Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hockey player heads for the hill

Gifted blue-liner giving up game to concentrate on pitching career

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JALEN HARRIS is going to retire from hockey at the ripe old age of 16 and he hopes to do it on Saturday with a gold medal around his neck.

Harris, a 6-foot-2, 206-pound dual-sport athlete, is a defenceman with Canada's national deaf ice hockey team, which is competing in the first World Deaf Ice Hockey and Curling Championships in Winnipeg.

Canada defeated Russia 17-1 in hockey on Wednesday at the St. James Civic Centre and has one more round-robin game remaining. Canada will meet Finland today at 3 p.m. in what could be a preview of the final. The gold-medal game will be played on Saturday at the MTS Centre at 1 p.m.

But Harris has another life -- one in which he hurls baseballs at over 80 miles per hour. The pitcher has already attracted the attention of college and major league scouts so he's decided it's time to hang up the blades.

"I've got to focus on one sport. I dream of making pro one day," said Harris, who was born deaf. He is a member of the Ontario International Baseball Association Prospects program, which trains year-round and travels to major tournaments May through August. "I have a really good coach and he said I have a really good chance to make it if I stop playing hockey and play baseball year-round. It's a hard choice, I love hockey and I grew up playing it. But I've got to do what I've got to do."

Harris said he and his parents decided together that he should play for Team Canada in this event as his hockey swan song.

"It's the biggest thing I've ever done in my life. It's a world championship, plus it's the first one," Harris said.

Team Canada head coach Jim Vitale said Harris is an exceptional athlete.

"I know he's heavily scouted and I know he spends 17-18 hours a week doing baseball," Vitale said. "He's just an exceptional athlete. He's the type of kid that no matter what sport you put him in, he just excels at it. We could probably put him in net and he'd probably be great. A lot of the veterans are really impressed with his abilities."

Vitale said Harris will be missed, but the team knows it was fortunate to have him this year. Harris had been planning to retire from hockey last year after playing for the Mississauga AAA midget Rebels, but he decided to play one more year for the Toronto AA midget Royals to stay in shape for this event.

"It's commendable, when you think about it, because he's out there every shift and what's to say he doesn't separate his shoulder or get a bad injury. Really, with an arm like his, that's a $4-million dollar arm," Vitale said.

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 17, 2009 C6

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