Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of stories checking in with college hockey personalities, past and present.
Brian Leetch had just returned from a Florida vacation with his wife and children when the phone rang. The Leetches were taking advantage of some of that priceless summer time when everyone had just a little more time to be together. And when life returned back to normal in Boston, he had an opportunity to talk some hockey.
Indeed, at 45 years old, this nine-time NHL All-Star and Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman has a lot going for him.
“Absolutely,” he said with a laugh. “I tell people all the time. Life is great, and if you ever hear me complain about anything — anything at all — please stop me immediately.”
It is hard to believe that it’s been seven years since we’ve seen Leetch, perhaps the best American defenseman in NHL history, take the ice in uniform. He became a fixture — a given on the back line — for 18 years, primarily with the New York Rangers, and it just seemed like it would never end.
But in 2006, after spending a season and a half away from the Rangers — playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins — Leetch, who led New York to the 1994 Stanley Cup, hung up his skates to focus on new avenues in his life.
So far, so good. As Leetch began to spend more time with his family, he began to dabble in broadcasting, working the intermission desk for the Bruins on NESN, as well as the Rangers on the MSG Network. He also was able to sit back and collect the kind of accolades that go with a player of his caliber.
In 2007, Leetch, who played one season at Boston College, received the Lester Patrick Trophy, a combination award sponsored by the NHL and USA Hockey to reward overall contribution to the game in America.
In 2008, in an emotional pregame ceremony attended by some of New York’s most marquee names in sports and otherwise, the Rangers retired Leetch’s No. 2. Later that year, Leetch — the captain of one of the most successful and often forgotten Team USA squads, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey champions — was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
And in 2009, he joined Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille in a star-studded class for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“I have a lot to be thankful for,” Leetch said.
Leetch recently talked to USCHO about the past, present and future. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
USCHO: It was quick — perhaps too quick for Eagles fans — but you had a memorable run at Boston College, where your father also played. In one season, you played in 37 games, posting nine goals and 47 points en route to being an All-American. That’s not too bad. It must have been a tough decision for a New England kid, all of 18 years old, to decide to walk away from one the nation’s elite hockey programs. Did you have to wrestle with that decision in 1986?
Leetch: I did and it was tough. You rely on a lot of people at that time in your life. You’re young, and your parents and coaches know a lot more than you. It was something that people thought it was the right time, that the scouts had you at a certain position, draft-wise, and there were a lot of Americans that looked like first rounders that year — Craig Janney, Jimmy Carson, Tom Fitzgerald, Scott Young — so I wasn’t alone, and that was a good thing. It was a good year for USA Hockey.
USCHO: You were picked No. 9 overall by the Rangers. Stroll down memory lane and illustrate your weekend in Montreal back then, walking up to the podium and the whole process.
Leetch: It was a lot less organized back then. We headed up to the Montreal Forum. My parents went up with me, we got there the day before, got a hotel room and just waited it out. It was a bit of a whirlwind, being an American. But yeah, some nerves, and you’re sitting there in the stands, and teams are making their picks and you’re still there, so it’s a nervous feeling, for sure. I remember getting to No. 9, and it was the Rangers, and it just felt it was the time. I remember turning to my dad, and he was like, ‘You never know what can happen from here on in.’ There were just a lot of teams that people didn’t have a great read on, so we just didn’t know. But it felt right, we had talked to the Rangers a lot, and then they picked me 10 minutes later.
USCHO: We see a lot of players get a little anxious these days as they sit and wait, and watch other names get called. You mentioned nerves. How bad was it?
Leetch: Watching the other teams pass you, it’s fine. It was still overwhelming to get drafted, to be wanted, and you go down there, shake hands, throw the jersey on, and it’s just an incredible feeling and it doesn’t matter what number you went. To be honest, from there, I hardly remember much because I was so overwhelmed. It’s like winning the Stanley Cup, there’s so many emotions running through you, and it happens so quickly, it’s tough to take it all in.
USCHO: You mentioned that being a good year for USA Hockey. That seems like a normal year now, kids coming out of college, or in some cases high school and junior hockey, as Americans, and suddenly they find themselves first rounders. As an ambassador yourself for the game in America, that has to make you proud.
Leetch: It’s fantastic, and that goes back to Wayne Gretzky, to me, and what he was able to do in going to Los Angeles, playing for the Kings in the 1990s and opening up people’s eyes in different markets to the sport of hockey and the viability and opportunity to play hockey in warm-weather states and all over. From there, USA Hockey really picked up the pace to expanding into other markets, from grass roots to being able to identify kids at an earlier age and getting them into the right programs. That’s huge for development on the whole, and you’re starting to see those results now. That’s continuing to build and you’re at a point now, where kids used to be interested in roller hockey, let’s say, and that being the best way to learn the sport and get a stick in their hands. And now, with rinks being built all over the place, ice hockey is available to so many kids, and it’s opening up the talent pool. All you need to do now is look at our U.S. junior teams, and the players are from all over.
USCHO: And back then, you were one of few players to make the NHL as a rookie, playing 17 games for the Rangers. Now many first rounders graduate to the league in Year 1. Why?
Leetch: Motivation. I came into the NHL at that bridge — from old-school to new-school training camps. The way it was back then, there were a lot of guys who were not in the best of shape. Now? Different story. Veterans report in tremendous hockey shape now, and the rookies have learned to match that. A crossover happened with younger, proven NHL players coming in with personal trainers, and the right nutrition and workouts, and they show up ready to go now. If the rookies don’t do the same, they’ll be a step behind. So, you see first rounders working toward that now in the summer. After they get drafted, you let the agent handle everything else and you just continue to prepare to be that kind of player who makes the team.
USCHO: What is the thing most young college players need to prepare for as they embark on NHL careers?
Leetch: There is a mentality, when your team is struggling, to handle things. Let’s face it, a lot of these players are going to losing teams, and lot of those players haven’t done a lot of losing yet. There come times in the NHL — no matter the team — when you’re losing the one-goal games constantly, and that can be a mental burden on rookies. It’s not easy. Not being where you want to be always — in the standings — is an adjustment. But you rely on your teammates, you focus on your responsibilities, and over time, you find a way to manage everything.