he didn’t micromanage his team. He had a really good idea about his guys, and I think it allowed for a really great program.”

In his freshman season, Harding scored 27 points in 43 games. However, it was there that he really started to come into his own as a gritty player, recording 129 penalty minutes – which is the third-most all-time in a single season in MSU history. Harding went from recording 30 penalty minutes with Henry Carr in 1985-86, to 97 minutes with St. Michael’s the next season, to 129 minutes with MSU in 1987-88. It was quite a change, and it was evident of a player trying to make a name for himself. If you look his name up on YouTube, most of the videos are his fights in hockey.

When he was playing with the Hershey Bears the next season, he got into a fight with a little-known enforcer at the time, Rob Ray. Obviously, Ray would go down as one of the most feared fighters in NHL history, but he was far from that when Harding fought him.

There was one issue about this fight: it was before the puck was dropped. Harding and Ray were both thrown out of the game. This was a problem for a few people in the stands.

“It was kind of funny,” Harding said, “My parents came to that game! They drove all the way from Toronto.”

With the Flyers, Harding got into a fight with Richard Zemlak of the Pittsburgh Penguins in his second career game. It was during a line brawl, and tensions were high. So, after the fight, what did Harding do? He pushed the linesman, got thrown out of the game, and had to pay a fine. He didn’t have to pay it though. Bobby Clarke did.

“Clarkie called me and said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, I’ll cover the fine. Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

The Flyers were a product of the NHL at the time. It was a gritty league, and Harding tried to show the Flyers what he could provide. With long arms and good stamina, he was a good fighter. He always needed a purpose to fight, whether that was sticking up for a teammate or changing the tempo of the game. Although he did it for pride, he didn’t want to, as Harding put it, be a ‘meathead’, or fight just to fight. However, he feels that he pigeonholed himself into a fighting role a little bit by fighting so much early in his career, but said, “It’s not something you would ever want to back down from, because that would affect your future.”

Harding only spent one season in college before he signed a three-year contract with the Flyers. And while it was something that he might’ve thought more about nowadays, it turned out to be a great deal for himself. His parents pushed for the Flyers to include an educational clause in his contract, and with Tim Kerr injured and Scott Mellanby out because of a bar fight, the Flyers didn’t have much of a pull in the negotiations.

“Getting a guaranteed contract with an educational clause was really unheard of,” Harding said. “They wanted to make sure that in my contract, no matter what, if I got traded, if I got injured, that the Flyers would pay for my education until 1999, no ifs, ands, or buts. I could go to any school in the United States. Room, board, everything, and they would cover that. And so they put that in there probably thinking, ‘Okay, this guy is going to do fine, he’ll never go back to college.’”

Harding is extremely grateful for his parents’ pushing to include this clause in his contract. “So many of my friends now, they struggle because they don’t have an education. And at the end of the day, you have to have that foundation.”

A few days after Harding’s sixth NHL game, his knee injury occurred at practice. It was the moment that would mark the beginning of the end for Harding as a professional hockey player.

After blacking out, he woke up with a pin in his knee, over 50 stitches, and a cast that put his knee in a “position that wasn’t straight”. It took Harding over a year to get back on skates. When his cast finally came off, Pat Croce, who was running his physical therapy facility at the time, told Harding, “Hards, I’m gonna get you walking in two or three days.”

“There’s no freakin’ way,” Harding responded.

From the cast, Harding’s leg was locked into the weird position it held him in. In no time, Croce helped Harding get back to walking without the cast. But, through it all, it was the most painful thing he had ever had to work with. He took loads of morphine to help ease the pain, which even gave him an understanding of drug addictions that many people have.

The injury destroyed his season, but his teammates proved to be huge helps to him. Players like Brian Propp and Jay Wells took him places he needed to go and helped him manage himself. But, Harding tried his best to do things on his own. After all, he didn’t want anyone to believe he was injury-prone.

On a three-year contract, it was going to be hard to work back from the injury in the short time that was remaining on his deal. He wanted to stay with the Flyers past the expiration of the contract, but it was going to be an uphill battle.

The next season, he played in nine games with the Flyers and six with the Bears but struggled to return to the same player he was before the injury. He broke his hand in a fight and missed time due to that, and then another stroke of terrible luck hit Harding before a game in Long Island. The team was meeting in a Cherry Hill hotel to take a bus to the game, and on his way to the hotel he developed a fever and started sweating. He passed out in the lobby and was sent to the University of Penn Hospital. The doctors were baffled and did a spinal tap to find out the problem. It was then that Harding found out he had meningitis.

“Here I am, coming back after a major injury, and I couldn’t get a break anywhere,” Harding said. “I had a fight when I was in Hershey, elbow pad came off, cut my elbow, and then my entire arm got infected from hitting the ice. That three-year span was really, really challenging, but Clarkie gave me another shot.”

After playing with the Cape Breton Oilers and Fort Wayne Komets for a combined 15 games in his final year under contract with the Flyers, Harding was a free agent. When Clarke became general manager of the Minnesota North Stars, he gave Harding another chance. “Clarkie ended up going to Minnesota, so I signed there as a free agent, and then he wanted me to prove myself in Kalamazoo.”

Clarke wanted Harding to fight as much as possible to make his way back to the NHL, and Harding did just that with the Kalamazoo Wings, recording 63 penalty minutes in only six games. Harding thought that he had more to offer than just fighting, so he talked to his agent and asked him to find another opportunity to make his way back to the NHL. After signing 25-game tryout contracts with some teams, the realization that he was not going to get back to the top began to hit Harding.

“I’m not going to spend a career in the minors,” Harding said. “That’s one thing my parents never wanted. I never wanted that with my wife.” He added, “That’s not something from a longevity standpoint that’s going to be the best thing for your family.”

Remember that education clause? Harding knew that he could go back to school whenever he wanted. So, in 1992, he retired from hockey to pursue an education from Temple University for his undergraduate degree and Wilkes University for his graduate degree in kinesiology.

When Harding went to the Flyers for his reimbursement, they denied him.

The Flyers had a different administration than when he signed his contract, and today, Harding understands why he was denied the reimbursement. In fact, he had a feeling the organization would do that. So, he hired a lawyer and had to sue the Flyers for the money. They settled, Harding won, and as he says, “…the rest is kind of history.”

One of the most under-talked about subjects in sports is the difficult transition athletes have to make following retirement. All of a sudden the talent that made them stars isn’t able to be used anymore. Even though some go into broadcast or management roles with teams, many have to transition into normal lives, and that can be a challenging time psychologically.

It was a brutal time for Harding. After being so highly-touted, his career was over. Talking about the post-career transition, Harding said, “There are a lot of emotions that I think a lot of people don’t truly understand, you know, from a depression standpoint. You just don’t know what’s gonna happen. You’re just moving into uncharted waters.”

“It’s not as easy as just stopping and picking up another career,” he added.

Today, there are a lot of platforms set up for athletes to help transition them to a post-playing life, and they start at the beginning of their careers. From money management classes to being aware of what kinds of relationships they want, athletes are able to prepare from the very beginning. Back when Harding was playing, there weren’t many platforms set up like that. It was his parents who helped him with a lot.

Harding has friends today who are struggling coaches. Even when it isn’t exactly their fault, they might get fired and become unemployed while having a family to support. How do they send their kids to college? How can the family survive after losing possibly over half their income? These are questions that are extremely difficult to answer, but they can be avoided through furthering expansions of programs that help athletes make smarter decisions.

Harding’s wife had to be okay with whatever career path he chose as well. At this point, it wasn’t just about what was best for Harding, it was also about what was best for his family. He was never a great student in high school, so when he went back to college, he had to learn everything “all over again.”

Again, he thanked his parents for pushing for that stipulation in his contract.

When Harding graduated, he was at the top of his class. To him, education has nothing to do with intellect, but everything to do with one’s determination, motivation, and work ethic. The kid who had to learn everything all over again earned his class ranking by working hard and staying motivated.

In 1995, Harding was hired by Central Bucks High School East as the physical education teacher, a position he holds to this day. Located in Doylestown, PA, it is one of three schools located in the Central Bucks School District, the others being Central Bucks West and Central Bucks South. With a completely different career, Harding had to make an adjustment.

Commenting on that, he said, “Playing hockey, you’re thinking performance, you’re thinking results. It’s immediate. You want to have an immediate impact. Education, really, in my opinion anyways, it’s never really been about that. It’s having a growth mindset. It’s working with kids, it’s about, you know, like the Sixers say, it’s about the process. You want to make sure that you have a good experience with kids and that you have a good connection with them. You could have them for three, four years, so you want to make sure that you’re developing the right culture here, where they want to come and they want to learn, so that’s where that kind of had to change. You just have to dial it back a little bit. It’s not about if they can do it, it’s about if they’re making progress.”

I currently am a college student at Temple, and two of my roommates, Jake Mannion and Christian Kaess, graduated from Central Bucks East. They had Harding as their P.E. Teacher. Both of them have the highest of praises for Harding, not only as a teacher, but as a person. Jake, who himself  is a dual-national of both the United States and the U.K., said he would always talk about soccer with him, and he always sounded interested in everything he had to say even if Harding wasn’t interested in soccer. Harding laughed when I said that Jake beats me “three out of five times” in FIFA video games, and then he said that he views soccer players as some of the fittest and best athletes out there. He loves going to Philadelphia Union games, used soccer as training for hockey, and even introduced his friend from the U.K. to Major League Soccer. It seems like he knows quite a bit about soccer after all.

If Jeff Harding had a chance to re-do how his career went, would he take it? He answered, “I owe my entire life to hockey, to sports, in terms of the full ride at Michigan State, in terms of meeting my wife, in terms of all the experiences that I’ve had while teaching and coaching and being a state champion, to both of my kids getting field hockey scholarships to Villanova University. Sports, to me, has been the gateway.”

For someone who has had to deal with so much adversity, Jeff Harding has defied the odds to become someone who can serve as a great role model for so many kids going through Central Bucks East. And with someone like him in the role of an educator, it breeds hope into future generations of students going into varying studies.

A series of terrible injuries and bad luck led to this life for Harding. And with all he is thankful for, why would he change a thing?

(Photos by Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

Originally published on

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