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By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com
If you watched Brian Leetch at all during his splendid 17-year NHL career, you certainly marveled at his incredible grace even during times of the utmost pressure. It was one of the traits that helped make him one of the pre-eminent players of his generation.
But now, as he nears his induction among the game’s greats in the Hockey Hall of Fame tonight in Toronto, Leetch is much more vulnerable to a case of nerves than he ever was while skating on the ice.
|Brian Leetch, shown here on Monday at the Hall of Fame, was the last NHL defenseman to score 100 points in a season and the only one other than Bobby Orr to win the Calder, Norris and Conn Smythe Trophies. |
“It’s quite nerve-wracking actually,” said Leetch. “They only want you to speak for four minutes, which is good for a guy like me, but it makes it twice as hard to try and figure out how to squeeze everything in.”
Over the course of his career, Leetch was not one for long speeches or lengthy answers in postgame interviews. Though he was always respectful and well-spoken, Leetch preferred to do his talking out on the ice where he was always most comfortable.
Monday night’s speech has caused Leetch some anxious moments already, though he does have the experience of speaking to a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd the night his No. 2 was retired by the Rangers organization as something similar to lean on.
“That was nerve-wracking, but at least I could focus all of that on my New York career and really thank a few people in the organization, a few teammates, and talk to the fans,” said Leetch. “This night will be a little broader because I see people talk about growing up and other stuff. It’s always much easier to answer questions than to prepare a whole speech!”
Ever the sincere and humble person, traits not always associated with a superstar athlete, expect Leetch to rise to the challenge on Monday night, just as he did on too-numerous-to-count occasions throughout his playing career.
And what a career it was!
Leetch recorded 1,028 points in 1,205 career National Hockey League games, and another 97 over the course of 95 post-season contests. Seven times in his career he amassed better than 70 points, including a phenomenal 102 during the 1991-92 season.
The smooth-skating Leetch captured two Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenseman, the 1989 Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie, and the 1994 Conn Smythe Trophy as the post-season Most Valuable Player. A nine-time All-Star and captain of the Rangers, Leetch will be ultimately remembered as a Stanley Cup champion, helping the Rangers end their 54-year hex in the spring of 1994.
“You know, I only had one shot at it, I only played in one Finals,” said Leetch. “More and more I think about it that I made it to the Finals only once, and that we won it, and how lucky that was.”
His accomplishments also included much success at the international level, where Leetch represented the United States in three Olympics, winning the silver medal in 2002, and captained Team USA to the gold at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey tournament.
Watching Brian Leetch play was an absolute joy. He was among the best skaters in the game, and his on-ice vision in making scintillating rushes, passes, and shots was a true sixth sense that few others own.
And he was a true physical specimen, regularly chewing up 30 minutes worth of ice-time a night while playing in every conceivable important situation game in and game out.
During the playoffs, when he was needed most, Leetch would amaze fans, media, opponents, and teammates alike with his tremendous will to win and ability to push his body past the limits of even the most fit players in the NHL. For example, his ice-time surged past the 50 minute mark during the epic Game 7 against the Devils during the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals contest that was decided in the second overtime.
Ask Leetch what skill set him on the path to greatness, and he will answer that it was his skating.
“My skating was better than a lot of guys because of all of the work I had put in with the (1988) U.S. team,” said Leetch. “I never felt like I was an explosive player where I could stop and start as fast as some players, but I did work on skating as long and at as high a level as I could. I think the biggest jump in my skating came training for the Olympics in ’88.”
|John Davidson, known to Rangers fans as both a player and broadcaster, will be honored earlier in the day Monday for his outstanding career as an on-air hockey analyst. He left that role three years ago to become President of the St. Louis Blues. |
Leetch will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame as part of one of the most impressive groups of inductees ever. Joining him will be former Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, legendary sniper Brett Hull, and Luc Robitaille, the highest scoring left wing in NHL history and Leetch’s Rangers’ teammate for two seasons.
In addition New Jersey Devils President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello will be inducted, and former Rangers goalie and television analyst John Davidson will enter the Hall’s media wing this afternoon as a winner of the Foster Hewitt Award for excellence in broadcasting.
After tonight’s festivities, Leetch will return home to his normal every-day life, which now is centered around looking after his three children, and not on a hockey career.
That doesn’t mean Leetch is not thinking about getting back in the game some day, just as his good friends Mark Messier and Adam Graves have done with the Rangers. And, if possible, he would love to join Messier, Graves, and Mike Richter in some capacity again down the road.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about it,” said Leetch. “It would be great to do with friends, someone you respect like teammates. It would be unbelievable if the timing were ever right for everybody.”