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Paul Harrison (audio): Leaf goalie had his moments in blue and white—and leads an enriching life after hockey

This week, I was able to catch up with former Maple Leaf goaltender Paul Harrison. Paul played for the Leafs at a particularly interesting time—the final year of Roger’s Neilson’s coaching tenure (1978-’79) and then in the early days of the “new” Punch Imlach era, 1979-’80 and 1980-‘81.

Since his time in hockey, he has worked as a member of the Ontario Provincial Police service, but more importantly, he has thrived as an educator, which we talk into during our conversation. I share some of my memories of Paul as a player in my story below the audio link, but you can also enjoy the conversation by clicking here:


During the 1978-79 hockey season, I was working in radio in Montreal. Because I was hosting a weekly sports interview show at the time, I was able to attend a lot of Canadiens home games with my press pass. While still a Leaf supporter in my heart, the high location of the press area allowed me the opportunity to watch the game with detachment and a fairly analytical eye, even when the Leafs paid a visit.

The Leafs that season were nearing the end of the short-lived but relatively successful Roger Neilson era. Neilson had led the team to the semi-finals the season previous, upsetting the favored New York Islanders and then playing Montreal tough in the semis, though they were swept in 4 games.

During the 78-’79 season, the team looked even stronger and still had the core of Sittler, Salming, Turnbull, Williams, Carlyle and McDonald with Mike Palmateer in goal.

I remember a particular game in Montreal at the old Forum that winter. A young goalie, Paul Harrison, played what I thought was an outstanding game against a powerhouse Montreal team. (As an aside, I’m pretty sure Leaf GM Jim Gregory would have given his right arm to have some of the guys that were basically ‘extras’ with Montreal – players like Rod Langway, Mark Napier, Pat Hughes and Cam Connor.) I didn’t know much about Harrison except that he had been drafted by Minnesota. But he sure looked good that night. (During our interview, Paul reminded me of the unique circumstances around that particular game.)

Palmateer was the go-to guy in net that season, of course, but for reasons I couldn't remember, Harrison (who clarifies this point in my interview with him) was the goalie the night Toronto were facing playoff elimination against Montreal, in Game 4 in Toronto.

The previous spring, the Leafs were really not very competitive with the Canadiens in the playoffs. The games weren’t close, and it was much the same way the first two games of the 1979 series. The Leafs looked overmatched at the Forum in the first two games, but played well in Game 3 in Toronto, only to lose in overtime. Toronto had so many chances to win that game. In particular, I remember Paul Gardner having chances around the crease, but he was simply unable to get the puck past big Dryden in the Montreal net.

Harrison played game 4 and as I recall was steady enough to give Toronto a chance to win. Toronto came from behind and like Game 3, Game 4 went into overtime. Montreal won it, extinguishing any hopes Toronto had of advancing any further in the playoffs.

With Palmateer and Harrison in goal, the next year (1979-’80) looked promising, but so much changed that summer. Neilson was fired for a second time (he had been fired by owner Harold Ballard earlier that season, only to be re-hired after Sittler and his teammates begged Ballard to stick with Neilson, who the players respected). Jim Gregory was also let go and Ballard chose former Maple Leaf and then long-time Buffalo Sabres GM Punch Imlach as the new Leaf GM. Imlach had built a powerful Sabres team in the early and mid-‘70s, based on some solid draft selections (Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, etc.), but they never quite had the goaltending to go all the way.

When Punch returned for his second stop in Toronto, it was awful. He dismantled the team, apparently intent on taking “power” away from Sittler, the dressing room leader and team captain. They went from being a competitive playoff team to missing out completely the next year.

For his part, Harrison played a fair bit in ’79-’80, but was then traded to Pittsburgh after the 1980-’81 season. Imlach eventually dumped Palmateer as well, starting over in goal with rookie Jiri Crha and former Hab ‘Bunny’ Larocque.

Harrison played a bit in Pittsburgh and then Buffalo, but had a relatively short NHL career.

Since that time, he has led a truly inspirational life. As a member of the police service in Ontario, he was a founding part of the popular Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. He has given talks around the world, training other police officers about the program. He helps raise much-needed funds to inform and inspire our young people.

I well remember some of his really good moments in a Leaf uniform, but what he has done since is all the more important.

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