NY Times Interview with Brian Leetch

Lew Serviss of the NY Times interviewed Brian Leetch this week for his Sunday Slap Shot column:

April 13, 2008, 4:31 am
Leetch, From the Point
By Lew Serviss

“So,” I asked Brian Leetch, Hall of Famer in waiting, “I can say you’re at home being Mr. Mom?

“Yeah,” he said, “I got no problem with it.”

Leetch, who hit 40 in March, lives in Boston (he signed for his last season as a free agent with the Bruins) and is making up for 18 seasons of living by the hockey clock. He stays at home with his three young children, daughter Riley and sons Jack and Sean. He enjoys having the energy now to engage the kids. “I was so tired before — after practice or games or uneven sleeping times — that I would just kind of look at the kids and watch them play. So it’s nice now to be able to engage them and do stuff with them and have the energy. I’m enjoying it.”

As Boston College headed into the Frozen Four, Leetch, an Eagle defenseman on the 1986-87 team with Kevin Stevens, Craig Janney and Greg Brown, was paying close attention. Brown is now a B.C. assistant coach.

“We’re been following them,” he said. “It’s been fun to watch. They’ve got quite a program going there. They don’t always have the preseason top-rated team, but boy they get it going by the end of the year and they seem to get to the final four. It’s amazing.” On Saturday, the Eagles knocked off Notre Dame to win the NCAA championship behind an outstanding performance by water bug forward Nathan Gerbe.

Leetch went on to became one of just five NHL defensemen to score more than 100 points in a season. Bobby Orr (six times!), Paul Coffey (five!) , Denis Potvin and Al MacInnis also did it. If you need Leetch’s bonafides as a rare athlete, see Top 10 Brian Leetch moments by The Daily News’ John Dellapina, himself a fair defenseman in his prime.

“I watched a lot of hockey last year and not quite as much this year,” Leetch said over the phone, “but I’m pretty familiar with everything going on right now.” We were talking about playing defense under the post-lockout rules.

Defense is a hands-off pursuit, for the most part now. No more locking on, tracking them up-close, impeding progress here and there. You can’t hold up with sticks, or sneak a one-glove tug. Gone, too, is the front-of-the-net cross-check and the assorted suomo that used to come with skating to the front of the net. Back-checking forwards can’t slow up onrushing forecheckers. Forwards barrel into the zone as defensemen pivot from backward to forward to chase the puck into the corner. They try to avoid becoming a nasty smear on the end boards.

Smaller and Faster

What this calls for these days is not so much a defenseman who will knock someone out so much as one who can keep up without touching anybody. You have to skate particularly well. Defensemen are becoming smaller, more fleet, robust skaters like … Brian Leetch.

Leetch recalls playing in Boston, in his last season, under the new rules. “I noticed a distinct difference of not getting help from the forwards, and holding up, or not getting help from your defense partner, and holding up, is that you were hit a lot more. A lot of times you had to choose, if there was physically a bigger player going in with you, a lot of times you had to try and get better body position as opposed to just trying to race back and get the puck. If he was going to make the hit and get the puck from you, sometimes you had to actually take more of a defensive position and let him go in first to get it and then try to knock it off his stick. Or get body position there so he couldn’t get to the net. It definitely irked me at the end of my career, I noticed it for sure. And I agree with you now that being able to go from backwards to forwards and go back and get that puck and make a play quicker is a distinct advantage now.”

Speed is vital now. “It always was,” he said, “but you also, because of the nature of the game, you needed big physically strong players because of fighting, because of the long season, and the hooking and holding. You needed a real mix. You see teams now that still have the strength and physical presence, but it’s not always as evident as it was before. Your big guys really have to be able skate now, both on defense and forward, or you can’t play at all in the game. But before, you could mix some players in to play an intimidating, hitting style without necessarily as good skating as you need now, for sure.”

The new requirements earned more than a few players instant banishment from a league they couldn’t keep up with (without holding on). “Before you could use what you’ve learned over the years, ways to hold up to make up for your shortcomings because you knew the league, you knew the players, you knew the referees, what you could and couldn’t get away with. When the new rules came, a lot of that went out the window and players that were hanging on because of their smarts, and playing so long, didn’t have a place anymore.”

No to Touch-Up Icing

One of the more dramatic recent illustrations of what can happen to a defenseman when a forward can crank to top speed going at the opposing endboards is the leg fracture that the Wild’s Kurtis Foster sustained during a touch-up icing race. Should tag-up icing go? “I thought that from the moment I came in the league.” Leetch laughs. “I never liked that rule as a defenseman. That’s probably the way most guys think as defensemen: they don’t see a reason for it. But lots of people have weighed in on that and they keep that rule in there. To me as a defenseman, it doesn’t seem to be a great situation to be in. Especially when you’re coming far blueline all the way and just a dead race with the player, two guys just going back to touch. It’s definitely set up for those types of injuries, for sure.” Pat Peake and Gary Nylund come to mind.

“For me, it doesn’t seem to have a huge bearing on the game,” Leetch said.

“Very rarely do you see a player beat the defenseman back and then turn it into a goal or a great scoring chance. I think the opportunity for serious injury is there a lot more than the chance to keep the game flowing or create scoring opportunities.”

So what is that mob in front of the net these days? Forests of legs that keep more and more shots from getting anywhere near the goalie. The crease is no longer a mosh pit, and what fun is that really?

Leetch, of course, about 6-foot and 190 pounds, wasn’t the terror in front of the goal. He had defensive partner Jeff Beukeboom for that. “I was never a huge physical player in front of the net. I was always timing in front of the net or trying to box someone out, which is what you worked on all the time.

“My skating was able to help me if a player was coming out of the corner. You could lock up with him and keep him from getting to the front of the net, and that was a good defensive play. He never actually got there as the shot was coming. Once a guy had position then I had to decide – I would read the play and start to lean on him or try to get him out then, cause if I just started battling with him, most of the time I would come out on the short end or he was going to get position again after I knocked him off balance or moved him. So it didn’t change too much for me.

“But.” Leetch draws out the “but.” “I played with Beukeboom, who was 6-4, 235, as my partner, and he’d be in there cleaning house – cross-checking and moving guys — and guys would be afraid to stay in there for long, they would come in and out. Now, almost every shot is screened, or you have the defensemen trying to block it as well as the forwards. You have a lot of deflections and people standing around in front of the net. It’s definitely different.

“They’ll give you an opportunity as the puck’s coming to give a shot or try to move someone. But as for trying to box people out and keep them away from the net and clear out before the puck is in that area, there’s really nothing you can do. You have to let them come. There’s still physical, intimidating guys, but it’s more subtle with little shots to the back of the leg or cross-checks to the lower back that don’t send guys flying onto the ice but are still making people at least pay the price a bit in front of the net. But it’s a lot tougher to be able to do that now.”

The Running of the Goalies

The inevitable result of this mob scene in front of the net is that more goalies are trampled. But Leetch said they’re in better shape to deal with it. “The goalies are certainly better physical athletes right now. Bigger and stronger. With the bigger equipment, they take up more room. But for sure, with that many bodies in front and then as the puck is coming, either the rebound or deflection, that’s when guys start pushing. You already have a number of players near the goalie, and then when guys start pushing and trying to clear guys out — I see a lot of goalies with players falling on them that I thought would be seriously injured. The goalies are such good athletes now they’re able to bend and somehow get away without serious injury.”

The Rangers drafted Leetch ninth in the first round in 1986 after he scored 70 goals and 160 points in 54 games in his last two years at Avon Old Farms, the Connecticut hockey laboratory. Joe Murphy and Jimmy Carson went 1-2.

After B.C., he went to the United States Olympic team, along with Janney, Stevens and Brown, Mike Richter and Peter Laviolette. They didn’t bring a medal back from Calgary. But their freewheeling style was a hit, and Leetch, the Olympic team’s captain, was serenaded with “U-S-A! U-S-A! when he assisted, in his first NHL game, on a goal by captain Kelly Kisio against the Blues at MSG. Jim Cerny of newyorkrangers.com wrote: “Spurred by Leetch’s play, the Rangers closed out the season 10-5-2 with their new defenseman in the lineup. Leetch was 2-12-14 in those 17 contests, recording points in 10 of the 17 matches.”

The next year, Leetch’s first full season, he won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. He had 23 goals and 48 assists for 71 points. He would win a Norris Trophy in 1991-92 (his best scoring season at 22-80-102), a Conn Smythe in 1993-4 (and a Stanley Cup) and another Norris in 1996-97.

Offensive defensemen are still important to the game, he said. “San Jose thought that they were lacking in that position and went out and got Campbell which I thought was a great move,” he said, referring to Brian Campbell, a good-skating defenseman along the dimensions of Leetch. “They’ve been on quite a run at the end. And I think he’s had a big impact on that. They had a good team anyway and good goaltending but he’s really been able to make a difference on the power play and transition game.

“And he logs a lot of minutes,” he continued. “He’s on the ice for almost half the game and on special teams, so that’s a bonus, like Lidstrom. When your offensive guy is one of your better defensive guys, too, and can log all those minutes on the blueline. Same with Niedermayer and Pronger. All those guys are on the ice for almost half the game and then all the important situations.”

You have to ask whether the future holds a hockey job for Leetch. “At one point I’d love to,” he said. “Right now, I feel fortunate being home with the kids. I watch more now than I did when I was playing. It’s a nice feeling to be able to watch it as a fan — someone that enjoys the game and can watch the plays. I used to get very anxious and uptight because it was during the season and I couldn’t enjoy watching the game on TV as much as I do now, and it’s been fun. But I would at some point, yeah, if the timing’s right and the situation’s right. You never know, but it would be nice to be involved, for sure.”