April 11, 2018

American Beauty: Brian Leetch

Though he was born in the least likeliest of hockey hotbeds, Brian Leetch went on to become perhaps the best National Hockey League defenseman of his era.

Brian was born in Corpus Christie, Texas, but he did not live there long. His father was a Navy pilot, flying C-130 transports to Vietnam. In 1973, when Brian was about 5 years old, the navy decommissioned Leetch's squadron, and the family moved to San Francisco where Jack flew Boeing 707s for Pan Am. Later he was hired by Shell Oil, who stationed him first in Oregon then Connecticut, back close to the Leetch family.

Despite all the travel to unlikely hockey places, Brian had already fell in love with the game of hockey. His father passed that on to him. You see, Jack Leetch was quite the hockey player in his day, too. He was a walk on at Boston College and became an All American by 1963. Playing on the American national team, he was one of the last cuts for Team USA's entry to the 1964 Olympics.

Brian was destined to follow in his father's glorious footsteps, and then some. He was a high school superstar, and NHL scouts flocked to Avon Old Farms prep school to see him. The New York Rangers were so impressed, they took a chance on the high school kid with the 9th overall draft pick in 1986. It turned out to be a chance well taken, as Leetch may be the best player out of that draft class.

The Rangers would have to wait to get Leetch in a Blueshirts jersey though. He had his mind and heart set on following his father to Boston College. He would play just one year there, joining future NHL star Craig Janney under the guidance of legendary coach Len Ceglarski. Leetch was named rookie and player of the year in Hockey East, and became the first freshman to be named as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as US college's top hockey player.

Leetch dropped out of college the following year, but not to chase the big bucks of the NHL, but Olympic gold. He was named US team captain, and was the clear star of the team. Unfortunately a knee injury left him on crutches heading into the 1988 Calgary Olympics. He would still play in all 6 games, but the Americans would not medal.

Leetch would embark upon his NHL career immediately following the Olympics, finishing the 1987-88 NHL season with 2 goals and 14 points in 17 games, serving notice of what was to come. In his rookie season the year later, he wowed everyone around the league with a 23 goal, 71 point campaign.

One of the keys to Leetch's early NHL success was coach Michel Bergeron. Bergeron was a fiery coach who insisted on passion, and was not known for tactics and Xs and Os. Leetch was free to play his game, which is so rare for any player nowadays. He was allowed to show what he could do.

That was great for the beginning of Leetch's career, but he truly became the NHL's top defender upon the arrival of coach Mike Keenan and former Oiler Mark Messier. Leetch would develop special bonds with both, especially Messier. Those bonds would teach him how to become one of the NHL's all time great players.

In 1991-92, Leetch became only the 4th defenseman in league history to record 100 points in a season. His 80 assists were a team record. His dominance earned him his first Norris Trophy as the league's best rearguard.

However it was the 1993-94 season that ranks highest on Leetch's incredible list of accomplishments. After another impressive regular season of 79points, Leetch led the New York Rangers in the playoffs, scoring 11 goals and a league high 23 assists and 34 points on route to the first Stanley Cup championship on Broadway in 54 years. Leetch was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff's most valuable performer, the first non-Canadian born player to do so. The finals against Vancouver are considered to be one of hockey's greatest clashes, and Leetch stood tallest among many giants in that series.

The Rangers fortunes dramatically declined following the Cup win, but Leetch was constantly the brightest star on Broadway. He was named to 5 NHL all star teams, and won another Norris Trophy in 1997. He also returned to the Olympics in both 1998 and 2002, finally winning a silver medal in his last Olympiad.

The key to Leetch's game was always his mobility and vision. He was a terrific skater and stickhandler. Everyone marveled at how he could sidestep the league's best forecheckers and make a great breakout pass, often creating something out of nothing. He was a good rusher too, and manned a power play point as good as anyone. Defensively he overcame relatively small size with impeccable timing and positioning. He was never adverse to the physical game either. He truly was one of the all time great defensemen.

Leetch bled Rangers blue and he was greatly disheartened when the Rangers moved him at the trading deadline in 2004 to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He finished the year there, and then sat out the lost lockout season of 2004-05. He was again heartbroken when the Rangers showed no interest in his return post-lockout. Prompting him to return for a final and uneventful season with the Boston Bruins.

In 1205 NHL games, Brian Leetch scored 247 goals, 781 assists for 1028 points. He also added 97 points in 95 post season contests. 

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