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Persistence pays off for Flyers' Michael Leighton

by John Dellapina /
CHICAGO -- In the macro, historical sense, it makes no sense whatsoever. The Stanley Cup Final, after all, is the domain of goaltending royalty the likes of Jacques Plante, Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.

But in the context of personal history -- of a man bringing the sum total of his life experiences to the defining moment of his professional life -- it seems so obvious.

What, you may ask, is Michael Leighton doing tending goal for a team that, beginning Saturday night, will be playing for the Stanley Cup? More to the point, how will a guy who has played for nine pro teams, been loaned to the minors 17 times, been traded twice and claimed on waivers four times not simply melt into a quivering puddle in the visiting crease when the roaring United Center crowd rains its overpowering noise upon him during the series-opening anthem?

"He's comfortable with being uncomfortable," Kevin Weekes said.

Weekes, of course, knows a little bit about such things.

Before becoming a rising television star on the NHL Network, Weekes plied his trade as a goaltender for a dozen NHL seasons. During that time, though he enjoyed considerably more regular-season success than Leighton has thus far -- Weekes played for seven teams and had to battle for every start of his 348-game career.

"That's the main thing with him," Weekes said of Leighton. "He hasn't been given an easy road. He hasn't been a guy that's been ear-marked and given a long-term contract and an opportunity to just play regardless of how well he did or didn't play."

Such relentless requirement to justify one's presence, not to mention the toll exacted by being rejected so many times, usually rattles or defeats an athlete. In Leighton's case, it appears to have provided solidifying senses of self and perspective.

Leighton is under no illusion that even winning the Cup would earn him the first long-term contract of his life. Perhaps that is why he met the media Thursday at United Center on Media Day looking every bit like a guy who simply is going out to play another hockey game Saturday night -- and nothing like a guy who is getting the one great chance of his life.

"Obviously, I've been on highs and I've been on lows," Leighton said, sitting at one of the kiosks assigned to the 10 players on each team that figured to draw the most attention during Media Day. "Maybe that's why I'm not that nervous and not trying to think about things too much. I'm obviously happy with where I am and proud of where I am, but I've got four more games to go."

He thought he had no more games to go for Philly this season while sitting on the bench in Boston on May 10 and watching Brian Boucher keep the Bruins off the scoreboard and the Flyers' impossible comeback hopes alive in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Boucher, after all, had mounted his own career surge late in the season and through the first two-plus rounds of the playoffs to get the Flyers that far. And Leighton hadn't played at all in the eight weeks since a high ankle sprain had seemingly ruined his long-awaited dream NHL season – the one that saw him claimed by Flyers GM Paul Holmgren off waivers from Carolina in mid-December, play the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic game at Fenway Park and go unbeaten in his first 10 games en route to a 16-5-2 record that helped the club save its wacky season.

But then Boucher's knee buckled unnaturally beneath a pile of players -- and Leighton got the nod.

All he has done since is go 6-1 with a 1.45 goals against average and .948 save percentage. He got the Flyers home in that Game 5, completing the shutout Boucher started, and then all the way home from a 3-0 series deficit against the Bruins. Then he merely posted three shutouts in the five-game Eastern Conference Final triumph over Montreal -- something even legendary Flyers goaltender Bernie Parent never managed while leading the Flyers to back-to-back Cups in 1974 and '75.

"You're out eight weeks and, with your confidence you really don't know where you are and you have no idea how you're going to perform," Leighton said of getting chucked into the cauldron in Boston. "I really didn't have time to think about how I was going to play. I just got thrown in there.

"My second game -- the first game I started -- I was more nervous than when I got thrown in there not having time to think about it and prepare for it."

Of course, for Leighton, being nervous is a relative term.
"He hasn't been given an easy road. He hasn't been a guy that's been ear-marked and given a long-term contract and an opportunity to just play regardless of how well he did or didn't play." -- Kevin Weekes on Michael Leighton

"Unflappable," Holmgren calls him.

A lesser, or less-life-tested man might view his date with the Blackhawks as a chance at revenge. After all, Chicago was the first organization to judge him not good enough – the 'Hawks drafted him in the sixth round in 1999 but dealt him to Buffalo on Oct. 4, 2005, after giving him just 42 NHL games over three seasons.

"Hey, I got injured during the (2004-05) lockout and had a tough summer and rehab and I came into camp and I got outplayed -- (Craig) Anderson played better than me – so they picked him over me (to back up Nikolai Khabibulin)," Leighton said. "I'm not looking back at that and saying,  'It was their fault and I'm mad at them for doing it.' That's just the way it worked out and I've got to respect that."

Still, on Saturday night, 11 years after he first envisioned it, now-29-year-old Michael Leighton gets a chance to fulfill a dream: tending goal in a Stanley Cup Final game in Chicago. At times, in the years since, he admits he wondered if that dream or any of his NHL aspirations were destined to come true.

"Definitely," he said. "But my dream has always been to play in the NHL. But the years I was in the minors my whole mindset was: 'OK, what do I have to do to get back to the NHL?' Every time I've been down into my lows, I've had the right mindset and I've battled and I've worked hard to get back to where I am."

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