Before he stepped on the ice this year, Ben Harding hadn’t played a competitive hockey game in four years. He hung up his skates in 8th grade after playing 10 years of youth hockey.
The following school year, Harding entered Cranston East, a school which once housed a storied hockey program that won several championships and produced many college and professional players. That program is history. Even the co-op that had been established later on had been disbanded.
None of that mattered to Harding. He was ready for something new.
“I still loved hockey, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore. It was time for a change…a fresh start,” he remembers.
A versatile athlete, he found a new passion in football. He used his athleticism and leadership skills and soon became the East starting quarterback.
Now, he’s leading two teams – simultaneously. A senior, he is East’s starting QB and is one of the top defenseman on the unbeaten Cranston West hockey team (6-0-2). They’ll be playing North Kingstown for the Division II championship this weekend.
He hadn’t considered playing competitive hockey ever again – let alone playing for his school’s arch rival.
Then he received a call from his former youth league coach, Mike DiOrio, a member of the Cranston West coaching staff, who hinted a co-op team might be reinstated this winter.
“It was in the back of my mind, but when Coach DiOrio called again and said there was definitely going to be a team, I jumped at the chance to play again,” said Harding.
…even through that would mean playing for East’s fierce rival, Cranston West.
“It’s been a blessing,” said Harding. “The West guys took me in right away. That gave me a lot of confidence, welcomed me right away and made it an awesome experience.”
“Ben’s a leader,” said Cranston West hockey coach Matt Brannon. “He hadn’t played hockey in four years and he comes in and makes a big impact on our team. He felt like he was going to be so far behind since he hadn’t played in years. I told him not to worry…just focus on your conditioning and it will all come back to you.”
Harding hasn’t lost a step.
“I really think I needed the break to enjoy it again,” said Harding. “I’m having the best time of my life.”
“We’ve leaned on him heavily. We trust him on key situations. Ben works hard and doesn’t take anything for granted. He’s enjoying this opportunity and embracing playing for a state championship,” said Brannon.
“Getting to play hockey everyday and being part of this team has been a blessing,” said Harding.
“It’s been a tough year with distance learning and the pandemic. Being able to play hockey motivates me to finish school work on time and do better in class. It’s helped me get through this tough time with Covid and not being in school. The West kids have welcomed me. We’re family now.”
His days are long. After a day of distance learning he heads to Cranston Veterans rink with two sets of pads in his car – hockey and football. As soon as hockey practice ends he changes his red gear to green , his hockey pads to football and heads straight down the street to Cranston Stadium for practice with the Bolts.
He doesn’t want to fall behind and knows the importance of the quarterback role to his teammates.
“I try to work hard and do what I can do with the time that I have,” said Harding. “Football is a lot of fun. I’m happy to be back and there is a season . I love this group of guys. I have a lot of confidence in them.”
Once he was rushing and showed up to East football practice in a West hockey jersey. He caught a little flack from his Bolt teammates.
“They were joking around, but they have been supportive,” said Harding.
Harding will focus solely on football as soon as the hockey season ends. “It’s a short football season with only five games,” he points out. “We’ll take it one practice at a time. One game.. We’ll just do what we can.”
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First he wants to help his rivals win a hockey championship. He has the support of his football teammates.
“They have been great,” said Harding. “They want to know how they can watch and where they can stream (the championship series).”
“Ben is an ideal student athlete,” said Brannon “He works his tail off and a lot of kids on the team look up to him. He’s a quiet kid who leads by example. He wants to help us win a championship and at the same time he knows a football team needs a QB to run the offense and doesn’t want to let his football team down. That is a testament to him to handle both things.”
Harding will receive his hockey team’s 2021 Hobey Baker Award, presented annually to a player from each high school who exemplifies sportsmanship and character.
Brannon continues, “In a very short period of time, he has become a huge impact on our team. Doesn’t matter if he goes to East or West. We’re one team. We’re Cranston. If every kid worked hard like him, we’d win the championship every year. In his mind, he had to play catch up in speed and timing….10 weeks he’s finally confident in his ability. He knows he belongs out there.”
“I love being part of this hockey team,” said Harding. “I’ll always be a Bolt, but proud to say I am a little bit of a Falcon, too.”