NEW YORK – Brian Leetch never made bold guarantees like Mark Messier or instinctively embraced the spotlight as Mike Richter did.
This sturdy, dependable defenceman became a star quite quietly and with a consistency that made teammates and opponents marvel. Now four years after being traded away from the New York Rangers, Leetch has returned to get the ultimate honour from the team and city he never wanted to leave.
Before the Rangers face the Atlanta Thrashers on Thursday night, Leetch’s No. 2 will be raised to the Madison Square Garden rafters alongside Messier’s No. 11 and Richter’s No. 35 – completing the trio most responsible for ending the Rangers’ 54-year Stanley Cup drought in 1994.
“I always say, if anybody remembers me as years go by, if they say, ‘Didn’t you play for the Rangers?’ That’s good enough for me. If I played long enough and had enough of an impact that someone can at least remember that I wore the uniform that I played in for all those years.”
He did that and much more.
Leetch came to the Rangers directly after the 1988 Winter Olympics, starting his NHL career after the U.S. team finished seventh. He played 17 games in that season in which the Rangers missed the playoffs.
The next season, Leetch was confident he could show he was worthy of being the ninth pick in the 1986 draft.
“You knew when you got into a game … regardless of the opponent, the size of the opponent, the way the other opponent played, you knew that Brian was coming to play,” longtime teammate Adam Graves said.
Leetch earned rookie of the year honours, the first of many awards he would win with the Rangers. None was bigger than the 1994 championship.
“We shared the same desire and commitment and dream to win the Stanley Cup here,” Messier said of his close friend. “We were able to go through the tough times together and go through the good times together, but ultimately through it all we did something that we set out to do.”
Messier absorbed much of the focus after that stirring victory. His guarantee before Game 6 of the semifinals against New Jersey, when the Rangers were a loss away from elimination, is still talked about.
But it was Leetch who accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. He took that award with a half smile, almost incredulous of what he and the Rangers had accomplished. The recognition and adulation came as no surprise to his teammates.
“When you looked at Number 2’s stall, you knew he was coming to play. He had the ability to control the game from the drop of the puck,” said Graves, who played 690 games with Leetch – more than any teammate. “Leetchy’s performance in the playoffs could rival any Conn Smythe winner.”
Leetch was with the Rangers from the night he arrived after the Olympics and had to knock on the hotel room door of Mark Hardy, who had just been acquired, until his unpopular trade to Toronto on March 3, 2004.
It was near the end of the Rangers’ seventh straight non-playoff season, and the market was there for a two-time Norris Trophy winner. Rangers general manager Glen Sather made the move, and Leetch received the news with a cold phone call that left him bitter – a feeling that still exists.
“That hurt the most,” he said. “That never changes but also doesn’t change the way I feel about being a Ranger.”
His Maple Leafs career lasted only 15 regular-season games and 13 in the playoffs. Leetch joined the Boston Bruins for the season after the lockout and got an invitation from Rangers coach Tom Renney to come back to New York the following season.
The idea was tempting but a series of injuries, the diminishing of his playing skills, and the disappointment of missing the playoffs seven times in eight seasons convinced him it was time to walk away.
The 2006-07 season passed without Leetch playing and without any definitive announcement that he was through. There was even some buzz last summer that maybe Leetch would return to New York, but he put that to rest.
All that is left of his Rangers career is one night that only Messier, Richter, and Hall of Famers Ed Giacomin and Rod Gilbert have experienced.
“I thought it was going to be a more nervous anticipation building up to it and something I was looking forward to getting over with,” Leetch said. “I got such a positive reaction from all my friends and from Rangers fans and how they’re looking forward to it that it gets me excited. I am excited for the night, I just don’t want to mess it up.”
Messier provided many tears on his night, Richter spiced up his with typical humour.
Leetch is suddenly the wild card on the ice. The very place he was most consistent is now the spot where no one knows just how he will react.
“There is no denying that it is going to be an emotional night for him,” said Messier, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. “However it exudes from him doesn’t really matter. I know him as well as anybody and I know being in the same situation not long ago, you can’t help but think about all the people that were really responsible for the career that he had.”
Leetch is second in Rangers history with 1,129 games played; first with 741 assists; second with 981 points; and first among defencemen in goals (240) and points (981).
“It is really important for a guy like Brian, for all that he brought to this organization, to this city and honestly to the game,” Richter said. “He’s been really one of the most important players that we’ve had coming out of America and one of the best that has ever put on a pair of skates at his position.
“He deserves every bit of credit he gets for a career that is really remarkable.”