It's all coming together for Brett Lebda
At Thursday's Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio, XM Radio), Lebda, a Red Wings' defenseman, will be playing in the NHL -- which few thought he would ever do -- in a regular-season, outdoor game -- which nobody ever expects to play in -- paired with his childhood hero -- which not even he would have believed possible.
Yes, good times.
Lebda's story, through one of the unlikeliest of NHL career paths, is one almost 25 years in the making. And it began in the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove, Ill.
For a good decade, into the early 1990s, one of the NHL's fiercest rivalries was the Red Wings vs. the Blackhawks. During the bulk of the run Lebda lived, ate and breathed all things Blackhawk.
"I was a huge Hawks fan," he said. "I remember going to games with my father and him taking me down to old Chicago Stadium. They were really good in the early '90s, the town was buzzing about them and it was a real experience to go down to the games and see it all.
"I went to probably a handful of games each year -- one of the earliest memories I have, it was the '91 All-Star Game, and it was right during the war, when Desert Storm started. I was listening to the (U.S.) anthem, and looking around. I can remember seeing grown men crying. I was getting goose bumps even as a little kid. It was so loud; I never really heard any stadium as loud as that one."
Hockey had a profound impact on Lebda, who played whenever he could and dreamed of playing like his heroes. And if you were a defenseman about Lebda's age anywhere near Chicago at that time, your hero was Chris Chelios
"Chris was my favorite player growing up," Lebda said. "You always look to the best player on your favorite team, and right when I was really into hockey, he came to Chicago and that was huge. I was a defenseman myself, and I liked the way he competed and how you knew he loved the game.
"I grew up on a lake, and we had a cottage on a lake that we mostly spent the summers at and the winters, too. We plowed a rink and I remember just freezing. My feet would be just freezing, but I'd stay as long as I could. Then you go home, you throw your skates next to the fire, and for the next time, they're melted."
But rooting for the Hawks, skating on the pond and idolizing Chelios didn't guarantee an NHL career.
"Honestly, the thought never really crossed my mind," Lebda said of eventually making it to the NHL. "Well, obviously as a kid I kept taking necessary steps -- every kid wants to play in the NHL -- and then when I played for the (U.S.) U-18 team at 15, 16, then 17-years-old, I started thinking a little bit more, maybe I could.
"I went on to college (Notre Dame), never got drafted, and I wasn't really sure what was going to happen, what I was going to do, if I was going to apply for a job or what," he said. After our last college game, things started happening and it became more of a reality."
Signing with the Red Wings after four seasons at Notre Dame, Lebda spent parts of two seasons with the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. He played 46 NHL games in 2005-06, and has been a full-timer since the start of the 2006-07 season.
"My first NHL game I scored my first NHL goal, my second NHL game I got my first assist, and then I got sent to the minors," he remembered. "My second year in the League I was up with the team full-time. I played pretty much all the games and I wasn't bouncing up and down. I think it was sometime during my second year that I said to myself, 'I'm on a really good team, probably one of the top teams in the NHL, and I'm playing a regular shift.' When I realized that, all of a sudden I felt that I could make a career of it."
"It was a surreal experience when I was there and trying to make the team, skating with Chelios and all the rest of these (future) Hall of Famers. Then all of a sudden I'm not just seeing Chelios, we're starting the season paired together. And we kept being paired together over the next two years, every day. It was pretty exciting and I learned so much from him"
-- Brett Lebda
Adding to his thrill was his defense partner for his first two seasons -- Chelios, his childhood idol.
"It was a surreal experience when I was there and trying to make the team, skating with Chelios and all the rest of these (future) Hall of Famers," Lebda said. "Then all of a sudden I'm not just seeing Chelios, we're starting the season paired together. And we kept being paired together over the next two years, every day. It was pretty exciting and I learned so much from him."
On Dec. 27, Lebda and Chelios were reunited for the first time this season -- Chelios had been out with a broken leg for much of the season -- in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche
. If the two are paired during Thursday's Bridgestone Winter Classic, you'd have two Chicago natives paired on the Wrigley Field blue line in their hometown.
That sort of good fortune is not lost on Lebda, who can't wait to see how it all plays out.
"I think when it actually happens, when I step out for warm-ups, it'll settle in that much more," Lebda said. "It's a game I'm really looking forward to. Me and Chris have had long talks about it, the fact that it's such a marquee game. He's as excited as anyone.
"Seeing a guy like that who's seen everything in the sport, for him to get exited it makes me even more excited. I'm really looking forward. I can't wait for Jan. 1."