Michael Leighton had to clear his name before he could begin to embark on what he hopes is a journey back to the NHL in his second stint with the Chicago Blackhawks.
He does not know who picked up the puck that Patrick Kane used to beat him for the Stanley Cup-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final; he does not know who has the puck now, or where it might be; and he never wants to see the puck again.
"I've heard there's a lot of controversy about it," Leighton said. "I don't know where the puck is. I've been asked many times. The last I saw it was under the net. I lifted the net up and kicked it. I know the referee or linesman was beside me and that was it. That was really the last thing on my mind, finding where that puck was."
Leighton expects to hear more about the missing puck and Kane's Cup-winning goal next month, when he arrives for training camp with the Blackhawks.
Leighton signed a one-year, two-way contract with Chicago on Monday. He said he expects to start the season in the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs, but he hasn't lost hope of beating out Antti Raanta for the No. 2 job in Chicago.
Raanta signed a two-year contract in June that carries a $750,000 salary-cap charge. Corey Crawford is the Blackhawks incumbent No. 1.
"My goal is obviously to play better than [Raanta] and Crawford if I can, and that's all I can control," Leighton said. "I'm going to go into camp in good shape and play my best. If it doesn't work out I'll work hard in Rockford to get back to it. That's my goal. I want to play in the NHL. I want to play for the Blackhawks. Hopefully it works out for me, but my focus right now is just playing the best hockey that I can and let the chips fall as they may."
Leighton has played in two NHL games, both with the Philadelphia Flyers, since Kane slipped the puck past him with a forehanded shot from the lower edge of the left circle to give the Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.
Back surgery and the emergence of other goalies in Philadelphia kept him in the AHL; he played one game for the Flyers in 2012-13 and was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in April 2013; he dressed for 12 games as Sergei Bobrovsky's backup but never got into a game. He signed a one-year contract to play in the Kontinental Hockey League with Donbass Donetsk for the 2013-14 season and was third in the league with 20 wins, and had a 1.74 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in 42 games.
He was expected to play for HC Sochi in the KHL this season but an undisclosed illness prevented him from attending training camp and required his contract to be terminated, making him a free agent again.
Leighton, who said he's healthy now, said he was nervous that he may never be able to play in North America again, but that the Blackhawks were among a handful of teams that showed interest in him once they learned his contract in the KHL had been voided.
He said he signed with the Blackhawks because of his familiarity with the organization and the sterling reputation it has developed. He was drafted by Chicago into the sixth round (No. 165) of the 1999 NHL Draft and played 42 games with the Blackhawks in parts of two seasons (2002-04).
"When I was with the Blackhawks we had a tough run, things weren't going well for us in the organization," Leighton said. "After I left, I know within the next two or three years I was told the organization went from being an average, maybe not as good organization, to the best in the League. When you hear the organization is the best in the League you obviously are drawn to that. … That right there is an attraction for me."
Even if it means reliving the most painful goal he ever allowed through stories and, in all likelihood, some practical jokes starting next month.
"I did know the puck went underneath me and I turned around and saw the puck stuck in the net," Leighton said of Kane's goal. "If you said Patrick Sharp knew about it, I'm sure the three of us [including Kane] were probably the only ones that knew it went into the net. Obviously disappointing for me, didn't want it to end that way. It was a good run for me and the Flyers. It didn't work out. I'm moving on from that and looking forward to a new start with the Blackhawks."
In addition to playing for the Blackhawks and Flyers, Leighton also has spent time in the NHL with the Nashville Predators, Montreal Canadiens and Carolina Hurricanes. In 105 games he is 35-41-9 with 10 ties, a 2.97 goals-against average, .901 save percentage and four shutouts.