by Kevin Allen / Special to NHL.com–
What former New York Rangers general manager Neil Smith remembers most about Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch’s winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1994 was that he seemed embarrassed to accept it.
“If you look at the tape of him getting the trophy from (Commissioner) Gary Bettman he was so shy about it,” Smith said. “It was like, ‘OK, I have to go get this now.'”
Leetch was the top scorer in the Stanley Cup Playoffs that season with 34 points (11 goals) in 23 games and became the first American to win the Conn Smythe as postseason MVP.
“To outscore every other forward and defenseman in the 1994 playoffs is amazing,” Smith said. “It would be a lifetime achievement for most players, but I am absolutely sure that Brian has never brought that up. He understood how good he was, but he was very unassuming. You always had to drag words out of him.”
Not many NHL players have done more in a career, and talked less about it, than Leetch. He is one of five NHL defensemen to score 100 or more points in a season. He has won the Stanley Cup, the Calder Trophy as the NHL rookie of the year and the Norris Trophy twice as the League’s top defenseman. He was captain of the United States tam that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. He’s accomplished all of this without explaining himself.
“One night he scored a hat trick in a playoff game in Philadelphia and I said to him, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a defenseman do that,'” Smith said. “But I was far more amazed than he was.”
People around hockey were always more impressed with Leetch than he ever was with himself.
“His skating ability was ridiculous,” former NHL forward and United States teammate Bill Guerin said. “It was effortless. He could glide across the ice. His hands and legs would be going in different directions. He could pass the puck in stride, and laser-beam a puck across the ice on your tape.”
The Rangers selected him with the No. 9 pick in the 1986 NHL Draft after he scored 40 goals and 84 points in 24 games during his final season at Avon Old Farms prep school in Connecticut (Leetch grew up in Cheshire, Conn.).
“Smooth is the perfect word I would use to describe Leetch,” said NBC Sports analyst Ed Olczyk, also a member of the Rangers’ 1994 championship team. “He did everything at the same level. He could skate you out of trouble as well as any defenseman I’ve played with or against skating.”
At 19, Leetch was the most skilled player on the United States Olympic team at the 1988 Games in Calgary.
“So much poise and control,” said USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson, who played on that team. “He probably had the best agility of anyone I’ve ever played with. He had a precision that no one also did.”
Johannson recalled that when the Americans lost 7-5 in group play to the Soviet Union — which had Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov and Alexander Mogilny — “Leetchie almost took over the game.”
Johannson remembered Leetch hit the post when the Soviets held a 6-5 lead.
“They couldn’t get the puck from him,” Johannson said. “Every Russian was good, but he was the best player in that game.”
His signature move was a swivel-hip, side-to-side, shake-and-bake, which often ended with Leetch moving smartly around his opponent. He left many opposing players in his wake.
“He was a different type of puck-moving defenseman,” Smith said. “He didn’t race up ice like Paul Coffey or Bobby Orr. It never became all about Leetch where you wondered if he would go coast-to-coast and score, although he did do that at times. But once he got the puck the other team was in trouble. We were going to for sure get it out of our zone, and most likely we were going to end up with a scoring chance, even if he started in our zone.”
Smith said he admired Leetch also because he always did what made him most comfortable. He wore a half-shield long before it became mandatory. He didn’t skate the way others skated. He didn’t tape his socks with the same level of concern as everyone else. He was less fussy about how he looked. His focus was on playing the game.
NBC Sports broadcaster Mike Emrick can offer testimony that Leetch was a student of his craft. He said Leetch spoke with professional admiration about the way Nicklas Lidstrom played his position. Leetch had watched Lidstrom make one of his textbook breakups of a play along the boards.
“He said [Lidstrom] makes it look easy, but when you play this sport for a living you realize how hard that play is to make,” Emrick said. “Leave it to Brian Leetch to describe how well Lidstrom could play [one-on-one against] somebody. [He could to that] because he could do it himself.”
Smith said that early in Leetch’s career he asked the defenseman who his favorite player was growing up. He was stunned by his response.
“He said: ‘I really didn’t have one,'” Smith said with a laugh. “I found that amazing.”
Then it dawned on Smith that Leetch’s uniqueness resulted from the fact that he never patterned himself after any NHL player. He played the way that made him comfortable. It was if Leetch had created a work of art from a blank canvas.
“He became a tremendous player just on his own,” Smith said. “He decided how he was going to play hockey. He didn’t copy someone like other players did. He didn’t try to fit in. He was his own man.”
Leetch played 1,205 NHL games, all but 76 with the Rangers. It is easy to forget that he played with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins at the end of his career; he arguably looked out of place in those jerseys.
“For an American to be a star of the Rangers, the NHL’s biggest American franchise, was important in that era,” Smith said. “Before then it was Rod Gilbert from Quebec or Brad Park from Toronto and so on. To have an American, born in Texas, as the Rangers’ best player was something. At that time, we were just starting to [accept] that Americans could be star players.”
No defenseman has managed to score 100 points since Leetch had 102 in 1991-92.
“He had the ability to go in whatever direction he wanted to go at the drop of a dime,” Smith said. “He could avoid so much contact because of that ability.”
It wasn’t as if he was worried about getting waylaid by heavy hitting.
“He wasn’t the slightest bit afraid,” Smith said.
Smith said Leetch’s offensive flair overshadowed the reality that he was always a dependable defensive player. Another gift he had was a superhuman-like ability to recover quickly from his shifts. He could play more minutes than anyone else on the team because he could regain his normal breathing pattern so quickly.
That was important, Smith said, because “we wanted him on the ice in all situations.”
“If you ask who the best hockey player we had in my 11 years with the team, it would have to be Brian Leetch,” Smith said.
Smith said Mark Messier was probably the most important player on the 1994 championship team because his leadership drew the team together. “But even Mess has said that Leetch was the best player,” Smith said.
The 2009 book “100 Ranger Greats,” by Russ Cohen, John Halligan and Adam Raider, argues that Leetch is the greatest Rangers player of all.
“Raider created a mathematical formula and we considered years of service and team and league awards,” Cohen said. “It came down to Leetch and Rod Gilbert. Winning the Stanley Cup wasn’t the biggest factor for me. The biggest for me was the impact Leetch had on the franchise. It was greater than Gilbert’s. Others agreed. The Rangers have yet to have another defenseman that has remotely produced the way Leetch could.”
Nashville Predators general manager David Poile was the Washington Capitals GM when Leetch broke in with the Rangers in 1987-88. He said it wasn’t long before preparing for the Rangers meant preparing to deal with Leetch.
“Your whole game plan against the Rangers started with Brian Leetch,” Poile said. “He was the perfect defenseman. Offensively. Defensively. Big minutes. Durable. He played in all situations. Every year he was in the running for the Norris Trophy.”
Leetch, a 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, was the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, and he’s still the only American defenseman to do so.
“In terms of skating, passing and hockey sense, no other American defenseman can touch him,” USA Hockey executive Lou Vairo said. “He’s our version of Bobby Orr.”
(Reprinted with permission of NHL.com)