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Leetch's No. 2 joins Rangers' immortals

Thursday, 01.24.2008 / 10:00 AM / NHL Insider

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer

Brian Leetch played an instrumental role in bringing the New York Rangers their first Stalney Cup since 1940.
He wore No. 2 for almost two decades as a member of the New York Rangers. Tonight, however, Brian Leetch will be immortalized as the team’s No. 1 defenseman when his jersey is hoisted to the rafters at Madison Square Garden.

Leetch, who’ll be the fifth Ranger to have his jersey retired along with Rod Gilbert (No. 7), Ed Giacomin (1), Mark Messier (11) and Mike Richter (35) in the team’s 82-year history, will be honored during pre-game ceremonies at 6:30 p.m. before the Rangers meet the Atlanta Thrashers.

”When I found out the ceremony would happen at the end of January, I was happy, but then we got to Thanksgiving and then the holidays and I started to get nervous because I knew I would have to prepare hotel reservations and ticket requests, but the Rangers have been great,’’ Leetch said. “I’ve been trying to put together a rough outline and gather my thoughts on what I want to say. I just want to get it out the right way. I felt I would be more nervous than I am now, but I’ve gotten such a positive reaction from all my friends and the Rangers fans about how they’re looking forward to it. I’m just really excited, but I certainly don’t want to mess anything up.’’

Leetch is hoping to control his emotions -- at least longer than Messier did during his 77-minute tribute on Jan. 12, 2006.

”He’s always been able to control his emotions, but it’s going to be something entirely different than he’s ever experienced when he’s out on that ice this time,’’ Messier told NHL.com. “He’ll have a lot of people to thank and while it’ll be a tough night, it’ll also be a good night.’’

”I do know I’ll be nervous, probably more so than Mark was,’’ Leetch said. “Mark just wears his emotions on his sleeve and that’s not so bad. Mike (Richter) is kind of a joker in those types of situations, so my guess is I’ll be somewhere in between.’’

The debate will surely rage on regarding Leetch’s place among American-born NHL players. There’s no denying the fact, though, that he is the only American-born Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

Leetch, who earned the playoff MVP award following the Rangers’ unforgettable 1994 Stanley Cup Playoff march, was the team’s top scorer that postseason (34 points) over 23 games. His 11 goals during the ‘94 playoffs were second on the team only to Messier (12). His 11th tally of the postseason, coming in the first period in Game 7 of the Stanly Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks, was the most memorable. It broke a scoreless tie and gave the Rangers needed momentum en route to a 3-2 victory at The Garden.

”The goal was certainly a big one,’’ Leetch said. “Memorable because it set the tone for the game as the first goal. I remember raising my arms in celebration after the goal and thinking; ‘What a relief!’ I feel that goal kind of got everyone into it, including the fans.’’

Adam Graves, who played with Leetch in 690 games, the most of any Rangers player, still marvels at Leetch’s remarkable playoff performance of ‘94.

”Brian’s performance in the ‘94 playoffs could rival any Conn Smythe winner in history,’’ Graves said. “When other guys were wearing down, he was the guy making plays and controlling games and doing so while playing 30-plus minutes a game. He is one of the greatest players of all time. Despite the fact he’s quiet, reserved and a complete gentleman, he’s as mentally tough and competitive as any teammate I’ve ever had. I am privileged to have played with him.’’

Scott Gomez, who leads the current Rangers with 47 points (36 assists) in 50 games this season, played against Leetch for six seasons while a member of the New Jersey Devils.

Brian Leetch was a player I idolized as a kid growing up in Anchorage (Alaska),’’ Gomez said. “The Canadian guys always had (Paul) Coffey and (Ray) Bourque, but Americans had players like Leetch. I just remember having to be at the top of my game when up against him because he was one of those players who had the ability to control a game. I think being able to admit that a player can control a hockey game is the ultimate compliment. What most people don’t realize is that I was fortunate to meet him at the World Cup (2004-05) and as good as he is on the ice, he’s a million times better off of it.’’

Leetch, winner of the Calder Trophy as the top rookie in 1988-89, is also a two-time Norris Trophy winner as the League’s best defenseman (1992, ‘97), a six-time Rangers MVP, a Lester Patrick Trophy recipient (2007) for outstanding service to hockey in the United States and an 11-time NHL All-Star. He also played in three Olympics -- 1998, 1998 and 2002 -- winning the silver medal with the 2002 team, and he captained the 1996 U.S. team that won the World Cup of Hockey.

On Wednesday night, Leetch and former teammates took part in the 14th Skate with the Greats event on The Rink at Rockefeller Center. The annual event raises money and awareness for The Ronald McDonald House of New York, offering children with cancer and their families the support needed while undergoing treatment.

”When we talk about what it means to be a Ranger, Brian Leetch is the player who exemplifies that model,’’ said Rangers President and General Manager Glen Sather. “He is simply the greatest defenseman in the history of the franchise and gave the same effort when it came to helping the community.’’

Brian Leetch finished as the Rangers’ all-time leader in assists (741) and second in points and games played (1,129) over a 17-year span.

After being drafted by the Rangers in the first round (ninth overall) of the 1986 Entry Draft, Leetch enrolled at Boston College and played one season, collecting 47 points (38 assists) in 37 games to lead the Eagles to the Hockey East Championship. Additionally, he was named Hockey East Player of the Year, Hockey East Rookie of the Year, All-America and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award – won by Tony Hrkac of North Dakota – as the top collegiate player.

He made his NHL debut against the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 29, 1988, at The Garden, just two days before his 20th birthday. Leetch recorded an assist on a second-period goal by Kelly Kisio en route to a 5-2 victory. It would be the first of 1,028 points he would compile over 18 NHL seasons, including 981 points as a member of the Rangers. His first goal came against Edmonton’s Grant Fuhr on March 24, 1988, in a 6-1 triumph. He finished as the Rangers’ all-time leader in assists (741) and second in points and games played (1,129) over a 17-year span. He played a half-season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and one season with the Boston Bruins, finishing his 18-season NHL career in 2006 with 247 goals and 781 assists in 1,205 regular-season games. He announced his retirement on May 24, 2007.

Bruce Driver, whose NHL career spanned 15 years with the Devils and Rangers, shared the same dressing room with Leetch during his three seasons (1995-98) in Manhattan.

”Brian was a quiet leader, but when he spoke, teammates took notice,’’ Driver said. “He was also the type of person who spent the time to help out any teammate and never had a negative thing to say about anyone. He enjoyed blending in with the people of New York and, when it came to teammates, liked spending time with them either at home or on the road doing normal things like doing to dinner, movies or other social events.’’

Driver feels Leetch has earned his place among the greatest American-born players.

”He’s among the top, if not the top, American defenseman to play the game,’’ Driver admitted. “He has accomplished a lot in his hockey career and his style helped the Rangers win the Cup. He was always known as an offensive-defenseman, but never received enough credit for his ability to play in the defensive zone, which he did as well as anyone.’’

Messier feels Leetch will be remembered as a great ambassador to the game.

”He was drafted out of our own backyard and right to the Rangers, he was a true professional and was totally committed on and off the ice through his community work. That will all play a part in his legacy,’’ Messier said. “He’s going to be remembered as one of the best athletes to ever come through New York City.’’

Contact Mike G. Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com

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