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Former Kelly Cup MVP Hayward hangs 'em up

by Brian Compton /

Trenton forward Leon Hayward, who earned MVP honors in 2005 when the Titans won the Kelly Cup, has announced his retirement as an active player.
It’s been less than three years since the Trenton Titans won the Kelly Cup with a core that most coaches – especially at the ECHL level – would salivate over.

Rick Kowalsky. Scott Bertoli. Andrew Allen. Vince Williams. B.J. Abel. The list goes on and on.

Leon Hayward was another member of that prominent list. And, just like each of the aforementioned, Hayward has decided to hang up the blades.

After a stellar professional career that began in 2002 in Pensacola and was highlighted with the 2005 Kelly Cup Finals’ Most Valuable Player award, the 28-year-old forward announced his retirement last week. He will remain in the game on a part-time basis as an assistant coach with the Texas Wildcatters -- the team he appeared in 69 games for last season, tallying 14 goals and 21 assists.


”I was really prepared to kind of step back and step away from it,” said Hayward, who recently accepted a sales position in Houston. “I haven’t even looked at my skates since I took them off after we lost to Florida in the playoffs. It wasn’t one of those things where I was skating a lot and thinking it was time to get in shape.”

His decision became easier once he and his new wife took jobs in Houston. But that didn’t stop Texas head coach Malcolm Cameron from offering his former player a job on a part-time basis. Hayward accepted, and will attend all home games and practices when time permits.

“He’s got a lot to offer,” said Cameron, who guided the Wildcatters to a record of 41-22-9 and a second-place finish in the South Division last season. “He’s a smart guy and he has a great relationship with the players. He’s always been one of the most popular guys on his team every year. It was an easy decision for me to offer him a coaching position. It’s nice to have a guy like that.”

The upcoming season may ultimately determine whether or not Hayward decides to attempt coaching on a full-time basis. While he certainly possesses the charisma and persona that most teams look for in a coach, Hayward is using a wait-and-see approach. It basically will come down to if his players are buying into his what he’s preaching.

“I’m open to it,” Hayward said of a possible coaching career. “I really enjoy what I’m doing professionally, but I’ve been a hockey guy forever. I don’t think that will ever change. We’ll see how it goes. If players are receptive to me and my thoughts and how I look at the game … I guess it depends on how I develop as a hockey person.”

Overall, Hayward appeared in 264 games in the ECHL, and another 94 in the American Hockey League. At the Double-A level, Hayward notched 79 goals and 72 assists and proved to be a force both on the ice and in the dressing room. His best season – at least, on paper -- came in 2005-06, when he went 26-15-41 in 51 games for the Columbia Inferno.

But most would argue that his best work came in the 2005 postseason with Trenton. In 20 contests, Hayward had six goals and five assists with 32 penalty minutes. His tally in the early stages of the third period in Game 5 of the Kelly Cup Finals against the Florida Everblades sparked a five-goal outburst in what has to be considered the most memorable 20 minutes in Titans history. Trenton went on to win the Kelly Cup in six games. Had Hayward not sparked his team in Game 5, the series may have gone the other way. Instead, the Everblades became the fourth team with 90 or more points to be eliminated by Trenton that postseason.

“It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever really experienced,” Hayward said. “From a players’ standpoint, it was just awesome. To be a big part of it myself was unbelievable. I’ve never experienced anything like that. It kind of goes to show what kind of team we were and how good we were when we played our best. That’s why we won it that year. We played with a lot of passion. No matter what happens, nobody can ever take that year away from us.”

Not only did Hayward earn a championship ring, but an MVP trophy as well. In reality, a number of different players – Allen, Bertoli and Kowalsky, just to name a few – could have won the award. It was Hayward’s performances in the final two games of the finals that put him over the top.

“I still keep track with Alley every now and then, and I still tell him he should have won,” Hayward said of Allen, who was Trenton’s goaltender during that magical run. “I played the best I possibly could in the biggest game of the year. It’s something I’ll always be proud of. I’m lucky we have a pretty good DVD of it, because my kids probably won’t believe me. By the time they’re old enough, they probably won’t have DVDs anymore. I’ll have to figure out a way to convert it. Maybe they can put it on iTunes or something.”

Around the ECHL – The Victoria Salmon Kings signed defenseman Jordan Little, who had 12 points and 156 penalty minutes in 43 games for Rocky Mountain in the Central Hockey League last season. … Defenseman Jeremy Swanson, who split time between the Florida Everblades and AHL Rochester in 2006-07, signed with the Wheeling Nailers. … The Stockton Thunder signed rookie defenseman Brock Wilson. … The Texas Wildcatters signed defenseman John Adams, who split time between Johnstown and AHL Springfield last season. … The Wheeling Nailers signed forward Peter Ferraro. No, not that Peter Ferraro. This Peter Ferraro, a rookie forward, had 44 points in 127 games over a four-year run at Sacred Heart University. … The Phoenix Roadrunners acquired forward Sean O’Connor from the Las Vegas Wranglers in exchange for future considerations. Phoenix also signed centers Cam Paddock and Scott Kelman. … Center Jim Henkel, who went 21-29-50 for Trenton last season, has re-signed with the club. The 28-year-old is entering his sixth professional season. … Referee David Banfield, who has worked more than 200 ECHL games since 2003-04, has been hired by the NHL.

Former Nailer dies on ice -- Defenseman Darcy Robinson, who played parts of three seasons with the Wheeling Nailers between 2001 and 2005, has died. He was just 26 years old.

Robinson was playing for Asiago (Italian Ice Hockey Federation) when he suddenly fell to the ice during the team’s home opener. He was taken to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The cause of death is currently unknown. The game was suspended.

Robinson appeared in 57 games for the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2003-04, notching two goals, six assists and 64 penalty minutes.

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