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LeClair a hero in Montreal, but a star in Philly

Wednesday, 11.25.2009 / 1:00 AM / U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame

By Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer


G-A-P: 406-413-819
+/-: 204 | PIM: 501 | PP: 118

Believe it or not, there was a time in the illustrious career of John LeClair when the bruising power-forward felt intimidated each time he hopped on the ice.

It was in the early 1990s when LeClair was just breaking into the League with the Montreal Canadiens.

"John was always a friendly giant -- I used to call him 'Big John,'" Jacques Demers, who coached LeClair in Montreal for two-plus seasons, told NHL.com. "John was always a friendly guy, down to earth and kind of shy. I could see that, but he always went out and did his job. There was never a task he wouldn't do."

Deep down, however, LeClair was a bit overwhelmed. Following graduation from the University of Vermont, where he majored in small business management, the pride of St. Albans suddenly found himself lining up against players he idolized as a kid. It was all happening so fast and he struggled with the adjustment.

"The biggest thing for me in transition was that, just one year ago, I was watching these guys on TV and thinking I want to be like them," LeClair told NHL.com. "Then you're going from watching and idolizing them as a kid to playing against them. The biggest thing was having some confidence and that attitude to do something special out there."

He turned out to be more than something special. LeClair would play 16 seasons in the League with stops in Montreal, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh on the way to 406 goals and 819 points in 967 career games. He'd become the first American-born player to record three consecutive 50-goal seasons while with the Flyers from 1995 through '98, was a two-time Olympian (1998, 2002) and played a pivotal role in Team USA's dramatic three-game triumph over Canada in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

"John became one of the premier power left-wingers in the game," said former teammate Tony Amonte. "There weren't many players who played the way he did. The only other guy who comes to mind is Kevin Stevens -- the type of guy who bulled you over, was big in front of the net and was able to score goals in tight places."

LeClair's career comes full circle on Dec. 1 when he, Amonte, Tom Barrasso, inventor Frank Zamboni and the 1998 Women's Olympic team are inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel. Zamboni will be inducted posthumously.

LeClair's career began to flourish when Demers was hired as coach of the Canadiens just prior to the 1992-93 season. The veteran mentor appreciated LeClair's work ethic and rewarded him with plenty of minutes.

"He worked so much," Demers said. "Sometimes, for college graduates and big guys like John, it takes more time, but he really worked at it. He was always first on the ice and the last guy off and that's the sign of guy who wanted to improve. How could you not reward him in some way?"

As it turned out, LeClair would ultimately award Demers for his faith as the big left wing scored back-to-back overtime winners against the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final.

He won Game 3 on a goal 34 seconds into the extra period and then again in Game 4 at the 14:37 mark. The Canadiens would return to The Forum and close out the series with a 4-1 victory two days later. LeClair's heroics enabled him to become the first player since Maurice "Rocket" Richard in 1951 to score consecutive playoff overtime goals and he also helped give Montreal an NHL-record 10 consecutive OT wins that postseason.

"Besides the obvious -- the goaltending of Patrick Roy -- I consider those two goals by John the greatest goals of my career because they helped me to win a Stanley Cup," Demers said. "In L.A., two overtime goals in two straight games -- unbelievable."

"Jacques put a lot of trust in me and he talked to me about overcoming that lack of confidence," LeClair said. "He really believed in me and put me in so many different situations.

"The biggest thing for me in transition was that, just one year ago, I was watching these guys on TV and thinking I want to be like them. Then you're going from watching and idolizing them as a kid to playing against them. The biggest thing was having some confidence and that attitude to do something special out there."
-- John LeClair, on going from college to the NHL

"It's nice that he thinks those were two of the biggest goals of his career, but I think Patrick Roy and Guy Carbonneau had quite a bit to do with our Cup victory that year. It was an amazing run with the string of overtime victories we had."

LeClair's career took a dramatic twist on Feb. 9, 1995, when the Canadiens traded him, defenseman Eric Desjardins and Gilbert Dionne to Philadelphia in exchange for Mark Recchi and a 1995 third-round draft choice. There, he would join forces with center Eric Lindros and right wing Mikael Renberg to form the feared "Legion of Doom" Line.

It was a turning point in LeClair's career.

"I always tell people that with Montreal, he was a good player, but when he arrived in Philadelphia, he became a great player," Demers said. "He certainly overcame the intimidation factor -- he became the intimidator. To this day I still feel John became an even greater player when he played with Lindros."

LeClair would play 10 seasons for the Flyers and finish as one of the most productive players in franchise history with 333 goals and 640 points in 649 regular-season games and 35 goals and 74 points in 116 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

"Your first reaction after a trade is disappointment, especially since I loved playing in Montreal," LeClair said. "But I was excited to be in Philly and to have a chance to play with Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg. They helped form me as a player.

"It goes back to the confidence thing. Once I started getting that success and discovered what I was doing was working and helping the team win, my confidence grew. Eric and Mikael did that for me."

Contact Mike Morreale at mmorreale@nhl.com
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