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McLeod: Fast from the Beginning

by Julie Robenhymer /

The New Jersey Devils drafted Mike McLeod 12th overall in this year's NHL Draft because of his ability to score goals, but mostly because of his ability to motor up and down the ice faster than just about everyone.

"He naturally plays at a high pace all the time," said Devils assistant general manager Tom Fitzgerald. "He's constantly going, which gives him a chance to get on pucks and hold on to pucks and if he has the puck, he's going to make plays with the puck, but it all starts with his legs for sure. It's an asset that he'll have for the rest of his career."

If you ask his parents, Rich and Judi, it's an asset Mike's had since he discovered how to use his legs. 

"He was always doing things way too early," his father explained. "He was crawling at four months and walked at seven months. He wasn't even a year old when he started climbing out of his crib."

Said his mother: "I'll never forget the day when he just pulled himself up and started walking. I was screaming at Rich because I couldn't believe it, but it was like he had been doing it for months."

Learning to skate wasn't much different for the Mississauga, Ontario native. 

"He was about 2.5 when he started and I remember taking him to the rink one time and we were holding him up and he just wanted to go," Rich said. "His feet were going as fast as he could get them to go, but he really wasn't going anywhere. He was trying to walk instead of skate, but we let him go and every once in a while he'd slip and fall and he would just get right back up and his feet would get going again just as fast as he could go." 

Said Judi: "For the longest time, it was almost like he was running on the ice because he had to go so fast to keep up with the other kids. When he got a bit older, we got him a power skating coach to help him lengthen his stride so he could learn to stop running and wasn't having to put so much effort into each stride, but he was always faster than almost everyone."

Rich continued: "That hasn't changed. His whole thing is speed and being the fastest guy on the ice. It started with trying to keep up with everyone else, but it wasn't long before he was skating circles around them."

In fact, when he was six, Mike's coaches went to the Mississauga Hockey League and asked for an exception to be made that would allow him to play up an age group. 

"He had played super six when he was five and he was the best kid on the team and they didn't want him to have to play at that level again because, really, none of the other kids wanted to play against him," Judi explained. "Fortunately, the board agreed because they also didn't want to discourage other kids who weren't quite up to his speed. He played up a year until he was a pee wee and then played two years there and switched back to his own age."

This meant he would play on a team with his older brother Matt, who is now in his sophomore season at Canisius College in Buffalo. 

"I remember everyone on my team was like, 'Who is this little kid?' but he showed them pretty quick that he was the real deal," Matt explained. "I think he even had two goals in our first game." 

Between Matt, 19, and Mike, 18, and their younger brother Ryan, 17, and all the time they spent at the rink, their father thought it would be smart to build a rink in their backyard.

"The first year, I had no clue what I was doing. I was just flooding the backyard and ended up with this big chunk of ice and Matt wouldn't even go out and skate," he explained. "The second year, I decided I was going to make it more professional and put the boards up with a tarp and everything and finally, we got Matt out there and Mikey was out there and that's really where they learned to skate."

The original rink was 25 feet by 60 feet and every year it got better and better as more kids in the neighborhood started skating on it and more parents got involved with building it. Eventually, they bought their neighbor's house and extended the rink another 20 feet to make the rink bigger as the boys got bigger.

"It became known as the Center of Excellence for the neighborhood. We used pressure treated lumber and built boards and even added professional lighting one year. It was quite a thing of beauty, I would say," Rich said proudly. 

While the McLeods used it the most, it wasn't unusual for there to be as many as 20 kids on the ice. Their rink became so popular they bought different colored jerseys so the kids could organize nightly 3-on-3 tournaments and even converted part of their garage into a locker room to keep the gear and melted snow out of the house. 

"Pretty much every night, one of us had to be out there because there would be fighting. They were all very competitive - a lot of stick swinging and shoving into the snowbank and glove dropping," said Judi.

"The penalty box got a lot of use at our rink," Rich interrupted.

"Yes, we actually built a penalty box out of the snow," Judi said. 

"Usually it was Mikey chasing Ryan around the rink and Mikey would be going crazy because…that's just who he is!" Rich said with a laugh. "But, I really think that's where the boys learned how to play with the puck because they were always in small quarters because there were lots of kids and they had to learn how to protect it and stickhandle."

Matt recalls those nights on the backyard rink vividly. 

"Mikey, being the crazy competitor that he is, refused to lose and would never let the game end. We would always be out there way past our bedtime, always playing to one more goal…one more goal," he explained. "If you did end up finally beating him, you could count on a thrown stick at your shins and the definite possibility of a couple punches thrown at your cage. Don't count on him ever getting into a real fight though. Finally, good ol' Judi would barge out there and that would be the end of it until we came out the next day and did it all over again."

Mike remembers it much the same.

"We always had the whole neighborhood over. People would just drop in and we'd end up having these huge games and me and my brothers would always fight…We fought pretty much every time we went out there," he said with a smirk. "I remember that I hated losing - I still do - so I always just wanted to be on the ice and score goals and help my team win…and beat my brothers."

As he participates in his first NHL training camp, the coaching and development staff will focus on harnessing that competitive spirit and teaching him how to use his speed to his advantage.  

"He has great speed especially through neutral ice and I find that his speed with the puck is as fast without it and that's hard to do," explained Fitzgerald. "We have to help him learn how to change gears. Fast is fast, but sometimes you need to be deceptive and change gears - go 80 miles an hour and then kick it into gear and jump up to 100. That's something we'll try to help him understand better." 

Fitzgerald added: "His natural habit is to go, go, go and that's a good thing because he doesn't have to think about it. He just does it instinctively and we don't want to take that away from him."

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