Aspen Junior Hockey board names Harlan Pratt its new executive director
Harlan Pratt has a vision for Aspen Junior Hockey, although it may be a bit hazy at this point. Between the uncertainties surrounding the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the time it will take to assimilate into Aspen life, the new AJH executive director will have a lot on his plate from the start.
“For sure it’s going to be a bit of feeling out,” Pratt told The Aspen Times on Saturday. “I have thoughts and tentative ideas in my head, but those can always change because of what the community wants or what the community sees.”
Pratt, 41, was recently hired to replace Shaun Hathaway as the club’s director. Hathaway had been in the role for seven years before the AJH board decided to move in a different direction. Hathaway quickly landed on his feet as the director of Team Colorado.
The initial applicant pool to replace Hathaway started with more than 100 interested parties before it was whittled down to about 10 for initial interviews. There were four official finalists, with three of those having been able to make it to Aspen as part of the interview process.
While Pratt won’t make the move to the Roaring Fork Valley from his current home near Nashville, Tennessee, until early July, he officially began in his new role on Monday.
“It’s either a blessing or a curse for him. I don’t know the answer,” joked AJH board president Ryan Doremus about Pratt starting in the current climate. “It could be the best thing because he has the opportunity to revamp and design the program around the whole new world we live in. Or it may be putting him in the most difficult time ever to actually try to make a program be the best it can possibly be. I leave it up to him to find a way to make it great. He’s got some amazing ideas of how to bring hockey to all levels and to really get kids out there skating.”
Pratt, a native of western Canada, brings to the table a long career of playing high-level hockey in both the U.S. and Europe, as well as a background both coaching and directing at the youth level. Most recently he worked with the Nashville Junior Predators organization.
“For me, it’s about trying to grow the kids and develop the kids as much as possible,” Pratt said. “So getting them on the ice as much as we can get them on the ice for development is key. When you look at USA Hockey and how they have their development models, and even Hockey Canada, there is a ton of practice time and development time and skill time that are really valuable.”
Pratt left home when he was only 15 to pursue his hockey career. He was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1997 National Hockey League draft and was part of seven NHL camps with three different teams, although he never stepped on the ice as an NHL player in the regular season.
He spent the bulk of his early playing career bouncing around teams in the Western Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and American Hockey League before closing it out in various European or Russian leagues.
“I never got my cup of coffee,” Pratt said of making an NHL roster. “I came really close to getting my chance. I think I was maybe a little bit in the wrong era. My style of game was definitely more to what it is now, where it’s more of a skilled side and more into the offense and more into skating and things and not necessarily so tough.”
Pratt is the youngest of three brothers. The oldest, Jasen Pratt, was a successful swimmer who nearly made the Olympics; Jasen has two children that are in position to possibly compete in the next Summer Olympics in swimming. The middle brother, Nolan Pratt, currently is an assistant coach with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and had a successful playing career, winning Stanley Cup championships with both the Avalanche (2001) and Tampa Bay (2004).
“What I’m really excited about with him is his background is well-rounded and has a strong connection with his brother being with the Avs,” Doremus said of Harlan Pratt’s hire. “It’s an ironic, good connection. It wasn’t a deciding factor by any means, but he obviously has a strong family connection in hockey. Part of it was him being able to get closer to his family. It’s nice to see and we’re excited to get him here.”
Having skated all over the world, Harlan Pratt has experienced about every style and philosophy hockey has to offer. He sees the good that comes with the current Scandinavian approach, which incorporates smaller playing areas, but also believes in a more holistic approach to teaching children. First and foremost, he wants to train young hockey players to be strong skaters.
“You look at some of the best players in the world today — they are just phenomenal skaters,” Pratt said. “A lot of the game is played in small areas, but you also have to be able to get from A to B and up and down the ice pretty quick, as well. So you can’t forget to continue to have that in the back of your pocket. Skating is a big part of it.”
During his tenure in Aspen, Hathaway brought the Finnish Ice Hockey Association into the fold, something he’s now taken to the state level. USA Hockey has adopted a similar approach to development as the Finns, who statistically are one of the world’s hockey superpowers. How much of that Pratt keeps in the AJH programming remains to be seen.
“There is no right or wrong any more. You just want to take in as much as you can from everybody,” Pratt said. “I don’t think it needs to be a total rehaul and revamp everything, because Shaun has done a good job of building the program and implementing things that I would sit there and want to do myself. I think it’s just trying to continue to build off that and maybe change a little bit.”
The coming months will present plenty of challenges for Pratt. The local ice rinks only just re-opened after closures due to COVID-19, and that ice time remains limited for the next few weeks, at least. The annual Stirling Cup, held in September, is one of the club’s largest fundraisers and remains in limbo. Then there is October’s Fall Faceoff tournament, which also has numerous virus-related hurdles to overcome.
“There is a possibility that golf tournament will be canceled or postponed,” Doremus said of the Stirling Cup. “We obviously rely on it for a significant portion of our donations during that time, as it’s one of our largest fundraisers. We would have to find other ways to be able to help subsidize our program to allow for kids to still be able to play at an affordable rate.”
Until those answers can be found, Pratt will look to get kids on the ice and learn about his new community. He doesn’t have much of a history in the Roaring Fork Valley, having only visited Aspen during his interview, but has gone on occasional ski trips to the Loveland Ski Area.
He’s bringing with him his wife, Jules, 11-year-old son, Hudson — a passionate hockey player — 9-year-old daughter, Quinn, who is big into equestrian, and three dogs. They plan to live in the general Basalt area.
“For me and my family, it seems like a perfect fit and we are definitely excited to get into the community and get involved as much as we can,” Pratt said. “I’m looking for another step in my career away from the game and getting an opportunity to be a leader in a program and see things in my vision come to fruition was something that was another big draw. And getting that opportunity with Aspen, it puts me in a smaller community setting that I’m super pumped for.”
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Cam Daniel is a former youth addiction counselor who’s been a Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy for three years.