Hockey still warms Harden's heart

Hockey still warms Harden's heart

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Harden family convened in Phoenix for Christmas this past winter.

Rangers pitcher Rich Harden makes his offseason home here and after the gift opening, eating and merrymaking, they all hit the street in front of his house.

"I had a couple of nets and made a couple of goals," Harden said. "I had 14 sticks, so for a couple of hours we were out there running around and playing hockey. It was pretty nice, 65-68 degrees. If a car came by, we would stop and let it go by. It was pretty fun."

Only problem is he left the goal nets outside and somebody stole them.

"I think somebody was angry we were playing," Harden said.

One misguided misdemeanor is not going to stop Harden. When the Rangers signed Harden in the offseason, they not only signed a hard-throwing right-hander who could be their Opening Day starter but a huge hockey fan as well.

During the season he'll keep a hockey stick in his locker. There is nothing like a little stick-handling and a slap shot or two to take out some aggression after a rough game.

He is from Canada, he began playing the game as long back as he can remember and, even though he went baseball, he still has a deep and abiding passion for Canada's national sport.

Friday night is big. Canada vs. Slovakia in the Olympic seminfinals. Sunday could be a rematch against the United States for the gold medal.

oh, canada
Rangers players born in Canada.
Player Years Birthplace
P Ferguson Jenkins 1974-75, 1978-81 Chatham, Ont.
P Reggie Cleveland 1978 Swift Current, Sask.
OF Rick Lisi 1981 Halifax, N.S.
P Steve Wilson 1988 Victoria, B.C.
OF Rob Ducey 1993-94 Toronto
P Jeff Zimmerman 1999-2001 Kelowana, B.C.
P Aaron Myette 2001-02 New Westminister, B.C.
OF Matt Stairs 2006 Saint John, N.B.
P Eric Gagne 2007 Montreal

"I've been watching pretty much every game," Harden said Friday morning in the Rangers clubhouse. "It's going to be tough, though, because the gold-medal game is Sunday at noon. I have to be here. Hopefully, I can watch it in the clubhouse."

Doesn't Canada still have to get past Slovakia?

"Yeah, that's definitely a big game, but we got past the Russians pretty easily," Harden said. "They were a pretty strong team. I like what Canada did against Russia. It would be nice to get a rematch against the States. That would be a pretty good game."

Harden was born in Victoria, British Columbia, and has lived in Calgary and Vancouver. He was in Calgary when they held the Winter Olympics in 1988 and the following year when the Flames won the Stanley Cup.

"I used to go to bed at night listening to Flames games," Harden said.

Harden was a defenseman, so his favorite player was Al MacInnis, the former Flame who is now in the Hall of Fame. He also loved Tie Domi, a forward who was known as an relentless enforcer and racked up some serious time in the penalty box.

"He was a little guy," Harden said, "He was tough ... a fighter. Anytime I play one of those hockey video games, I take him and hit somebody."

Harden played baseball and hockey growing up. At 15, he chose to concentrate on baseball. But playing hockey helped him succeed at baseball and on the mound.

2010 Spring Training - null
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"When I take the mound, I just have the mentality of not backing down," Harden said. "Being aggressive and challenging hitters, it's something I learned from hockey. I'm not backing down, I'm coming at you."

He also discovered that ice skating is a pretty good way of keeping his legs in shape.

"I still love getting out on the ice and skating," Harden said. "It's one of the best workouts. Even when I was younger and a lot smaller, I was a center fielder because I could run and was fast. As a pitcher pushing off the mound with power, that's really where it started from. Playing hockey really helped me building up strength for baseball."

So what happened with hockey?

"I basically played until I had to make a decision," Harden said. "Doing both sports was taking up time. I didn't do any offseason training in either sport. I stopped playing hockey to do weight training for baseball and I really noticed the results.

"I guess baseball was more fun at the time and I was a little better at baseball. I definitely miss hockey, but I didn't miss it at the time because I was focused on baseball."

Harden didn't make a bad decision. He enters his eighth Major League season with a career record of 50-29 with a 3.39 ERA in 127 starts and eight career relief appearances. He will most likely be the Rangers' Opening Day pitcher if all goes well this spring.

But he is more proof that the passion for hockey runs deep in Canada.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.