By Bruce Berlet
“I’m a true believer that you can’t have success on the ice if you don’t have success off it, and Brian Leetch is a champion in life and a champion on the ice,” said Adam Graves, who played more games with Leetch than any other player (690). “As a player, he was as tough a competitor as I ever played with. People always think of toughness as playing on the edge, but he always ended the season 10-15 pounds lighter because he played 30 minutes a game against the other team’s best players, matching them physically and surpassing them mentally.
“His ability and how he could read the game was superior to everyone. He could control a game, and not too many guys can do that. There wasn’t an A, B and C game. There was only an A game because he brought it every night. His effort and passion never changed, which made him the special player he was.”
It’s also a major reason that Leetch is one of the seven new members of the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame to be inducted and recognized on March 10 as the Connecticut Whale host the Norfolk Admirals at the XL Center. It will be the fourth Hall of Fame to include Leetch, who is already in the United States Hockey (2008), NHL (2009) and Boston College (2011) shrines in addition to his number being retired at MSG. This time he will be inducted with former Hartford Whalers players Mike Liut, captain Pat Verbeek and Blaine Stoughton, Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander, three-time Olympian and all-time NCAA women’s hockey scoring leader Julie Chu, a Fairfield native, and the late William E. Barnes, one of the founders of the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers with Whale chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin.
“This is great, especially with the group of people that I’m going in with,” Leetch said of his impending latest Hall of Fame induction. “I didn’t know there was a Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame, but I was fortunate and happy to have grown up in a town like Cheshire and enjoyed playing there.
Leetch came to Avon Old Farms as an 11th grader in the fall of 1984. As a student at Avon Old Farms, Brian excelled in athletics and as a community leader. He was captain of the 1986 hockey team that achieved an undefeated regular season. During his senior year he collected 92 points for the hockey team, and is currently the leading scorer in Avon Old Farms history with 169 points – in just two seasons! Brian was also a remarkable baseball pitcher for Avon Old Farms. Leetch earned All-New England status in hockey and was awarded the Jennings and Murray Cups, given to the top underclassman and senior athlete, respectively. In his senior year, Brian served as Vice Warden of the Student Council, and on graduation day 1986, was a recipient of the Order of Old Farms (the highest student award for character, community service, and leadership).
Longtime Rangers scout Ray Clearwater remembers seeing Leetch for the first time when Leetch was a sophomore at Cheshire High.
``It was the most amazing thing,'' said Clearwater, an NHL scout for 30 years. ``You had this helter-skelter high school hockey game going on, then Brian came on the ice and all of a sudden it was like, `Oh, oh, oh, oh.' The Cheshire team was terrific, and it was all because they had this Leetch kid.''
John Gardner doesn't hesitate when asked to name the most talented player in his 37 years as Avon Old Farms hockey coach.
``Brian Leetch was what you call the consummate team player,'' Gardner said. ``He was never out there for personal glory, just the enjoyment of the game and being part of a team. He'd much rather get an assist than score. He was the epitome of what you want in a leader, almost to a fault.''
Gardner knows character when he sees it.
Take Leetch's senior year, when future Boston College teammate Billy Nolan had two goals in the first two periods of a game. Fifteen years later, Gardner still recalls Leetch spending much of the third period trying to make sure Nolan got his first hat trick. Finally, Nolan scored that third goal.
``Brian kept trying to get Billy the puck, even though he had a better shot at scoring,'' Gardner said. ``But Brian was often so unselfish I'd have to tell him to take the puck and shoot it because we needed a goal. He was never `me, me, me' like so many other athletes. ... He always sacrificed his ego for the good of the team.''
Leetch, who will be 44 on March 3, graduated from Avon Old Farms in 1986 and played one year at Boston College. He was the Rangers’ first-round pick (ninth overall) in 1986 and captained the 1988 Olympic team in his first of three appearances in the Winter Games. Leetch joined the Rangers immediately after those Olympics and played 17 games in the start of an honorable 18-year NHL career that included 15-game stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the end of the 2003-04 season.
A year after his first Olympic appearance, Leetch won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and went on to become an 11-time All-Star, two-time winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman and the first American-born Conn Smyth Trophy winner as playoff MVP in 1994, when he had 11 goals, including three series clinchers, and 34 points as the Rangers ended a 54-year Stanley Cup drought. He also captained Team USA to victory in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and set 24 Rangers records, including career assists (741), goals (240) and points (981) for a defenseman.
But winning the Stanley Cup is Leetch’s most cherished memory.
“Not only have you got to where you want to be as a team and an individual, but doing it in New York with a team that hadn’t won in 54 years and watching the city celebrate is pretty much the reason my jersey is hanging up in the rafters,” Leetch said. “I go to New York City to this day, and there’s always someone who stops me and thanks me for ’94 and has something in their briefcase that they want me to sign that they’ve kept from that year. It’s an amazing thing to be a part of.”
In November 2007, Leetch received the Lester Patrick Award for service to American hockey, especially in New York, where he did extensive community service and lived even after being dealt to Toronto and before moving his family to Boston, where he ended his career in 2006 and started the fun “job” of being a full-time dad for his three children, helping with homework and coaching hockey, baseball and soccer.
“Every kid is involved in something,” Leetch said proudly. “I can’t be coaching all the time, but I’m doing as much as I can. I’m often going one way, and my wife is going another.”
Leetch also is an analyst for Rangers games on the MSG Network, does spots on NESN and returned home on Monday after participating in the five-day Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas for the third time.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Leetch said. “The people really enjoy it, and the NHL is there for a few days filming spots with the players. And the guys love to sit around and share stories. Some like to gamble a little, though I’m not really into that, but everyone gets a lot of laughs telling tales.”
On Aug. 12, 2008, Leetch was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame with Richter, Brett Hull and Cammi Granato, and he earned entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 12, 2009 with Hull, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robataille and Lou Lamoriello.
“He was one of the first Americans to have an impact on the league when there weren’t a lot of Americans in the game, especially from Connecticut, which wasn’t a hockey hotbed,” said former Rangers captain Chris Drury, who followed Leetch’s exploits while growing up in Trumbull and played with him on the 2002 Olympic team. “But since he broke through, he paved the way for a lot of people from our area. My brother (Ted) and I got a shot to be considered for scholarships to top Division I schools and the (NHL) draft. We all owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Leetch has been called a warrior but prefers the term be saved for his father, Jack, who was in the Navy flight program in the Vietnam war; sister Beth, a member of the Fairfield police department for a decade and instrumental in the establishment of a DARE program for police officers and parents; and brother Eric, a former hockey and football player at West Point who became a Green Beret, did three tours of duty in Afghanistan as a captain in the Army’s Special Forces unit and then delayed a promotion to major to enter the chaplain program.
The three were at MSG, along with Leetch’s mother, Jan, who gave birth to the family’s oldest child on March 3, 1968.
“People who went to the games could see all the skills he possessed, but he was even better behind the scene,” said Gernander, who played with Leetch and is the only player in Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale history to have his number (12) retired. “I know he was a quiet, soft-spoken guy, but he had a huge heart, a great amount of character and was a true leader. Even with the few call-ups (to the Rangers) I had, he made a point to stop and see how I was doing, kind of extending a hand.
“All the accolades for his on-ice stuff are one thing, but I think more important is how great a person he was, which is why there is so much fanfare for him.”
Few know that better than Richter and Messier.
“It’s important for people to recognize how great he was,” said Richter, who backstopped the Rangers’ Stanley Cup victory in 1994. “But it’s also important for him to recognize how much he meant to his teammates, to the city, to his sport. He’s been really one of the most important players that we’ve had coming out of America and one of the best that has ever put on a pair of skates at his position. He deserves every bit of credit he gets for a career that is really remarkable.”
Messier was even more effusive about his close friend.
“Sometimes there are events and people that words just can’t describe what Brian has meant to me and to his teammates,” Messier said. “Brian will always be the benchmark for what it looks like to be a Ranger and what it’s supposed to be like to be a Ranger. For the next 100 years or more, when they look like what it’s supposed to be to be a New York Ranger, they’re going to point to Brian Leetch and say, ‘That’s what we want in a New York Ranger.’ ”
When asked how he’d like to be remembered, Leetch had a simple answer.
“The game moves on and the jerseys get filled by different names, but if people remember me at all and as a Ranger, that’s enough for me,” Leetch said. “Being from Connecticut has a little more meaning, and being in New York for that long was amazing for sure. I’ve been very fortunate.”