It is an impromptu after-practice game of chicken, a test of will and nerve. Team U.S.A. defenseman Brian Leetch is standing outside the hockey rink at the University of Wisconsin. Madison, his body and face pressed against the glass. Teammate Dave Snuggerud stands 30 feet away on the ice, three pucks at his feet, ready to shoot at Leetch's head.
Bwaaang! The first shot crashes into the glass inches from Leetch's left cheek. He doesn't flinch, doesn't even blink. Bwaaang! The next shot hits in front of his shoulder. Leetch snuggles closer against the glass. Bwaaang! The last puck smashes into the glass near Leetch's right ear. Still no reaction. Then, as Snuggerud skates in to pick up the pucks, Leetch smiles, gives Snuggerud a wave of mock contempt—that as hard as you can shoot, buddy?—and swaggers off to the dressing room. Test passed.
So what did you expect, Snugger? The kid has faced every challenge and hasn't taken a backward step since he started playing hockey as a five-year-old in his hometown of Cheshire. Conn. Now 19, the second-youngest player on the U.S. Olympic team (Greg Brown is four days younger), Leetch is about to face his biggest challenge—and the final step of his glittering amateur career—on the ice at Calgary.
Leetch is a product of the Bobby Orr generation, an offensive-no, make that attacking—defenseman whose rushes, world-class transition play and quarterbacking of the power play will strongly determine whether this U.S. team becomes a heavy-medal group or merely plays backup to the Soviets. Czechs, Swedes, Finns and Canadians.
January 27, 1988
Coaches generally don't like to put one player—particularly a young player—in the spotlight, but the U.S. Olympic staff empties the bucket of superlatives in assessing Leetch:
"I don't think there's anything he can't do." says head coach Dave Peterson, who previously coached Leetch on the 1986 and '87 National Junior team.
"I've been coaching college hockey for 12 years, and he's the best I've ever seen." says assistant coach Ben Smith.
"He's one of the best defensemen in the world." says assistant coach Jack Blatherwick, who was also an exercise physiologist for the 1980 Olympic gold medal and 1984 teams.
Brian is the oldest son of Jack Leetch, a 1963 Boston College All-America who coached his son through Squirt, Pee Wee and Bantam programs. The father says that the son stood apart—literally—almost from the first day he took to the ice. According to Jack, the young Brian's Learn-to-Skate class used to finish with the kids playing a 10-minute hockey game. They would all follow the puck like a swarm of bees. Except for Brian. "He would stay in the middle of the ice and wait for the puck to pop loose. Then he'd take off on his own," says the elder Leetch. The son has never looked back.
He was All-State as a sophomore at Cheshire High School in 1984. All-New England Prep at Avon Old Farms, a private school, in 1985 and '86, and then followed in his father's footsteps to BC. Last season he led the Eagles to the Hockey East championship and was named the conference's Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year.
Unlike his dad—but because of his dad—Brian has always been a defenseman. While a BC forward in 1960-61, his sophomore year. Jack Leetch was asked to switch to defense his junior year. "I had trouble making the transition." he says. Thus, when young Brian wanted to play forward, his dad "told me to start with defense. Learn the harder position first, then move up if I wanted to." Of course, he didn't want to. He was playing offense anyway.
As Peterson sees it, Leetch's ability to make that speedy transition from offense to defense will be a key to U.S. chances in Calgary. "You've got 15 feet more ice on the big sheet at Calgary." he says. "That opens up a lot of pockets, creates a lot of space for players to dart into. So you'll see less of an up-and-down transition game and more cross-ice movement." That's precisely Leetch's game. On the big international-size rinks, his weaving rushes—he is often compared to the Buffalo Sabres' Phil Housley—and his unfailingly accurate passes (Leetch leads the team in assists) help get the puck out of the defensive zone in a hurry. Even when things get jammed up, Leetch can move through traffic like a Manhattan cabbie.
"He'll give you a spin-o-rama, he'll look you off the puck, he's got great one-on-one moves." says Team Canada coach Dave King. "Makes you wonder why [North America] can't produce more such creative players."
Much of Leetch's creativity is put to use on the power play, on which he is sometimes used as a solitary point man—sort of like a point guard in basketball—when the U.S. team employs its umbrella formation. "Our power play is lost without him." says Smith, noting that the U.S. went 2 for 14 in four late-November games that Leetch missed because of a pulled groin.
"He's going to be our next great American player, one of those rare decade players," says U.S. general manager Art Berglund, One of those what? A decade player, says Berglund, is a guy "who projects to play about 10 years in the NHL."
For Leetch that decade should begin in March, when he is expected to join the New York Rangers. They drafted him in the first round in 1986. The Rangers tried to sign Leetch to a pro contract for the current NHL season, but playing on the Olympic team was a lifetime dream. "The best moment for me was when they read off my name for this team." says Leetch.
In fact, Leetch was selected for the U.S. team because of his reputation and not his performance in The Olympic Festival '87 last summer, which served as the team's tryout camp. In the first minute of his first game, Leetch took a check from Providence College's Tom Fitzgerald and strained the medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. Leetch thought the injury might kill his Olympic chances. Wake up and smell the Zamboni fumes, Brian. A kid who was All-Tournament at the 1987 World Junior Championships in Prague and All-America as a freshman was not about to be kept off the team because of strained ligaments. What the injury did do, however, was keep Leetch off the ice for six weeks, during which time he put on a couple of pounds.
"He was on our All-Body-Fat team in August," says trainer Dave Carrier. Since then, Leetch has worked himself back to a well-muscled 184 pounds, an ideal playing weight for his 5'11" frame. No matter. Leetch still gets a little weight-related needling. Take the day he came off the ice after practice at Dane County Memorial Coliseum in Madison. Wis., and was met by equipment manager Bob Webster in a forklift. "Hop in, and we'll go pick up your girlfriend," said Webster.
Unlike a lot of other highly skilled players, Leetch apparently thrives on the heavy going. "One of the strengths of 3 this team is that we can change 2 styles," he says. "We can play the skating game, but if the Russians or somebody are buzzing around, then we may have to play the body and slow them down."
Indeed, Leetch seems headed for Calgary in a thoroughly aggressive state of mind. "We're shooting for the gold," he says. "We have a realistic chance of getting to the medal round. After that, it's up for grabs."
That's about half right. The U.S. is in a first-round grouping with the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Austria and West Germany. On form, the Soviets, Czechs and Americans figure to advance to medal-round play, along with the Swedes, Canadians and Finns. But at Calgary, teams will carry their preliminary-round points (two for a win, one for a tie) with them into the final round. "That means you've almost got to ding the Soviets or the Czechs in the first round to have a realistic shot at a medal," says Peterson.
Medal or not, the Olympics are already a triumph for the Leetch family. Besides providing a showcase for Brian's talents, the Games represent a kind of compensation for his father, who was one of the last cuts from the U.S. Olympic team in 1964.
"I really wanted to make that team. It was a big letdown for me." says Jack. "But now I'm going to the Olympics. It's because of Brian, but I'm going. And I'm really looking forward to it."