Brian Leetch was on the ground floor of the growth of USA Hockey during his development time. Now the Hockey Hall of Fame member sees the rarified air the organization has reached.
Leetch is in Buffalo to meet with players and coaches taking part in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN), and can't help but notice how much things have changed since he played on those early USA Hockey teams.
"I was there at the beginning of them identifying some of the top players and trying to give them competition," he said. "I remember playing as a 17-year-old against Canadians in Colorado; we played a three-game series, playing against Adam Graves. Then the World Junior teams, that tournament was so strong and our teams were weaker at that stage.
"When I look at it, I look at the grassroots programs USA Hockey has done, and the amount of participation that has come from so many different areas. Now with USA Hockey it's not just the Northeast, or Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts. To be able to see these kids get introduced to hockey from warm-weather states and non-traditional hockey areas, and then to be able to get identified and to get moved into stronger roles, that's where I think USA Hockey has come a long, long way. … It has to start at those grassroots and they've done a great job of balancing money on both sides of it, with the elite kids as well as exposing kids to all different avenues of getting into the game of hockey."
It's the grassroots programs that take up most of Leetch's time. Since retiring after 19 NHL seasons in 2006, he's spent most of his time coaching his kids' baseball and hockey teams at home in Massachusetts.
Skill development is a big point of emphasis for Leetch, but so is sportsmanship and playing the right way. That's why he's partnered with Liberty Mutual Insurance on its Play Positive program.
Since 2007, Liberty Mutual has awarded more than $750,000 to youth sports teams around the U.S. that demonstrate a commitment to sportsmanship and playing positive.
"Before we do skills or anything on the field or on the ice, we talk about being a good teammate and being a good sport and practicing good sportsmanship and no arguing with an umpire or a referee, listening to your coaches, not talking negatively to the other team," Leetch said. "All these things go on at the beginning of the season before we go on and develop our skills.
"When Liberty Mutual Insurance came to me and said they have this Play Positive pledge and September is their sportsmanship month, and they talked about how they've been in it since 2007 … I said I'm in, tell me what you need me to do."
Leetch will be in Buffalo meeting with youth coaches and parents of young athletes to discuss the resources Liberty Mutual has through the Play Positive pledge program.
"It's easy for me to be involved with something I've been doing on my own and with the guys that volunteer to help coach in my town," he said. "To be able to do it on a bigger stage is fun for me."
He'll also get to see 42 of the top United States-born prospects for the 2016 NHL Draft in action.
"I have a friend, Marty McInnis, who helps with Boston College, his son [defenseman Luke McInnis] is playing," Leetch said. "I have some friends from Long Island that are friends with Charlie McAvoy's family and I've met them before too. There's a few kids that there's some relationships from their parents and their families that I'd like to see. This is an age group I don't know a lot about but I'm excited to be here and see which ones, not even if they stand out here, but to see how their careers move from a draft year, through to where they go. To be here at this stage of their development is interesting for me."
Nothing like the All-American Prospects Game existed when Leetch was developing into the player the New York Rangers selected with the ninth pick of the 1986 draft. He went on to become the first U.S.-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy while helping the Rangers win the Stanley Cup in 1994 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
Leetch said his message to the next generation of American NHL hopefuls would be to remind the prospects to have fun when the puck drops at First Niagara Center.
"In this position, it's have fun," he said. "You've played this game to this point because you've enjoyed it. You've gotten here in the last few years because you started to focus on hockey as something you want to take as far as you can. Remember when you get to these games, this is the reward, this is the fun part. All that work that you've done now as you're focusing on practicing and off-ice conditioning, the more that's put into your diet, that's the work part. The games are the fun."