Following an 18-year National Hockey League career, Brian Leetch’s résumé speaks for itself. A Calder Trophy winner. Two-time Norris Trophy winner. Stanley Cup champion. Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Eleven-time NHL All-Star.
Leetch was selected No. 1 on NEHJ’s “100 Greatest Players from New England” feature in the January 2013 issue.
Today, the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman who spent nearly two decades at the top of his game is enjoying another stop on his illustrious hockey journey, sharing his plethora of lessons learned with the future generations of the sport.
On the latest session of New England Hockey Journal’s The Rink Shrinks podcast, Leetch joins co-hosts Brian Yandle and Mike Mottau to discuss his venture into the coaching realm, the state of youth hockey and plenty of other stories from his fabled hockey career.
“Obviously, when you’re younger, your dad and your youth hockey coaches have a big influence on your career because everything’s new, and your maturity and your development phase is so important,” Leetch, 52, told the Rink Shrinks. “And that’s why I think helping my two sons and my daughter’s teams out for the last 12, 13 years has been really fun. Because a kid comes up to you halfway through the season and looks at you and says, ‘Coach Leetch, did you really play in the NHL?’ And that’s not the reason they’re listening to you. It makes you realize that they’re listening to you because of how influential you are at that stage in their career.”
The son of a Navy pilot, Leetch was born on a naval base in Corpus Christi, Texas. As a result, he spent the majority of his early life moving around. At the age of 6, he landed in the Northeast, where his family settled in Cheshire, Connecticut. After getting his start with Cheshire High School, then spending two years at Avon Old Farms before going to Boston College, things really started to heat up.
Following his lone season with the Eagles, Leetch joined the U.S. National Team in preparation for the 1988 Olympic Winter Games in Calgary, Alberta.
Once the Games were over, he quickly assimilated into the New York Rangers organization, which drafted him ninth overall the summer going into his year at BC.
As a rookie, after getting a taste of action in 17 games the season before, Leetch came flying out of the gate.
In 68 games, he totaled 71 points en route to the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year. More importantly, he learned a thing or two along the way.
“Every game was exciting,” Leetch told the Shrinks. “There were a lot of games where not only was I nervous, but I was scared. You’d go into the Philly Spectrum, and the crowd’s throwing stuff at our bus going in, but they were always some of the best games I’ve played, because you were on edge. You were skating from that first whistle to the last, and your head’s on a swivel and you’re making quick plays.
“And that’s a good reminder for you as you go along — you’d better be ready like this for every game, because you play your best when you’re like this. You can’t feel your way into these games. You’ve got to be this on edge every game and you’ve got to be this nervous and ready to go every game.”
That lesson he learned as a 20-year-old is one he used throughout the rest of his playing career and still uses in coaching today.
“It’s not easy at any level, and we do the same thing as coaches,” Leetch said. “We just try and remind them, ‘We don’t have a lot of games, we might get one or two a week and one or two practices a week, so let’s be ready to go. Let’s go out, you worked hard in practice, here’s the game time, it’s the reward. So, let’s go have some fun, but let’s go play. Let’s not wait to get going here.’
“Some of the kids get it and they’re excited. Some kids are too excited. They know the same thing, so you don’t have to tell some of them because they’d like to play five games a week or six games a week and have no practices, but they’re the ones sometimes you have to pull back and say, ‘I know you’re working hard. I know you’re ready. Just tone it down a little bit and the game will open up for you.’ ”
When it comes to his coaching style, Leech prefers his teaching moments to take place off the ice.
“I grab the board and try and get them right as that shift comes off, just to show them one thing, and even more so, the one thing they did well,” Leetch said. “I’ve found that (if) you tell a kid three or four of the good plays they made, then they listen to you when you tell them what they could do differently. And they believe in you, because you’ve been patting them on the back and pointing out all the good things they’ve done. They don’t just hear from you when they make mistakes. And that’s when I think you get the growth and that development, is when they trust you and they believe you are actually in it with them and not just there to bark at them and tell them what they’re doing wrong.
“And for coaches, a lot of times, that’s hard, because you’re trying to win those games and all you’re seeing is what goes wrong. And you kind of forget, sometimes as you’re throwing kids over the boards there’s a lot of good things going on, on the ice, too. And it’s not an easy game.”
Even when he sees his old self on TV, the mistakes are far more glaring than the successes.
“I turn on some of the NHL classics sometimes and I cringe when the Rangers are on and I’m on the ice because all I see are all bad plays that I’m making,” he said.
“But it makes me feel better when I go to the rink and it makes me more positive with the kids that I’m coaching because, you know, at the highest levels, you’ve never played a perfect game. And this game is fast, and it’s hard. And so, you’ve got to remind the kids of everything they’re doing well. And no matter how hard a kid’s trying, he’s not always going to make the right decision. And he’s not always going to make the right pass. And so, when they do something that you’ve been working on, you’ve got to remind them that that’s exactly what we wanted. ‘You know, it might not have worked out right, but that’s exactly what we wanted. Don’t worry about it, that’s great.’ ”
For more from Leetch, as well as many other interviews with The Rink Shrinks featuring co-hosts Brian Yandle and Mike Mottau, find the podcast through a variety of streaming platforms, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and TuneIn, or online at hockeyjournal.com/podcast.
The Rink Shrinks is sponsored by Landmark Public House.