Leetch, Brian

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(b. 3 March 1968 in Corpus Christi, Texas), hockey player who is a two-time Norris Trophy winner, the first U.S.-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, and one of most skilled offensive defensemen in National Hockey League (NHL) history.

Leetch was the first of three children born to Jack Leetch, a pilot turned executive who was an All-American hockey player for Boston College in the 1960s, and Jan Leetch, a homemaker. After Leetch was born, the family moved to Oregon and then to California before settling down in Cheshire, Connecticut, where the elder Leetch began managing the town's ice skating rink in 1973. Before learning to skate at around the age of five, Leetch practiced stick handling with a cut-off hockey stick and tennis ball in the family's driveway. Once on skates, he quickly began to distinguish himself from his peers and often played against older players.

Leetch enrolled at Cheshire High School in 1982 and soon emerged as a two-sport star. At the age of sixteen he threw a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball and led Cheshire High's baseball team to the Connecticut State Championship in 1984. That same year he scored fifty-three goals and had fifty assists in twenty-two games for the school's hockey team. The summer after his sophomore year Leetch traveled to Europe as a member of the United States Junior National Team, of which he was a member through 1986.

Leetch then transferred to Avon Old Farms—a Connecticut prep school known for its outstanding hockey program—to increase his chances of earning a college scholarship. In baseball, he struck out nineteen hitters in one game, but as overpowering as he was on the pitching mound, Leetch was even better on the ice, scoring seventy goals and accumulating ninety assists in fifty-four games over two years. As a senior he was named New England Prep School Player of the Year, leading Avon Old Farms to a 24–0–1 regular-season record. His team's only loss came in the finals of the New England Championships to Thayer Academy, whose team included future NHL stars Tony Amonte and Jeremy Roenick. Following the season, the New York Rangers drafted Leetch with the ninth overall pick in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft.

In the fall of 1986 Leetch followed in his father's footsteps by enrolling at Boston College, where he left his mark despite playing only one season. He was named a first-team All-American, was the Hockey East Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year, and was the first freshman finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, given to the best college player in the nation. He left Boston College after his freshman year to play for the U.S. National Team, where he notched seventy-four points in sixty games. He was named captain of the 1988 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, which finished seventh at the Calgary Games.

Leetch joined the Rangers following the Olympics toward the end of the 1987–1988 season, collecting fourteen points in seventeen games. In the 1988–1989 season he scored twenty-three goals, an NHL record for a rookie defenseman. He finished the year with seventy-one points and was awarded the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year.

Leetch was an All-Star the next two years but did not reach his full potential until 1991–1992. Before that season, the Rangers traded for Mark Messier and made him team captain. Messier told Leetch, "I've seen the best, played with the best—and you're the best." Inspired by Messier's focus, determination, and leadership, Leetch blossomed. He had a career-high 80 assists and became the fifth defenseman in NHL history to score 100 points in a season, with 102. Leetch won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman, and the Rangers won the President's Trophy as the league's best regular-season team. However, after jumping out to a 2–1 series lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Rangers blew a two-goal lead in game four and were upset by the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

Despite missing most of the 1992–1993 season with injuries, Leetch signed a seven-year, $19-million contract in the spring of 1993. But when the Rangers struggled early in the 1993–1994 season, the lucrative deal did not preclude the new head coach, Mike Keenan, from benching him—the first time a coach had ever done so. Keenan felt Leetch was too offensive-minded, and the defenseman responded to his coach's disciplinary tactics by significantly improving his defensive game. Leetch began to attract comparisons to Hall of Famer Bobby Orr. During the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, the Vancouver Canucks head coach Pat Quinn said that Leetch actually did some things even better than the Boston Bruin legend. Leetch proved that the comparisons were not too far-fetched, scoring the first goal and making two key defensive plays late in game seven as the Rangers beat Vancouver to win their first Stanley Cup in fifty-four years. He had five goals and six assists for a team-high eleven points in the finals, thus becoming the first U.S.-born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the finals Most Valuable Player (MVP). He also led the Rangers in playoff scoring with eleven goals and twenty-three assists.

The Rangers did not get beyond the second round of the playoffs the next two years, but Leetch enjoyed success as captain of Team USA in 1996, winning the World Cupof Hockey. Before the 1996–1997 season the Rangers signed Wayne Gretzky and, as he did after the addition of Messier, Leetch responded with a terrific season, capturing his second Norris Trophy. The Rangers lost to the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Finals and then, following the season, lost Mark Messier to Vancouver due to a contract dispute. Leetch was named captain, but he struggled to fill the void left by Messier. He endured sub-par seasons as the Rangers failed to qualify for the playoffs for three straight years. He was the alternate captain for the U.S. team in its disappointing showing at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games. The 1999–2000 season was Leetch's worst as a professional. His defensive game slipped, and he missed thirty-two games with a fractured forearm, ending the year with only twenty-six points. On the plus side, Leetch was married in June 1999 to Mary Beth O'Neill.

In July 2000 the Rangers brought Messier back to New York. At a news conference announcing the signing, Leetch voluntarily returned the team captaincy, bringing Messier to tears. Leetch regained All-Star form in 2000–2001, leading the NHL's defensemen in goals, assists, and points, and leading the entire league in ice time. Leetch's son was born during the season.

Combining tremendous strength and conditioning with extraordinary stick handling and vision, Leetch brings offensive skills to hockey rarely seen in a defenseman. Though his soft-spoken and humble demeanor did not translate to success as team captain, his athletic ability is world class. Coaches often say that having Leetch on the ice is like playing a fourth forward. He makes crisp, precise passes out of his own zone and is the best in the game at jumping into the play when he sees an opening. Leetch's brilliant, often daring, rushes up ice turn defensive plays into offensive ones; they have become the trademark of one of the best offensive defensemen in NHL history.

Joe Gergen, "Leetch's Son Is Shining," Newsday (17 Dec. 1987), is a look back at Leetch's development through the eyes of his father. Laura Price, "Leetch Unleashed His Drive to Succeed," Newsday (15 May 1994), is an informative biographical source. Gergen, "Leetch's Moves Draw Raves," Newsday (8 June 1994), relates how Mike Keenan transformed Leetch's defensive game. For details on Pat Quinn's comparison of Leetch and Bobby Orr, see "Not a Conn Job, Believe It: NY's Leetch Is Best Bet to Win Smythe Trophy," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (9 June 1994). "Leetch's Best Is Standard Now," Boston Globe (28 Feb. 1996), includes details on the role Mark Messier played in Leetch's rise to stardom. The most comprehensive biographical article on Leetch is David Heuschkel, "Leetch's Home-Ice Advantage Future in Hockey Was Settled Early," Hartford Courant (24 Dec. 1999).

Daniel Massey

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