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Brian Leetch retires after 18-year NHL career

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers

http://cdn.nhl.com/rangers/bc/images/contentdelta/pressbox/images/primages/Leetch_B_0524_smythe.jpg
Brian Leetch played a huge role in the Rangers' run to the
1994 Stanley Cup, earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP.


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F
ormer Rangers defenseman and captain Brian Leetch retired as a player on Thursday, officially ending a brilliant 18-year NHL career that saw him win two Norris Trophies as the NHL's top defenseman and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the Rangers' run to the 1994 Stanley Cup championship.

Leetch, 39, had not played during the 2006-07 season, having last seen action with the Boston Bruins in 2005-06. He played his final game at Madison Square Garden on March 20, 2006, as a member of the Bruins, receiving a hero's welcome when he hit the ice.

"I have been fortunate to be an NHL player since 1988," Leetch said in a statement released to the media. "I missed being in the NHL this past season, but believe it was the right time for me to stop playing.

Leetch, a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible in 2009, ended his career with 247 goals and 781 assists in 1,205 NHL games. He holds 29 Rangers team records, including the career assists mark (741) and all major scoring records for a defenseman, and has had the biggest historical impact of any player ever drafted by the Rangers.

While the Rangers knew they were getting an All-Star caliber defenseman when they selected Leetch with the ninth overall selection in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft, they could hardly have known they had chosen a player who would become one of the greatest U.S.-born defensemen ever to skate in the NHL.

Born in Texas but raised in Cheshire, Conn., Leetch spent 17 remarkable seasons with the Blueshirts, setting NHL and Ranger records throughout his historical career.

After playing a single season at Boston College and then joining Team USA for the 1988 Olympics, Leetch signed his first NHL contract with the Rangers in late February 1988 and made his debut on Feb. 29, 1988, at The Garden against St. Louis. He went on to skate in 17 games for the Blueshirts in 1987-88, tallying two goals and 12 assists for 14 points.

Leetch's first full season was the 1987-88 campaign, and he tallied 71 points, including 23 goals, a record for rookie defenseman. That season, he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year and was selected to the All-Rookie Team.

In 1991-92, Leetch enjoyed his highest-scoring season -- notching 22 goals and 80 assists for 102 points in 80 games. He became only the fifth defenseman in history to top the century mark in points, and was awarded the Norris Trophy for the first time.

In 1993-94, Leetch matched his career-best 23 goals and finished with 56 assists for 79 points. He then turned in a brilliant postseason performance to lead the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in 54 years. In 23 games, he tallied 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points to become the first non-Canadian born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP. Leetch remains the only American to win that award.

The 11-time All-Star, who missed two All-Star Games due to injury, won his second and final Norris Trophy following the 1996-97 season. In 82 games, he netted 20 goals and 58 assists for 78 points. Following the departure of Mark Messier after that year's surprising playoff run to the Conference Finals, Leetch was named the 23rd captain in Rangers history. He held the honor from the 1997-98 season until Messier's return to the Blueshirts prior to the 2000-01 campaign.

Leetch was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 3, 2004, but had one last chance to come back The Garden as a member of the Bruins two years later. As he stood on the blueline prior to the game, Leetch received a standing ovation from fans, and the team honored him with a donation to the Ronald McDonald House, a charity he had worked tirelessly for during his years in New York.

"It was great. I don't think that during the season you can really do too much," Leetch said of the pregame tribute. "Both teams have too much at stake to really focus on someone during the game. I didn't even hear what was going on. The Ronald McDonald house was a big part of my life out here."

"It was a strange feeling sitting on that blue line," Leetch said that day. "All I can say is thank you."
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