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Leetch ranks among greatest American players ever

by Adam Kimelman

"For me, any type of personal recognition is always humbling and a little uncomfortable because it’s such a team game. To be here at the end of my professional career, be in this room with past winners and current recipients, it’s pretty humbling." -- Brian Leetch

NEW YORK -- In the lead-up to the 1960 Winter Olympics, Jack Leetch was one of the last players cut from the U.S. men’s hockey team. He missed out on what, until 1980, was considered a miracle on ice when the American team took home the gold medal in Squaw Valley.

When he was dropped, Leetch told team management that he hoped someday he could have a son who could wear the U.S. colors.

That son, Brian, wore the red, white and blue on a number of different occasions; those accomplishments, as well as his brilliant 18-year NHL career, made him a more-than-worthy recipient of the Lester Patrick Trophy, awarded for outstanding service to hockey in the United States.

Leetch joined former fellow U.S. Olympian Cammi Granato, legendary hockey broadcaster and writer Stan Fischler, and long-time hockey publicist and historian John Halligan as honorees Wednesday in New York.

While all four winners have Rangers connections — Granato’s brother, Tony, was a teammate of Leetch’s; Fischler has for decades broadcast Rangers games; and Halligan worked for the Rangers for nearly 25 years — it’s Leetch who was recognized as one of the greatest to ever pull on the team’s sweater.

Leetch was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, but grew up in Connecticut, about halfway between Boston and New York. While he wasn’t far from Broadway, he never thought he’d play the world’s biggest stage.

“I grew up in Connecticut, and we don’t have any professional players or references in the neighborhood towns growing up,” he remembered. “NHL hockey wasn’t something I aspired to at a young age.”

Instead, Leetch focused on baseball, where he developed into a pitcher with a 90 mph fastball and a future major league batterymate.

“Brad Ausmus (a 14-year major league veteran catcher) says, ‘You could throw hard enough, but then you’d have to learn how to pitch at the next level,’ and he’s caught a few guys who threw pretty hard,” Leetch said.

Leetch never set his hockey goals very high.

“Early on I thought maybe the Olympics were a possibility and representing the USA, and that’s because of USA Hockey giving me the opportunity as a 15-, 16-, 17-year-old to start playing international games,” Leetch said.

He played well enough in those international games to be picked ninth overall by the Rangers in the 1986 Draft.

“I knew when I got drafted in the first round, I would have an opportunity to play,” he said. “A team doesn’t risk that draft pick without giving that person an opportunity. You’re going to get training camps, you’re going to get opportunities with the big team or the minor-league team to play.

“I traveled with the U.S. national team in 1987 for the 1988 Olympics, probably played against 10 or 11 NHL teams in training camps. I felt I could skate well enough to compete, but I didn’t know where I’d fit in down the road. I thought I would at least be able to play.”

That’s an understatement if there ever was one.

By the time Leetch was done, he was the Rangers’ all-time leader in assists (741) and was second in points (981) and games played (1,129) over a 17-year span. He played a half-season with the Toronto Maple Leafs and one season with the Boston Bruins, finishing his 18-season NHL career in 2006 with 247 goals, 781 assists and 1,028 points in 1,205 regular-season games.

“Someone asked me; ‘What do you want to be remembered as when you’re done playing.’ I said, ‘If anyone remembers that I was a Ranger, that’s good enough for me.”

His performance with the team, especially in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, is one that never will be forgotten. In 23 games, Leetch led the team in scoring with 30 points, and his 11 goals were second on the team only to Mark Messier.

None was bigger than goal No. 11, which came in the first period of Game 7. Leetch took a pass from Sergei Zubov, and with an eternity and an open net to shoot at, he buried the shot.

“He had the ability to take that puck, with everything riding on the line, to make sure that he settled it down, picked his spot and was present enough to know he had the time he did,” said Mark Messier.

In his 18-year career, former NHL defenseman Brian Leetch totaled 247 goals, 781 assists and 1,028 points in 1,205 regular-season games, with one Stanley Cup championship.

“That goal was priceless,” Fischler said. “That goal was the Cup.”

The goal sparked the Rangers to their first Cup since 1940 — and helped to earn Leetch the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’s still the only American-born player to be so honored.

Leetch also represented the United States in three Olympics — 1988, 1998 and 2002 — winning the silver medal with the 2002 team. He also captained the 1996 U.S. team that won the World Cup of Hockey.

Leetch is known just as much for his modesty off the ice as he is for his prolific playing career.

“I remember how painful it was for him to go accept the Conn Smythe Trophy,” recalled Messier, “because he didn’t want to single himself out or separate himself from the team. But that was Brian through and through.”

Added longtime teammate Mike Richter: “Anyone who plays on Brian Leetch’s team owes some of their success to him.”

“For me, any type of personal recognition is always humbling and a little uncomfortable because it’s such a team game,” Leetch said. “To be here at the end of my professional career, be in this room with past winners and current recipients, it’s pretty humbling.”

Leetch will have another humbling experience on Jan. 24, when the Rangers retire his No. 2.

“That’s for people that have supported the team for a long time, before I was there, and through when I was there, to have a night to look back on their enjoyment of following a team for so long,” said Leetch. “To be able to see a player go from 19 years old to 36 years old in the same uniform, to be able to win a championship. Just a time for everybody that supported the Rangers to enjoy a night to just reflect a little bit.”

That’s also what Leetch is doing now, spending time at home with his wife and his three children, and doing a little coaching for his oldest son’s team of 7-year-olds. Eventually, though, he’d like to get back into the game.

“I feel very lucky to be able to spend time at home, and be able to be with my family like that,” he said. “To leave again right now and put those hours in as a coach is not interesting to me right now. But in the future, I don’t see how I could stay away. It’s something I want to do.”

For now, though, he’s happy living the quiet stay-at-home life. But for Rangers fans, they’ll always hold No. 2 in a special place.

“You think of No. 2, you think of No. 1,” said Halligan. “He’s probably the greatest Ranger of all time, certainly the greatest Rangers defenseman. He’s neck-and-neck with Rod Gilbert as the greatest Ranger of all time.”



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