FULLTILT LEGENDS: BRIAN LEETCH
Throughout their long and storied history the Rangers have had many talented defensemen – Harry Howell, Brad Park, Ron Greschner, James Patrick, Barry Beck, Sergei Zubov & Dave Maloney to present day stars Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal & Dan Girardi. None of them however were the total package that Brian Leetch was the moment he pulled on the Ranger jersey and beyond.
Quick! How many NHL players can you name were born in Texas? Although Leetch made his name playing youth hockey in the New England area, he was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was drafted in the 1986 draft (9th overall) by Craig Patrick. After Captaining the 1988 USA Men’s Olympic team in Calgary, he joined the Rangers for their failed playoff run under the Michel Bergeron / Phil Esposito regime.
In 1989 he set an NHL rookie record for defensemen by notching 23 goals (which still stands today) on his way to the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year. Leetch was also chosen for the NHL All-Rookie team that season. While establishing himself as an offensive force and improving on the defensive end, it wasn’t until Mark Messier joined the team in the 1991-1992 season, that Leetch took his game to the next level.
Leetch became only the 5th NHL defensemen to garner over 100 points in a season when he had 102 (22g, 82a)in 1992. He picked up his first of two Norris Trophies (1996-97 was the other season) that season as well. However, it was the 1993-1994 championship season that will forever etch Leetch into the hearts & minds of all Rangers fans forever.
While the Rangers had a dominant 1993-94 season on the way to the President’s Trophy as the best team in the regular season, Leetch had – by his lofty standards – a good but not great regular season. Brian Leetch was initially not a favorite of task master & Head Coach Mike Keenan (early season rumors had it Keenan wanted him traded to Chicago for Chris Chelios).
Leetch continued to plug away and averaged nearly a point per game (84 games – 23g, 56a for 79 pts.). Along with Jeff Beukeboom, they established what was arguably the Number 1 defensive pairing in the NHL. Quite often, Beukeboom & Leetch teamed with Messier, Adam Graves & Steve Larmer (or Alex Kovalev depending on Keenan’s mood) to comprise a “unit of 5” which more often than not came up with a huge goal or helped shut down the other teams top line.
This team though was built for the playoffs and this was the moment where Leetch took his game up to an incredible level. After a thorough dismantling of the New York Islanders in the first round, Leetch scored the game winning goal to help dispatch the Washington Capitals in the second round.
Up next, in the third round was the New Jersey Devils. The series went back & forth. One team up, one team down, back & forth. Even Keenan seemed to unravel a bit as at one point as he benched his star players and Leetch was no exception. Finally, after tying the series at 3 games apiece thanks to Mark Messier’s “Guarantee” in Game 6, it came down to one last showdown.
Game 7 was a tightly played, fast paced contest which saw some great opportunities which were only denied by the Rangers Mike Richter & the Devils Martin Brodeur. It was Leetch’s goal in the second period that broke the ice. Powering down from the point while being covered by All-Star Scott Stevens, closing in not Brodeur’s goal, Leetch put on the brakes, shaking off Stevens in the process, did a spin-o-rama and tucked the puck inside the post for a 1-0 Ranger lead.
It was a highlight goal and what legends are made from. Just think about it. A highlight reel goal by a future Hall of Famer beating not one but two future Hall of Famers in the process! UNBELIEVABLE!!! Even though the Devils went on to tie the game, The Rangers went on to victory – MATTEAU!! MATTEAU!! MATTEAU!! STEPHANE MATTEAU!! – in double OT to win the East Conference and advance to the Finals.
If it was even possible, Leetch stepped up his game even more in the Finals. He was dominant through the first 4 games of the series as the Rangers stormed out to a 3-1 series lead and were on the brink of ending “The Curse”.
In fact, Leetch was intricately involved in the most memorable play of that series. It was Leetch who tripped up Pavel Bure as he tried to break in on Mike Richter, which led to a penalty shot awarded by referee Terry Gregson. Bure was one of only a few players with the speed to break away from Leetch and thankfully for Ranger fans and the Rangers themselves, Richter bailed out Leetch with one of the all time great saves in playoff history.
As fate would have it though, the Canucks would storm back to tie the series at 3 to force a Game 7 at MSG. Destiny called and Leetch opened up the scoring for the Rangers in the first period off a beautiful feed in front from Messier & Zubov to give the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead. Eventually, they would not look back – albeit with some very nerve wracking, nail biting moments. Leetch finished the playoffs with 34 points (11g, 23a) and went on to become the first American born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
[su_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFOwFRtz_fU”]Game Seven Highlights – [/su_youtube]
The coming Ranger years didn’t see much playoff success as the Rangers were either bounced out early or didn’t make the playoffs at all – with the one notable exception being 1997 when they made it to the East Conference Finals before bowing out to the Flyers. Leetch did his part registering 10 points (2g, 8a) in 15 games in what was to be his last playoff run as a Ranger.
After being unceremoniously traded – on his birthday no less – to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Leetch enjoyed one last playoff run. It was a brief run of 13 games (8 assists). The following season, Leetch signed as a free agent with his childhood team – the Boston Bruins.
In May, 2007 Leetch announced his retirement officially bringing an end to a truly remarkable career. In 1205 regular season games Leetch recorded 1028 pts (247g, 781a). In the playoffs he recorded 97 pts. (28g, 69a) in 95 games. In addition to winning the Conn Smythe, Calder & Norris trophies along with the Stanley Cup, Leetch also won a silver medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics and a the championship in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
The Rangers retired his #2 in 2008, and along with teammate Mike Richter he was enshrined into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame. In 2009, Leetch received the ultimate honor by gaining entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Brian Leetch – one of the greatest American born players of all-time, a true hockey legend, a Ranger Legend.
[su_youtube url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZ7Omtqe4-8″]Game Seven Highlights – [/su_youtube]