In October, when the leaves were turning southern Michigan into a rolling patchwork of color, Tyler Harlton missed the open sky of the western Canadian prairie. The Pense, Sask., native could appreciate the beauty of autumn in East Lansing, but he couldn’t help feeling penned in.
“When you’re surrounded by trees on all sides, it limits what you see. Back home, you can see weather come in. Here, surrounded by hills, you don’t see as much.”
No one can accuse Tyler Harlton of having limited vision, no matter how he feels about his immediate surroundings, for Harlton is among the most dedicated athletes in Division I sports. The Michigan State senior defenseman is the Spartans’ three-year captain, the first MSU captain to serve such a term since Don McSween in the mid-eighties.
Harlton takes his leadership role very seriously.
“Every player has to be on top of his game,” he says, “and as captain, I think it is my job to let players know that I expect them to do the things that help them stay on top of their game, such as working hard in practice, keeping current with schoolwork, and toning down their social lives. I have to keep emphasizing this, both by expressing myself verbally and leading by example.”
This kind of talk would sound a little high-handed from many other players, but not from Harlton.
Tyler Harlton defines the term “student-athlete,” a long-term resident of the dean’s list who maintains a 3.69 GPA in Michigan State’s James Madison College. The focus of his studies is political theory and constitutional democracy.
The All-America candidate was last year’s CCHA Best Defensive Defenseman, has been an honorable mention for the All-CCHA Team, and is president of MSU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
This season, Harlton has earned CCHA Defensive Player of the Week honors, and was named to the All-College Hockey Showcase Team. He leads a Spartan defense which is currently allowing just 1.56 goals per game and killing 91.2 percent of opponents’ power plays.
He has also been nominated for the Hockey Humanitarian Award, given annually to “college hockey’s finest citizen.”
Even though he says he’s “not the best public speaker,” Harlton spends as much time as his schedule allows volunteering with children and talking to Lansing area elementary school kids about the local D.A.R.E. drug-resistance program.
“I’ll pretty much do anything if it’s with kids. I think I can be a good role model. I don’t do drugs, I don’t drink to excess, I’m an athlete.
“In high school, I wasn’t in the drinking crowd. I was an athlete. I stayed clean, and I think it’s OK to do that. When I was in school, the people who talked to us about drugs had done them, and I couldn’t relate to that. I want kids to know it’s OK not to even start.”
Under all this too-good-to-be-true image is just a guy who’s really, well, great.
And, according to Harlton, most other folks he cares about are great, too.
His parents, Earl and Pat Harlton, “are really great.” His younger brother Bevan is “a great kid.” Goaltender Chad Alban is “a great competitor…and a nice guy.”
Harlton misses his former roommate Mike Watt, who is “true to his word, honest…a friend’s friend.” He adds that he also misses him because “he’s an awesome player.”
It’s no surprise that a player of Harlton’s caliber and character was recruited by several different schools, including Cornell. He chose Michigan State when he met Ron Mason. “I saw the winning tradition,” he says, and the number of Spartans who have gone on to play pro hockey.
One of the biggest thrills of his life, he says, was “the first time I walked into the dressing room and saw the Michigan State jersey with my name on it. It made me realize that I was a part of something big, a program that had graduated many players into the NHL and one that had won national titles.”
Growing up in Pense, Harlton played hockey and farmed. “My dad’s a farmer, so I’m a farm kid. I helped with the harvest.”
Like many other Canadian youngsters, Harlton knew from an early age that playing hockey was what he wanted to do. “From the time I started playing, I devoted all my time to it.
“When we were younger, we played hockey on the grass, and we played street hockey all day. Then it became natural to me to play ice hockey from September until spring.”
In spite of those open prairie spaces, Harlton didn’t grow up playing hockey on a picturesque pond. “Pense had an indoor rink that actually burned down when I was in grade eight. So I played through grade eight indoors.”
Drafted in the fourth round by the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, Harlton wants to go wherever hockey can take him.
After that, “I’ll probably go to law school in Canada.” This farm kid’s tractor days are over. “You’re your own boss when you farm, and you have your fate in your hands. But you can be the best farmer ever, and you can’t control grain prices, you can’t control weather, you can’t control grasshoppers.”
Harlton says that he wants to study cross-cultural law in the future — way in the future. “I hope that won’t be for several years.”
Playing hockey for Michigan State has been “deeply satisfying” for Harlton. “I can walk away today from hockey with no regrets, because it’s been good to me.”
At mid-season, Harlton takes some time to reflect on his senior year. “The season is living up to my expectations. It has been a great time so far because we are winning and all the players are sharing in the success.
“I look forward to the practices because it means that I get to hang around with the guys, and the work on the ice is rewarding. I’ve been trying to enjoy my senior year, but it’s just going too fast.
“I have been satisfied with my own play. There haven’t been many games where I’ve reflected on my play and thought that I could have done better, (but) I would like to work on my overall preparation. I think that teams that win titles are skilled physically, but I think the mental aspect is more important.
“As a personal accomplishment, I would like to stay healthy all year and dress for every game. I think I can do this by keeping focused — a combination of a good diet, adequate rest, and extra training can keep my body in optimal condition. I would also like to be recognized as someone who helped bring a title to Michigan State.
“This, too, takes a lot of focus.”
There are two things that Harlton and his fellow Michigan State senior teammates want to accomplish — winning the CCHA title and winning the national title. Harlton calls his senior teammates “hungry.”
“It all depends on this year,” he says. “Our last three teams have been successful without postseason success.” Harlton’s stay-at-home style of defense doesn’t garner him much personal attention, but he doesn’t mind. “If you’re an offensive player, you’re sort of on and off because it counts on your point production. If you’re a defensive player, all you have to do is go out and do your job.” It’s this lack of limelight, says Harlton, that lets him do his job without pressure.
Even without the illumination of the limelight, Tyler Harlton has vision that will enable him to see far, far into his own bright future.