Any discussion about the best college athlete in the nation has to include Drew LeBlanc, a senior center from St. Cloud State who took an unusual path to becoming the best college hockey player in the country.
Turning down a pro contract after his junior year in 2010-11, the 6-foot LeBlanc returned for his senior season with the Huskies, hoping to do something special. But that November, in a game against Wisconsin, LeBlanc lost an edge as he turned to feed a pass to a charging teammate and slid feet first into the endboards. His father, Guy, heard a snap as his son crashed into the wall. He thought it was a stick breaking, but when he looked down he realized that Drew's leg was bent in an unnatural way.
"When I saw him laying on the ice, I thought it might be the end [of his career]," Guy says.
Drew had sustained a compound fracture in his left leg, the same injury that ended quarterback Joe Theismann's career in 1985 and more recently happened to Louisville guard Kevin Ware during the NCAA tournament. It very well could have meant the end of his hockey career, but the thought never crossed LeBlanc's mind.
A playmaking center with excellent vision, LeBlanc has always demonstrated patience on the ice. Now, this would be a test of patience away from it. Granted a medical redshirt year, LeBlanc returned last fall and in a storybook season took the Huskies to their first Frozen Four appearance, leading the team with 50 points in 42 games. He had the most assists (37) in the NCAA tournament, to go along with his 13 goals. And on April 12, the day he accepted the Hobey Baker Award, college hockey's top individual prize, the Chicago Blackhawks signed the 23-year-old from Hermantown, Minn., to a one-year deal; he made his NHL debut on April 24.
"It's been a very special year for me," LeBlanc says from Finland, where he is representing the U.S. at the IIHF World Championships. "For the last couple weeks, it's just kept getting better and better and better ... I'm out of my comfort zone, so to speak, out of college. But it's an exciting time. I'm just trying to make the most of it."
In the U.S.'s opening game against Austria, LeBlanc picked up a pair of assists in a come-from-behind 5-3 win. Playing alongside and against NHL stars, he's getting the chance to play against the best, capping a whirlwind two years filled with emotional peaks and valleys.
Though the devastating injury forced him to put his senior season on hold for a year, it paid off in the end. Wanting to do something special, LeBlanc achieved the extraordinary. He earned First-Team All-WCHA honors, and was named Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year and the WCHA Player of the Year. He became the fifth player in league history to earn scholar-athlete accolades four times while taking his team to the Frozen Four, where the Huskies fell to Quinnipiac. He managed all of this while student-teaching algebra at St. Cloud Apollo High last semester.
The Hobey Baker Award stands for more than goals, points and championships. It goes to the player who best "exhibits strength of character both on and off the ice" and "contributes to the integrity of the team and displays outstanding skills in all phases of the game." Simply, there was no more fitting example than LeBlanc.