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Leetch chose pucks over baseballs

by Evan Weiner

In the mid-1980s, scouts were filing reports on Connecticut's Brian Leetch. In 1984, the 16-year-old Leetch was throwing a 90-mph fastball and helping lead his team, the Cheshire Rams, to a state championship. Two years later, the Avon Old Farms senior set the school record for strikeouts in a game with 19. The kid had a major-league arm but was also pretty good in hockey, even though Connecticut wasn't known for producing hockey players.
Leetch approached the 1986 NHL Entry Draft not knowing what scouts were thinking in either baseball or hockey.
"The only team I really followed as kid was the Yankees from a young age," he said. "But hockey, I didn’t start seeing until I was basically into high school. We started to get more games (on television). The Bruins, the Whalers was the local TV. You would have some games on but then I was playing, I'd be at practice or playing and I certainly didn't read the paper or the sports section like I do now, so I really didn't have a team that I followed."
Leetch did not come from a hockey area even though there were some youth leagues in Connecticut, but he caught someone's eye at USA Hockey and got a chance at a higher level.
"For sure, it was the start of my career because I grew up in Connecticut and I didn’t have a reference point of anyone growing up in Connecticut who had gone onto NHL hockey," he said. "But USA Hockey gave me a chance as a 16-year-old, as a 17-year-old to start playing international games and wearing the USA jersey and competing. I think it was in '84 that you started to realize what really went on in 1980 (when the U.S. team took the gold at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics), the hype for the next Olympic team that was trying to back that up and then projecting where you would be in '88 and thinking, wow this could be a high play. Around '84 I remember seeing the hype of that team and projecting the years and thinking there is an opportunity for me if I stick with this."
Leetch really didn't know that he had the right stuff to play in the NHL until he heard his name called by the New York Rangers as the ninth pick of the first round back on June 21, 1986. Leetch had been invited to Montreal, which should have tipped him off that something big was about to happen, but his life changed suddenly when Rangers General Manager Craig Patrick made him the team's top choice.
"I knew when I got drafted in the first round that I would have an opportunity to play in the NHL," Leetch said. "The team doesn't risk that draft pick without giving that person an opportunity. You are going to get to training camps, you are going to get an opportunity either on the big team or on the minor-league team to go play. So that's when I knew. Then I traveled with the U.S. national team in '87 before the '88 Olympics and we played probably 10 or 11 games against NHL teams in training camp, and I felt that I could skate well enough to compete. I didn't know where I would fit in down the road but I thought I would be at least be able to play."
In some ways, the hardest part of Leetch's career came in the days leading up to the draft and then getting picked. Leetch had that deer-in-the-headlights look on stage.
"I saw some pictures of that the other day and you can tell I was a scared kid up there in Montreal," Leetch said. "I was standing there with my parents and they had pretty much the same look in their eyes. They didn't really know what was going on either. It was pretty much, come out of the stands, put a jersey on, did some interviews and then we were driving back to Connecticut and weren't really sure what was going to happen."
There is a whole process leading up to being drafted, and the easiest part for a potential draftee is just playing. The hardest part is what amounts to applying for a position as teams conduct many interviews with players. After the interview process, Leetch wondered just where he would go and when.
"I had done a lot of interviewing with teams picking in the first round, but from the scouting bureaus and things in the paper, they had me maybe at the end of the first round or the beginning of the second round," he said.
Looking back at the 1986 Draft, if there was such a thing as a do-over, Leetch should have been the top player selected, but everyone has 20/20 vision in hindsight. The first eight picks were Joe Murphy (Detroit), Jimmy Carson (Los Angeles), Neil Brady (New Jersey), Zarley Zalapski (Pittsburgh), Shawn Anderson (Buffalo), Vincent Damphousse (Toronto), Dan Woodley (Vancouver) and Pat Elynuik (Winnipeg). There were only 21 teams in the NHL at the time, and some good players like Adam Graves (picked by Detroit at No. 22) and Teppo Numminen (Winnipeg's second selection at the 29th slot) were still available where Leetch initially thought he might be selected.
Leetch, Graves, Damphousse and Numminen turned out to be the best players over the long haul, which only goes to show that drafting is not an exact science. Leetch and Graves were very important pieces of the Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup championship.
Leetch did make the right choice by pursuing hockey rather than baseball despite having a 90-mph fastball at 16. In fact, his high school catcher has told Leetch that he was better off being a hockey player. The catcher, Brad Ausmus, signed a contract with Leetch's childhood favorite team, the Yankees, and even though he never played with the Bronx Bombers, he has had a solid career with San Diego, Houston (twice), Detroit (twice) and is still playing with the Astros.
"Well, I guess that's true," laughed Leetch of his fastball. "He at least gives me those props, you could throw hard enough. He has caught a lot of guys but he said there is a lot more that goes into pitching than just throwing hard."
Leetch claims he also had a curveball, but "I really didn’t need it much then. If you could throw hard, you can get through the majority of batters."
Leetch played his last baseball game in high school and never looked back.
"I am not disappointed that's for sure," he chuckled.


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