The evolution of ‘Scary Jerry’
Jerry Harding encapsulates the team-first mentality Greg Carvel searches for
March 8, 2023
Jerry Harding has the ability to turn completely normal aspects of a hockey game upside down. On his senior night, the forward made such a high impact play that Massachusetts hockey coach Greg Carvel deemed it one of “the best shifts in the history of the program.”
He didn’t score a goal.
He didn’t earn a flashy assist.
Harding just did what he does best: scare his opponents with raw physicality.
It started with a big hit in the defensive zone to get the puck free, and after that Harding turned into what can only be accurately described as a wrecking ball. In a game against Northeastern that already proved physical beyond measure, the senior forward ramped the intensity to an even higher level in the third period.
When he sent the Northeastern player — 6-foot-4-inch defenseman Hunter McDonald — to the ice, Harding came tumbling as well and the puck wound up underneath them both. So, naturally, Harding got up and hit McDonald a second time, popping the puck up the ice in the process. McDonald held onto Harding’s stick, which Harding viewed as an open invitation to lay a third hit on his freshman opposition. Once he was finished with the last check, Harding just casually skated to the bench and hopped off the ice; he did his job and shifted his focus to getting the next player on the ice, not realizing everything Morrow did on the other end.
On that same play, Scott Morrow scored one of the biggest goals of the season for UMass.
He skated in on a partial breakaway, put the puck on his backhand to evade the incoming defenseman and then made a quick move back to the forehand before tucking the puck past Devon Levi. It was the game-winning goal, put away by UMass’ leading point scorer, against the best goaltender in college hockey.
And hardly anyone was paying attention to it.
In the neutral zone, Jerry Harding caused so much havoc that he entranced fans, players, coaches and media alike. Carvel even admitted that while he just barely caught the tail end of Morrow’s move, some of his assistants were only clued into the goal when they heard the crowd noise.
That play paints a perfect picture of what Harding’s role is on the team. He’s not supposed to score, get assists, or win face-offs. His stick skills aren’t flashy, they never will be and they never needed to be.
Every team needs goal-scorers to be successful, but it also needs hard-nosed players. The guys that will go hard into the corner and try to pull a puck out to gain possession. Or lay a hit in the neutral zone to cause a turnover and give their teammates an odd-man rush the other way.
That’s the role Harding plays for UMass.
“I told him at the beginning of the year, ‘you need to be the scariest player in the league,’” Carvel said after that game. “I’m scared to death in practice, I don’t try to get too close to him. He’s tough, you don’t want to run into him.”
You don’t get the nickname, “Scary Jerry,” by having intangible skills offensively. Harding earned that moniker by being big and knowing how to throw his body around. And that, to Carvel, is just as valuable as a talented forward that can produce a lot of points. In a program that encourages hard work and a team-first mentality, few model what Carvel wants in a player better than Jerry Harding.
Jerry Harding has always been a daredevil.
His father, Jerry Harding Sr., vividly recalls walking outside one afternoon and finding a 3-year-old Jerry laughing hysterically as he flew down the hill of his street on a skateboard. Harding Sr. had to keep calm and guide his son towards the yard where he went tumbling to the grass, laughing just as hard on impact as he did at 30 miles an hour. It’s just the kind of kid Jerry was.
“He did crazy stuff,” Harding Sr. said.
He brought that fearless, crazy energy with him to the game of hockey. A backyard rink brought the whole neighborhood to the Harding house. Competition was stiff, bragging rights were sacred and little Jerry was amazed. Even before he could skate, he loved the thrill of gliding across the ice. His older brothers Joey and Jimmy didn’t mind towing him around on their sticks and it made Jerry’s day.
“He started out as a puck,” Harding Sr. jokes. “He took it like a duck to water, I’ve never seen anything like it as far as going out there as a baby.”
From the ages of 1 and 2-years old, he went out there with shoes, but by 3-years old the same Jerry that coasted down the hill on a skateboard was also cutting up the ice with his skates. He got right out there with the kids on the block and held his own with the bigger kids, hacking away at their ankles as a substitute for his size.
It’s hard to imagine a world where the now 6-foot-2-inch, 210 pound college hockey senior was “too small” for anything, but Jerry spent his entire childhood measuring up to his much older brothers. His quick start playing hockey with Jimmy and Joey helped Jerry match up to players his own age, but the mighty mites team in Canton, Mass., still wouldn’t let the youngster play hockey until he could see over the welcome table.
They still couldn’t keep him off the ice, though. When he couldn’t play hockey, Jerry took up figure skating instead. When Harding Sr. put a batting cage in the yard, Jerry never put a baseball in it. Instead, he dragged in the hockey net and as many pucks as he could find.
Those years got him more agile and more skilled, and the domino effect of it all was seven straight years of being faster on skates than almost anybody his age.
Then the hitting started. And that changed everything.
“I had to remind this kid there was a puck on the ice,” Harding Sr. recalls. “The physical aspect of the game just made sense to him … it made the game easier for him to separate people from the puck.”
At 12 years old, the kid who grew up relying on his legs figured out how to use his body. And that paved the way for his success at the higher levels. Once it comes time to recruit players to the United States Hockey League (USHL) and eventually college hockey, there are plenty of efficient goal scorers across the country. Jerry set himself apart in a different way.
Whether he had the puck on his stick, or more often without the puck, Jerry just wanted to make the right hockey play.
Jerry hasn’t scored more than 30 points in a season since high school, but his impact as a leader and a physical presence caught the eye of Nate Leaman, the head coach at Providence. Coincidentally, the Harding family was also very familiar with Kevin Rooney and the Rooney family, who had ties to Providence, so it didn’t take much convincing to get Jerry to Rhode Island.
That time with the Friars didn’t last long, though. A season of sparse playing time ended early when COVID-19 hit and suddenly Jerry was home working out in Canton instead of entering into the offseason training regimen on campus in Providence. The same Harding house that brought together the neighborhood kids was being repurposed years later as a workout zone for college hockey players in the local area. Aidan McDonough and Patrick Moynihan frequented the home gym and grew close with Jerry, especially Moynihan who was playing at Providence at the same time.
The Harding house got them stronger and gave them laughs, but one day it was a place of mourning. A call from Leaman to Harding shifted everything. Nobody could think of a reason why the Providence coach would be calling Jerry so early in the offseason.
“What, did he offer you a captain spot?”
“No,” Jerry replied.
“He offered me to enter the portal.”
Deep down, everybody knew that was the best decision. If Leaman didn’t see Jerry as someone who could get consistent playing time, he was better off letting the soon-to-be sophomore find a new home that could give him an opportunity.
UMass was that team. And after two Hockey East championships and one national championship, the move was worth it.
Jerry was the exact type of player that Greg Carvel and then-assistant coach Ben Barr wanted in the program. He did all the little things right and he fought for every opportunity. Nothing given, everything earned. A cliche in sports, but one that the Canton native built his identity on.
In the summer of 2020, that captain’s comment was more of an off-handed joke than anything else, but Jerry always leads. Voted captain on nearly every team he was a part of, in the summer of 2022, his Minutemen teammates saw that in him, too.
“There’s so many good players that have come through and worn letters so that makes it really special,” Jerry said. “I just try to be myself … I can talk and keep guys accountable.”
He wears his heart on his sleeve
— Greg Carvel
Despite not always being in the lineup and hardly showing up on the scoresheet, Jerry was a near unanimous pick to wear a maroon “A” on his chest. He’s the voice of the program.
“He’s a good leader, he holds guys accountable in the room and on the bench, and he works really hard every day and does it with an intensity that pushes everybody around him,” senior Cal Kiefiuk said of Jerry. “He’s a big piece to this team and his voice means a lot.”
Off the ice, Jerry is sweet, kind, approachable and an all-around good human. His teammates and coaches never have a bad word to say about him. But when he steps between the boards, he’s still “Scary Jerry.” It’s his role, and he knows it. What he brings to the ice every day can’t be described with numbers and analytics, because he just outworks the team across from him and sends players flying all over the ice.
Because of that, Jerry rarely scores. He only has four in three seasons and went almost his entire junior year without a goal. When he finally did get that monkey off his back, it was sort of an accident. He slipped down to the ice in front of UMass Lowell’s goaltender on the rush and was lying face down behind the net when a River Hawk defender accidentally shot the puck into his own net.
Jerry was the last Minuteman to touch the puck and got credit for the goal, which was cause for celebration. The forward shot up to his feet and put both hands in the air, leading the goal line with excitement. Jerry takes goals any way he can get them, and to his credit, Carvel said after the game that no matter what way it happened, Jerry deserved that goal.
In fact, Jerry deserved just about everything he ever got. Goals, accolades, leadership roles. He did everything he could for the team, and drew the short straw quite often with no complaints. When UMass won the national championship, there was only one person that couldn’t be in Pittsburgh to celebrate. Jerry caught COVID the week of the Frozen Four and had to watch from his dorm as the rest of the team took turns hoisting the trophy.
At the beginning of 2023, the Minutemen got the opportunity to play at Fenway Park. Jerry, who notably bleeds Boston sports, didn’t take the ice for Frozen Fenway. He watched in a suite, cheering on his teammates and never showing an ounce of anger or frustration about not suiting up.
As his time in the Maroon and White comes to an end, Carvel looks back fondly on what Jerry has brought to the program over the last three years. He’s not the most skilled, he’s a character piece. The glue that holds the Minutemen together. And he’ll go down as the scariest sweetheart on the roster.
“He wants to be an important part of each game, he’s very committed and he sacrifices,” Carvel said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve, and it’s fun to coach kids like him.”
As for Harding Sr., words don’t properly capture the pride he has for his son. He thinks about that three year old skating around the backyard rink competing with the older boys, and I sense the grin on his face when he tells me about it. He keeps that picture of Jerry close by and never loses it. To see that little kid grow up and realize his dreams at the biggest stage of college hockey, and become a leader for the flagship of the state he grew up in, nothing makes Harding Sr. happier.
At Fenway Park, when Jerry was in the stands instead of on the bench, his dad watched his face light up and cheer for UMass harder than anybody. Of all his successes as a player, it was that moment when Harding Sr. pulled Jerry aside and uttered words of appreciation for the man he became.
“I have never been more proud of you than this moment.”
Whether he’s three years old flying down the hill on a skateboard or 23 years old flying into the boards, the mischievous, devilish look on his face says it all: Jerry Harding is fearless. He just makes everyone else fear him.
Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.