The New York Rangers retired defenseman Brian Leetch’s No. 2 at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, before taking to the ice in an eventual 2-1 shootout win over the Atlanta Thrashers. Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Rangers won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 54 years in 1994, and is perhaps the greatest U.S.-born defenseman to ever grace the NHL.
Here is an excerpt from the book Top 60 Players Since 1967: The best players of the post-expansion era, which The Hockey News released last fall. Leetch was voted the 39th-best player in the NHL since the league expanded in 1967.
Here’s how this story is supposed to go: Jack Leetch, an all-America hockey player at Boston College in 1963 and one of the last cuts from the 1964 U.S. Olympic team, moves his family from Texas to take a job running the Cheshire Skating Academy in Connecticut. Jack opens up early and stays late every day, prodding and stage-parenting his prodigious son Brian into becoming one the greatest hockey talents the United States has ever produced.
It makes for a good yarn, if only it were accurate. Yes, Jack Leetch did run the local rink in Cheshire, Conn., and was an assistant coach on his son’s hockey teams, but to think Brian Leetch grew up a rink rat would be wrong. He honed his talents largely because the teams were so small that they usually only went with four defensemen and the hockey was so raw that Leetch was constantly able to freelance without a system-obsessed, NHL-wannabe coach yammering at him all the time.
In fact, his dad’s job at the arena was far more a curse than a blessing.
“The truth is, it wasn’t a great job for him or for our family,” Leetch said. “He had to do everything there, all the paperwork, run the Zamboni, organize all the ice time. After about seven years of doing it, he basically said, ‘This job is hurting my family and it’s killing me,’ so he quit and went into sales.”
By that time, Brian Leetch was in his teens and was on a career path to NHL stardom. After one brilliant year as an all-America at Boston College, Leetch played in the 1988 Olympics and then joined the New York Rangers, who drafted him ninth overall in 1986, for the end of the season.
As it always was on the ice, Leetch’s timing was impeccable. When he came to the Rangers, his first coach was the fiery Michel Bergeron, who was driven by passion, not systems. It was a perfect fit for Leetch and his style of play.
“There were times when he would look me in the eye and say, ‘Brian, we need you. We need you now!’ ” Leetch recalled. “There were no X’s and O’s, no, ‘Do this, don’t do that.’ (It was more like), ‘Just go out and make something happen.’ It was exciting for me and it was great for me as a young player because I wasn’t going out there afraid of making mistakes.”
For the next 16 seasons, he starred in New York as one of the smoothest-skating, most efficient defensemen of his generation. He evolved into the face of hockey in the U.S. and became the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP when the Rangers ended a 54-year drought with their Stanley Cup win in 1994.
“I was actually really embarrassed about winning the Conn Smythe,” Leetch said. “Everything was a blur on the ice and I heard my name. I went up to Mess (Rangers captain Mark Messier) and said, ‘I really feel uncomfortable about this. Can I bring the team up with me?’ And he said, ‘No way. This is your award. You earned it, now go and get it.’ ”
When Messier arrived in 1991 with the singular mission to deliver a Stanley Cup to the Rangers, Leetch became his roommate on the road. Despite radically divergent personalities off the ice, they meshed wonderfully because they approached the game with the same will to win. Messier, who was the dominant force in the organization from the moment he arrived, was immediately accepted by the Rangers’ core group – including the more reserved Leetch, who grew comfortable with the captain very quickly.
“When he first got there, I thought he would be wanting to go out for dinner every night in every city and I’m not really like that,” Leetch said. “One of the first road trips, he asked me where I wanted to go and I said, ‘I’m tired, I’d like to just get room service.’ Then on the next trip, he wanted to get room service and that’s what we did most of the time. We’d watch games on TV and talk about hockey. I liked going out for beers after games, but he loved it. So that’s what we did and Mark was such a dominating personality, we’d end up hanging out with people we normally wouldn’t hang out with.”
Leetch’s run in New York also was punctuated by stretches of team ineptitude and a long string of non-playoff appearances. His tenure with the Rangers ended in 2004, when he was dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline. After some initial bitterness, he embraced playing for the Leafs, even though he saw just 15 regular season games and two playoff rounds before the lockout. He finished his career with the Boston Bruins and, despite offers to return in 2006-07, he left the game on his own terms.
“It was very flattering, but it just wasn’t in me,” Leetch said. “The skating is the skill that usually erodes first and I could see that happening. Coming back would have been great, but it would only have made sense if I was mentally prepared and if my skating hadn’t dropped off. I didn’t want to embarrass myself.”
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