Leetch's legacy sealed with '94 win
During Brian Leetch's 18th NHL season, he would come home after games and practices, lie on the couch completely devoid of energy, and stare at three reasons why he needed to make it his final NHL season.
Nine-year-old Jack, 6-year-old Riley and 4-year-old Sean.
"It's been nice the last few years to be able to engage with them and do some things with them," Leetch told ESPN.com less than a week before his Hockey Hall of Fame induction Monday night in Toronto. "That's pretty much what I've been doing."
The two-time Norris Trophy winner is now giving it 110 percent a day as a father.
"He has made a determination to be a full-time dad in their formative years and jumped into that with the same energy he had on the ice," said Leetch's longtime agent, Jay Grossman.
No doubt his wife Mary Beth appreciates the help on defense, since the kids have outnumbered the parents and man-to-man coverage is no longer an option. It's zone coverage all the way, baby.
So, if you're wondering why it seems that the 41-year-old Leetch just fell off the face of the earth, at least publicly, since his last game in 2005-06, it's because he's been under contract with the Leetch Family Home in Boston. It's a multiyear deal, and no financial terms were disclosed.
"I've honestly just really enjoyed the time at home," Leetch said with a chuckle.
This season, he has made his way down to New York to reconnect with the Rangers in the odd pregame MSG telecast. And, as always, Leetch has been active on the charity front, but really not much else. Not yet.
But it's clear from the eagerness in his voice that, once the kids are a little older, one of America's greatest hockey players will be ready to plunge back into the game in some fashion.
"I've had a lot of people inquire what I'm up to and what I'd like to be interested in, and made some nice suggestions," Leetch said. "I'm just enjoying this right now, but at some point, if the opportunities are there and it's the right time with the family situation, I think I definitely would. Hopefully, it would be with a friend and it wouldn't be a big move for the family. A lot of things have to be right, but it would be a lot of fun."
There's a friend in New York who thinks Leetch would be a great asset to any organization.
"Well, I think he'd be good at anything he wants to," said Hall of Fame center Mark Messier, in the midst of his first year back in hockey as the assistant to the president with the Rangers. "He's a very smart guy, he knows the game obviously very well, and he's very conscientious in his approach, and he's very disciplined.
"I think you're seeing more organizations turning to players that have experience in the game, that with training can move into different roles to help organizations. I think Brian would be no different than many of the former players doing that. When the time is right for him, he would be a welcome addition in any area."
Messier is right about former players coming back into the game. From Steve Yzerman in Detroit, to Cam Neely in Boston, to Luc Robitaille in Los Angeles, to Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas, it seems more common than ever.
"I am interested in talking to a few of those guys that I see now and then about how they are liking it and what exactly their responsibilities are and what's going on," Leetch said. "Because you can put yourself into that and end up putting more hours in than you did as a player and say, 'What am I doing?' It can go both ways."
Which leads to an interesting question: What would Leetch come back as, a coach or a management type?
"I certainly wouldn't picture myself as a head coach," Leetch said. "But if I had a friend that I played with or against that had something they wanted me to do ... I would certainly think about getting involved in assistant coaching or consulting where I could help out with the young defensemen or help with the power play."
We're pretty sure Leetch could help out a power play. The man was a power-play machine during his career and his puck-moving skills were out of this world. And he has watched with interest as the post-lockout NHL has evolved and the league has given greater importance to -- and shown a newfound appreciation for -- the puck-moving blueliner.
"I think it's great the way the game is now," Leetch said. "Sometimes, you never think you'll see a Mike Green being able to score 20-plus goals and be involved in the offense all the time and get up in the play. But now there's a lot of players being given that opportunity to create some offense and get up in the play. Coaches and GMs are looking for that player now, guys who can log minutes and help bring that transition game and the offensive game."
Not that he regrets his era for a second. The game was still wide open when he entered the NHL in the late 1980s, so he got to experience that. He also experienced the league's trap years, which he did not enjoy so much.
"I came into the NHL when it was still open enough and I was involved a lot. It was important for me to be involved in the offense, and my coaches at the beginning of my career expected me to be up in the play. They would tell the forwards to look for me or back me up on the play," Leetch said. "Then, the trap came in during the middle or closer to the end of my career. Trapping and being on my heels, I found difficult, because my strengths were going forward and being on the puck and trying to anticipate where it was going.
"But I thought I played at a great time. I got to see a bit of everything. I played with Guy Lafleur and Marcel Dionne, who had played for 15-16 years before me."
Leetch chuckled at how the culture of the NHL player changed from the time he got in to the time he left.
"I got to play when some guys were smoking between periods," he said. "Then, at the end of my career, kids came to the team with personal trainers and everyone was in great shape with no body fat, already in tip-top shape before training camp even began. So I got to see a lot of changes in the game. I've got no complaints."
Colin Campbell certainly has no complaints about the eight seasons he spent with Leetch (1990-91 to 1997-98), both as an associate coach and head coach. Few players left an impression on him like Leetch.
"One thing is that he had amazing recovery time; he rested between shifts," said Campbell. "Also, he had an incredible tolerance for pain."
But more than anything, Campbell said, you didn't appreciate Leetch until you were around him.
"He was one of those players that you never knew how good he really was until you coached him or played with him," said the NHL's executive vice president and director of hockey operations. "With a player like him, a franchise is stabilized and competitive as long as this type of player is playing."
Messier arrived in New York from Edmonton for the 1991-92 season, after Leetch had already put in four seasons in the Big Apple. Like Campbell, Messier didn't know what kind of teammate he was about to inherit.
"When I first came to New York, I knew he was a highly rated player, a first-round pick of the Rangers and playing very well, but I had no idea how good he really was," Messier said.
The two instantly became friends, two bachelors at the time, living in New York as star athletes.
"We spent a lot of time together because we were the only two guys living in the city at the time," said Messier. "We travelled to and from practice and to and from games together, and obviously socialized together away from the rink. We became very good friends. We were good for each other. He was able to get me away from the game at times, and I was able to pull him into the game at times. I think our relationship was really positive and beneficial for each other."
Leetch is blunt when he talks about Messier's arrival to New York. "I'm not sure that I end up being in the Hall of Fame without Mark coming to the team as early as he did," said Leetch.
And let's be honest, folks, when it comes to Leetch, Messier and former goalie Mike Richter, they will be forever remembered for only one thing in the hearts of Rangers fans: June 14, 1994, Rangers 3, Canucks 2. It was a day America's greatest city actually stood still ... for hockey.
"It's strange when you go back to New York ... it just meant so much to so many people," said Leetch, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP that year. "I get stopped a lot and get a lot of thank-yous for '94 and a story about where they were that night and whether their dad took them to games. There's always a story and a quick thank-you. It was a big thing, for sure."
That championship clearly forged an indelible bond between Leetch and Messier, two superstars giving it all they had to help end a 54-year Cup drought.
"I think what you learn as you get older is that it's not necessarily the actual act of hoisting the Cup. I mean, that's obviously a dream come true, but what you realize is that it's the process that makes it so special," said Messier. "And the relationships that you forged moving forward and being able to count on each other and playing through tough situations -- those types of relationships last for a lifetime, which has been the case with many players I've played with. But for me, my relationship with Brian was very close and remains that way to this day."
Leetch said winning the 1994 Cup and the arrival of Messier to New York are the "two biggest influences as to why I get recognized as an individual performer."
"You can have successful seasons on teams that aren't successful and you kind of get pushed aside without winning that championship. Being on that '94 team has had a huge impact on how people perceive me as a player."
Next Monday, Leetch and Mess will be back together again in hockey's greatest club, the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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