January 25, 2008

With his son in his arms, gazing at the trophies he once cradled in his illustrious 18-year career -- the Calder, Conn Smythe, Norris, and of course, the Stanley Cup, former Ranger great Brian Leetch watched as a banner bearing his name rose into the rafters of Madison Square Garden Thursday night. But long before his number 2 lofted into Rangers immortality, it hung in a closet in a quaint Lumberton, N.J. home, where it served as daily inspiration for his No. 1 fan, a young Bobby Sanguinetti.

To Sanguinetti, the Rangers' first-round pick in the 2006 Entry Draft and currently manning the blue line for the Brampton Battalion of the Ontario Hockey League, Leetch encompassed everything he aimed to be on the ice, a classic rushing defenseman with the grace to weave through opponents and the grit to finish on the other side. Modeling his game after his idol, Sanguinetti tried to do as Leetch did, jump into plays whenever he could, look for open spots and create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. "You know, as a young kid, I liked the fact that he scored as a defenseman," the 19-year-old Sanguinetti says. "Being my favorite player, he was basically what I wanted to be."

Sanguinetti's room growing up was a living shrine to his favorite player. "If the average person looked at it, they'd say, 'this kid is nuts,'" he admits. Posters lined the walls of the room, and he collected hockey cards, framed newspaper clippings, and of course, a Rangers jersey with 2 on the back.

Now, the story of Leetch's No. 2 is simple -- "I always wore 2 as a kid because it was the number that was left when I moved up a level, and it was always one that was available," Leetch says. "There was no player that I watched, or any other reason that I wore it." -- and yet, the number inspired a generation of young American hockey fans, Sanguinetti included.

The "22" stitched into his Brampton sweater, like every jersey he's worn since high school, pays continuous homage to the Ranger great. "I figured I might as well double it up," Sanguinetti says, almost as if two of him could equal one of Leetch. And given Leetch's legacy, that would make sense.

Apart from the hardware he's collected, Leetch rivals the likes of Mark Messier and Mike Richter, whom he joined in the rafters Thursday, as the greatest Ranger to play in Madison Square Garden. From the moment he came to New York, as a 20-year-old rookie from Connecticut, he began shattering records with 48 assists and 23 goals in 1988-89, the most for a first-year blueliner. As the Rangers' last true offensive defenseman, he holds the franchise record for career goals (247), assists (781) and points (1,028) at the position, and no Ranger defenseman since Leetch, who was traded to Toronto in 2004 before retiring two years later, has scored more than 12 goals or amassed more than 40 points in a season.

But some believe Sanguinetti, who was not in attendance but watched on television from Canada, could be one to change that. Last year, with the Owen Sound Attack, he led all defensemen with 18 power play goals and ranked second in goals (23). With 18 goals and 30 assists in 39 games this season, he leads OHL blueliners in scoring and last week, was named to his third All-Star roster. And like Leetch, Sanguinetti has donned the red, white and blue jerseys of Team USA. Representing the U.S. in the World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic earlier this month, he led American defensemen with a goal and two assists during the tournament. That said, however, it's still far too early to stand Sanguinetti next to his childhood hero. In fact, they still haven't formally met. "He called me after the draft to congratulate me and just left a message," he says. "And it took me about three weeks to think about what I wanted to say to him over the phone, nevermind in person."

What do you say to a man you grew up idolizing on the ice? Maybe start with what the sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden had to say Thursday night. Thank you.

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