Thirty years ago, in 1986, the New York Mets won the hearts of a city along with their second Wold Championship. Ronald Reagan was in his second term as President of the United States. Top Gun, Platoon, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off were a few of the year's top movies, while Mr. Mister, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson were topping the pop charts.
And on June 21 of that year, the New York Rangers selected a young defenseman from Connecticut by the name of Brian Leetch in the annual NHL Draft--a decision that would eventually go down as one of the best in the organization's now 90-year history.
However at the time, there wasn't as much hype as you might expect surrounding the Rangers selection of the future Hockey Hall-of-Famer with the ninth overall selection in the first round that spring. Things were different thirty years ago--there wasn't as much intrigue or media coverage leading up to the NHL Draft, no draft combines or television coverage of the draft itself--and as a result, even with the immense talent Leetch possessed, he himself barely even thought ahead to his draft day let alone one day playing in the NHL.
"It's completely different now, how the kids are prepared for everything, they are just so much more advanced than in my day" Leetch told BlueshirtsUnited.com recently. "I aspired to play in the NHL, but really I played hockey because I loved it and I never thought too much or too seriously about playing in the National Hockey League. It was more about having a good high school career and getting the chance to play for the national team in some tournaments, get into college, and hopefully making the (1988) Olympic team. The NHL was so far off my radar back then."
According to Leetch only three or four teams sent scouts to see him play and work out, but he was still one of between 15 to 20 players invited to attend the draft at the Montreal Forum. He and his family sat near Vincent Damphousse, who was selected sixth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs--and in retrospect probably had the second most successful career after Leetch of any player selected in 1986.
"When it got to the Rangers, it was the first team picking so far that day that had shown any interest in me," offered Leetch. "I remember my dad looking at me and him telling me 'You never know, from here on in something could happen'. So we were waiting and there was a delay at the Rangers table and the next thing you know my name was being called, and it was just a blur after that. When I look back I realize how really unprepared for that moment I was."
Leetch laughs and refers to himself as an "immature 18 year old who didn't quite understand all that was going on" the rest of his draft day. Several times he referred to that day as "a blur".
However he regrouped back at his hotel room when finally alone with his parents and family.
"I do remember being back in the room taking with my parents and it was at that moment that the NHL really became a reality for me," explained Leetch. "You realize that as a first rounder you are going to get the chance to go to NHL training camp and make the team. All of a sudden it became clear that this was a possible, doable career. Before then it was just something others talked about; but there in the hotel room I thought I'm going to have a real shot at this now."
Leetch admits that today his amateur career would have made him a high profile NHL prospect, likely one that all 30 teams would have scouted thoroughly. Coming off a 40-goal, 84 point prep school season (in just 28 games at Avon Old Farms) Leetch was clearly the best U.S player, best overall defenseman, and likely best all-around player heading into the 1986 draft.
Instead eight players were chosen before Leetch, including solid future NHLers like Joe Murphy, Jimmy Carson, Damphousse and Pat Elyniuk--all eight of whom came from the Canadian junior ranks. Another future NHL All Star, Zarley Zalapski, was one of two defensemen selected before Leetch's name was called by the Rangers.
"I knew there was a group of players that was going to be selected ahead of me, and I had been told I'd go somewhere in the middle of the first round, so I was happy when I was chosen by the Rangers with the ninth pick," said Leetch.
The future NHL rookie of the year (in 1988-89) was also more than happy that he was selected specifically by the New York Rangers.
"The proximity to where I grew up was huge for me and my family," explained Leetch. "Out of all the possible teams, to be picked by one from the area an hour and a half away from where I grew up, where my family could come see me play, was a huge thing. And then my dad grew up outside of Boston, so the Original Six was a big deal in our family, listening to him tell stories. So the Rangers being an Original Six team, selecting me, was a pretty big thing, too, for me."
What happened after Brian Leetch was selected by the Rangers in the first round of the 1986 draft thirty years ago certainly is what NHL general managers and player personnel directors dream about.
Leetch played 18 seasons in the National Hockey League and ultimately entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. Over 1205 career games played, Leetch recorded 1028 points to go along with 97 points in 95 career post-season games played.
He was a two-time Norris Trophy winner, who also captured the Calder and Conn Smythe Trophies. Leetch appeared in ten NHL All Star Games,was the Rangers team MVP on six different occasions, and starred for the United States in several Olympics and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey where he captained the U.S. squad to a gold medal.
Leetch is the highest scoring defenseman in Rangers history, totaling 981 points in 1129 games, second on the overall scoring list behind only the legendary Rod Gilbert. He is the franchise's all-time assists leader (741), is second in games played (1129), ninth in goals (240), and, of course, was a member of the 1994 Stanley Cup champions.
A former captain of the Rangers, Leetch had his number two uniform officially retired at Madison Square Garden on January 24, 2008.
"There is now way I could have ever predicted that day all the great things that would follow in my career."