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Grace Harrison's Journey to Professional Men's Hockey

What do you get when a Kiwi woman goes to a top Canadian prep school and then an elite American collegiate program? An unflappable goalie in New Zealand’s top men’s circuit who’s a bit of an arachnophile for three-on-nothing rushes.

Travis Crickard can’t see into the future any more than Miss Cleo could. He doesn’t have the gift of foresight, and he’s not about to read your palm or a deck of tarot cards. But in one specific instance, he managed to see a glimpse of what was to come.

Crickard’s bit of soothsaying came in 2018 when he was considering the future of his club’s crease. As GM of the Botany Swarm, he had always handled matters in the immediate. He had brought in a longtime veteran of the New Zealand League, the country’s top-tier men’s circuit, to backstop the Swarm ahead of their 2018 season. But it was a Band-Aid fix. 

What Crickard saw was a team in need of a long-term solution. Then Grace Harrison arrived. That was the lightbulb moment. “It put the bug in our mind.” Crickard said, “If she was planning on returning to New Zealand full time, she could probably be our No. 1 goaltender or challenge for that spot.”

Harrison had just finished her junior season with the NCAA’s St. Lawrence University Saints and was spending her off-season back home in New Zealand when she was asked to skate as a practice keeper for the Swarm. That in itself wasn’t surprising. She had previously been used as a second-stringer by the Swarm, four times in fact, prior to Crickard taking the reins as GM. But the 5-foot-9, 145-pound goaltender he was witnessing now was a far cry from the one Botany had called on previously.

Playing with older players was nothing new to Harrison. She had always played up a level or two throughout her minor hockey career, a byproduct of skating alongside her older brother, Shaun, and playing what is, in New Zealand, a relatively obscure sport. She had played three years in the country’s top junior league as a pre-teen.

Grace Harrison

But what she really desired was the chance to play overseas and test herself against players from a traditional hockey country who lived and breathed the game. “It definitely was pretty farfetched,” she said. “But it was one of those things where I had really supportive parents who agreed that hindsight is not a fun way to live, so just kind of roll with it.”

Harrison’s leap of faith came in the summer of 2013 at the age of 16 when she was selected to participate in a joint international program between the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association and New Zealand Ice Hockey Federation. After finishing her school year in Auckland, she flew to Canada to train for six weeks with the junior team of the Toronto Leaside Wildcats, a club in one of Ontario’s largest hockey associations for women and girls. It would be Harrison’s litmus test to determine whether or not she could make the jump to play in North America.

Harrison excelled to the extent that she caught on the following season with the Ontario Hockey Academy, one of the top hockey prep schools North America. It was there that she caught the eye of the coaching staff from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and wound up a late-season recruit into the NCAA’s top division. She admits now that she questioned her ability and considered backing out and playing in Canada’s university circuit instead. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not good enough for (Div. I),’” she said. “‘I’ll go play in the CIS and get some rink time.’”

But any consternation was all for naught. Harrison was good enough, and then some. And she proved her mettle in double time. By the end of her freshman season, she had become the Saints’ undisputed No. 1. And by the time she left St. Lawrence three years later, she was second in goals-against average (1.92), second in shutouts (16), fifth in save percentage (.919) and fourth in wins (49) in program history.

Harrison’s rise was the culmination of her own ability, work ethic and one thing incredibly difficult to come by in New Zealand: reps, and a lot of them. The result was a goaltender who, as a 21-year-old in 2018, had left an indelible impression on Crickard – and also gave him a flashback.

Before his assistant coaching gigs at the OHL, WHL, U-17 and U-18 levels, Crickard himself was a goaltender who, at one off-season camp, was paired with Genevieve Lacasse, then a college netminder but one who would go on to win World Championship and Olympic gold with Canada. Lacasse stood out among, and head and shoulders above, her male counterparts. 

“I’m watching (Harrison) and thinking about where she fits in the spectrum of other goaltenders in New Zealand, and I kind of had the same feeling,” Crickard said. “She looks just as good or better than anyone else here. She moves better, she’s technically better and, for one thing, she’s significantly younger than some of the goalies in the league.”

But actually getting Harrison into the lineup had to wait. After finishing her degree in statistics, and with graduation on the horizon in 2019, she considered playing in the CWHL, but then the league ceased operations. She then spent time travelling the United States and later leaned toward calling it quits altogether. “I had such an incredible experience at St. Lawrence that I was very content with my hockey career,” she said. “Going to Europe – I was a bit worried I wouldn’t find a spot I really enjoyed, and I was quite excited to start using my degree.”

Despite his interest in bringing Harrison into the fold, though, it wasn’t Crickard who persuaded her to join the Swarm. It was Harrison’s now-teammates who planted those seeds. Even still, as the pandemic cancelled the NZIHL’s 2020 season, Crickard had to wait that much longer to see his premonition fulfilled. 

Finally, this past May, Harrison stepped into the crease as the Swarm’s starter and as one of only two women in the league, alongside Canterbury Red Devils goalie Lilly Forbes. By Harrison’s own admission, her first start was shaky, but as she’s done throughout her career, she settled in. “Ten minutes in I stopped a 3-on-0. I treat 3-on-0’s like seeing spiders: they’re more scared of you than you are of them,” she said, laughing.

Whether it’s an odd-man rush, challenging for a starting role on the Swarm or travelling halfway across the world to pursue a dream, it’s that same easygoing attitude that has kept Harrison in the crease. Her unflappable and often fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants nature is encapsulated when she pivots to talking about the season ahead and what comes next in a circuitous hockey career that has taken a Kiwi kid to a Canadian prep school, an elite American women’s collegiate program and all the way back home to New Zealand’s top hockey league. 

“I quite like to roll with what just comes up,” she said. “That’s worked out really well for me so far. St. Lawrence happened really last minute, going to Canada happened last minute…Roll with the punches. I’m 24, I’m just enjoying it. Hockey has done some incredible things for me, so we’ll see what comes next.” 

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