Goaltender Michael Leighton has done quite a bit in his hockey career. He has appeared in over 530 professional games. He holds a Stanley Cup Playoffs record after posting three shutouts in the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals. And now he is rewriting the AHL history books.
Today Leighton finds himself with the Rockford IceHogs: the most tenured player in the locker room. However, even with his incredible track record and over a decade of professional experience, the 33-year-old netminder still echoes the same hunger and exuberance of a rookie making his first break onto the scene.
“I haven’t gotten a call-up this year, which is a little disappointing,” he said while evaluating the start of the 2014-15 season. “But we have a good team, and I’m excited to be here.”
Like many of his current teammates, Leighton was also a rookie in the Chicago Blackhawks organization. The product of the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires began his professional career with the Norfolk Admirals during the 2001-02 season, after Chicago drafted him in the sixth round two years prior in the 1999 NHL Draft.
The Petrolia, Ontario, native then went on to play for four different NHL teams, lead the 2009-10 Philadelphia Flyers to within an overtime goal and a win of a Stanley Cup and got a taste of European hockey last year with Donbass HC of the KHL, just to name a few highlights. He is currently just six career shutouts shy of toppling the 57-year-old record set by hockey legend Johnny Bower (1945-58) for most in AHL history. Leighton pulled within one shutout of Gil Mayer (1949-63) for second-most all-time on Jan. 22 when he recorded No. 40 of his career in Iowa.
That is enough of a backstory to cause many players to rest on their laurels and shift their careers into cruise control. Leighton is not one of these players.
For one, his performance for the IceHogs this season does not look like the work of someone who’s got one foot planted in the past. As of the AHL All-Star break, Leighton owns an 11-7-2 record and ranks in the league’s top five in goals-against average (2.02), save percentage (.931) and shutouts (4). In six appearances in January, he has posted a 3-0-2 record with a staggering 0.89 GAA, .974 SV% and two shutouts.
What’s more, Leighton’s blue-collar attitude ensures that his focus never wavers from the task at hand.
“For me, this is a job,” Leighton explained. “Hockey puts food on the table for my family. If I don’t work hard, stay positive and keep playing good hockey, my career will be over. I’d like to play as long as I can, so as long as the contracts keep coming I’m going to keep playing.”
It might be a blunt and exacting way to look at something like professional sports, but few can argue against the fact that goaltending has been a job that Leighton has excelled at from the outset of his career.
“He’s had a great career,” said IceHogs Head Coach Ted Dent. “He’s closing in on [the AHL shutout record], and he’s played in the Stanley Cup Final with Philadelphia. The longevity really stands out to me, the fact that he’s in great shape and still loves what he is doing at this age.”
According to Leighton, the key to this longevity – the secret to staying at peak performance year after year when the game is constantly evolving – is to simply keep himself open to doing the same.
“It’s just working hard and continuing to learn,” Leighton said. “I’m 33 years old, but I’m still a student of the game. I think at this level you need to continue to get better and learn new things, because there are always new [techniques] coming out, and goalies are learning fast and improving. If you just do your thing and not work hard at your game, you will get left behind.”
This receptiveness to change, along with a steadfast dedication to routine and preparation, has allowed Leighton to stay afloat for so long in a cutthroat industry that demands consistency.
In any field of work, one of the most valuable assets someone can have is experience. That is why job applicants fill out resumes for potential employers; it is the journey that enables one to reach the destination. The player bio is the resume of the hockey world, and few players can boast the kind of qualifications that Leighton’s contains. This seasoning is one of the main reasons why the Blackhawks offered the veteran a one-year contract this past August, and why Dent is thrilled that Leighton is currently working for him.
“[His experience] is huge, not only from a stability standpoint in net, but in a leadership standpoint in the locker room and with his teammates,” Dent explained. “We know that he has that experience and can share that wisdom with us.”
“I try to lead by example,” Leighton said when asked about his role on and off the ice. “I work hard in practice and try to always have a smile on my face and stay positive. Hopefully the 21-year-olds can look at me and say, ‘Well, this guy is 33 and he’s still playing and having fun and working hard, and look where he’s at.’”
With 13 years removed from when he was a bushy-tailed 20-year-old cutting his teeth in the pros, does Leighton ever look in the rearview mirror at everything he’s done thus far in his career? Not yet, he says.
“I do a little bit of reflecting, but I try not to think of everything altogether,” Leighton said. “When it’s all over and I’m sitting at home and doing nothing, I’ll sit back and really look at what I’ve accomplished. I’m proud of what I’ve done in my career, and obviously when I’m done I will look at the whole picture and see how it ended. I’m hoping to be satisfied with how it went.”
Since arriving for his second tour of duty with the Blackhawks organization, people around town have been quick to associate Leighton to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final between his Flyers and Chicago. While that particular playoff run was obviously a landmark of his career, Leighton believes individual moments like that are just one aspect of being successful.
“I heard a quote when I was younger, that it is easier to get in the NHL than it is to stay in the NHL,” Leighton said. “Now I look back at the quote and really believe that it’s hard to play five, 10, 15 years in the NHL and be consistent. If you get to the Cup finals or win a Cup, obviously you are known for that and it’s a good accomplishment, but you want to be known as the player that’s played 10 or 15 years.”
The truth is that Leighton is not currently in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He is one of the primary cogs of a Rockford team that has its own postseason aspirations. And even though Leighton has already left a lasting impression on the hockey world, at heart he is just like all of the young twenty-somethings that surround him in the IceHogs locker room. He is not just striving for team success, but to land that next big promotion.
“I am a pretty proud guy,” Leighton explained. “I don’t want to go through the motions and just get through a game, I want to win and I want to be successful. My goal is to be in the NHL, so if I have to play two or three years in the AHL to get back there, then I’m going to work my butt off and make it happen. That’s kept me motivated – the NHL is not far away, and I want to work hard and get back there.”