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Hockey courses through Leopold's blood

by Bob Snow
It's 75 degrees under a moonlit sky outside the Florida Panthers BankAtlantic Center, three days before Christmas last month.

Jordan Leopold's father, George Leopold, makes his way to the Colorado Avalanche team bus after the final game of the road trip of all road trips: the Avs' first father-and-son sojourn.

The scene is a far geographic cry, but fitting reward, from the genesis of son Jordan's ascent up the hockey ladder; capped off with one of college hockey's most memorable weekends in the spring of 2002.

"This is such a great experience to bond with your boy," said the elder Leopold. "There are so few times to be together now. When he was a younger player, we were out every night at the rink. We also shoveled a lot on the lake in Wisconsin -- every weekend."

"I was one of those kids that grew up on the outdoor ice at my grandparents' place in western Wisconsin," said Leopold, dripping in sweat after the Avs' practice that morning.

"At home, I walked a mile down to the park after school. I grew up in Minneapolis. I was a true city kid; grew up in an old neighborhood filled with families and grandkids. Not a lot of kids my age, so I'd shoot pucks in the driveway and find my way to the parks.

"When my dad got home at 5 p.m. after work, it was play time for him, too. He was pretty young at the time. So when I was in my teens, he still had legs in his 30's. He was excited to get outside and play with his kid."

When did it appear that Leopold's talent would carry him to the Hobey Baker Award in 2002, and then Minnesota's first national championship since 1979?

"Very early; probably about 8 or 9," said dad. "He was smooth; he could skate - skate with the wind."

"Who knows where the talent came from early on," said Leopold, who rattled off a litany of decisions about his career, beginning in high school - and amidst experiences that can make -- or break - the will to push on for any kid.

"My mom ended up getting real sick when I was 10-years-old," Leopold said. "She wasn't around for a lot of my teen years. My dad took on the brunt of a lot of that. He'd find himself working extra shifts, while driving me to hockey and baseball."

"The family was tough - we stuck together," said George. "You only have one mom and one dad. We stayed as close as you can."

"You can't call high school the beginning of your pro career," said Leopold, "but I was one of the first kids to commit to the National Team Development Program when I was 16. At the time, it was highly controversial to leave your high school, especially in Minnesota where high school hockey is gospel. I moved to Ann Arbor the next fall for my senior year. My dad really pushed school for me."

And for Leopold, there was always just one college on the radar screen.

"There were (recruiting) letters coming from left and right, but I was always pretty keen on going to the University of Minnesota. I went to the 'U' and the rest is history."

Leopold captained the Gophers his senior year, racking up 45 goals and 99 assists in four years and 164 games, including 49 points his junior year and 48 with 20 goals in 2001-02.

No point was bigger than the assist with John Pohl on Grant Potulny's shot in the slot in OT at 16:58 of overtime to take down Maine, and set up one wild and wonderful celebration along the shores of the mighty Mississippi that night in April 2002.

"Winning that national title was something else," smiled Leopold. "It was a long weekend against Michigan and Maine on home ice at the Xcel and the fans were into it. The bus ride back over the river was pretty smoky with cigars. It was a really special team. Being from Minnesota, and playing at the 'U' creates relationships for the rest of your life."

Sandwiched between those two Frozen Four games was the Hobey Baker Award. Leopold joined a special team of Hobey winners, becoming just the fourth defenseman to be named college hockey's top player -- the consummate rags-to-riches story, neatly woven into that weekend

"The Hobey was pretty stressful," Leopold said. "At the time, the Hobey didn't matter; I was focused on getting that NCAA title. I didn't know if I'd win. Heck, didn't even know what to wear. I was just a simple college kid. I didn't even own a suit. I had an old blazer jacket from when I was 16; too small for me at the time. Wore that with mismatched pants. The Hobey was icing on the cake after the whole weekend ended"

For Leopold, those 72 hours could easily have been a lost opportunity of any lifetime.

"I had the choice to leave after my junior year, but really my heart wasn't in leaving my friends at school. It sounds silly, you lose millions of dollars. To tell the truth I wasn't ready. My goal and my dad's goal was to get a college education. We couldn't afford a lot of things growing up; now those are possible doing what I'm doing."

Leopold was drafted by Anaheim in 1999 at No. 44, with his rights then traded to Calgary. After four years with the Flames, he was traded to Colorado. Leopold recently eclipsed the 300-game mark while scoring his 100th NHL point.

The most memorable NHL point?
"There were (recruiting) letters coming from left and right, but I was always pretty keen on going to the University of Minnesota. I went to the 'U' and the rest is history." -- Jordan Leopold
After a Blackhawk gloved the puck in the Chicago crease last month, Leopold was called upon for one of the rarest experiences for a defensemen - taking a penalty shot.
"Tony [Granato] looked at me and said 'You ready?' I took deep breath and said 'Yep, OK.' I'll never get another one of those in my lifetime."

Leopold converted that shot for the win in the third period to join only four other active defensemen with a penalty shot, and the first Colorado defenseman to score one since the team left Quebec in 1995. 

Leopold also recently finished off another major-impact goal.

"I did get my degree last year," he said. "I was one class short when I left in '02. I actually took the course during the lockout but didn't file the papers until three years later for graduation. It took me eight or nine years, so I guess you can call me 'doctor.'"

Leopold wouldn't mind returning to Minnesota.

"I wouldn't mind coaching at the 'U.' Some of my buddies we joke around about [coaching at Minnesota]. If that door is ever open, I'd love to take the opportunity," said Leopold.

"But you need to work your way up from nothing. Go through the bowels first."

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