Leclerc's happy to be back

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

Mike Leclerc admits he went through some pretty dark days over the last two years.

Days when he wondered if he'd ever resemble the player who scored 15, then 20 goals for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in back-to-back seasons from 2000 to 2002.

Heck, there were days the Winnipegger wondered if his NHL career was over -- and he hadn't even turned 30.

"Every day, throughout the whole lockout and the season before," Leclerc told the Sun yesterday. "It's just a long time. You wonder if you're ever going to play again, first of all. And then wondering what level you're going to be able to play at. It's nice to get back to it."

Leclerc was talking on the phone from Phoenix, his new hockey home this year. And while the Arizona desert isn't a place normally associated with rebirth, it certainly has been that for the former MJHL player.

Traded to Wayne Gretzky's Coyotes just before training camp, Leclerc is well on the way to proving his troubles are behind him.

Leading team

Tuesday night in Minnesota, the 29-year-old scored his team-leading eighth goal of the season, and his 14 points was tied for top spot on the Coyotes, going into last night's game against Calgary,

His favourite statistic, though, is probably the one you usually see first: games played.

Leclerc had suited up for all 18, a far cry from the 10 he played in '03-'04, the year before the lockout.

That was the year he had to rehab his leg from the atrophied state it was in following major knee surgery.

Leclerc first injured the knee way back in November of '02. He kept playing, though, even as the cartilage wore away, and the Mighty Ducks went on a playoff run all the way to the '03 Stanley Cup Final.

Despite the injury, Leclerc was a key part of the run. But he paid the price that summer, undergoing a procedure that forced him off his leg for a solid three months.

While his rehab pretty much wiped out '03-'04, the lockout took care of last year.

The break, though, may have been just what the doctor ordered.

"It just gave my body a chance to heal," Leclerc said. "The last year in Anaheim was pretty tough. It gave me a chance to take a step back and clear your mind, forget about anything and kind of start fresh."

For Leclerc, a fresh start meant getting back to what he used to do: taking the body, skating hard and going to the net.

And doing it pain-free, for a change.

"It's great," he said. "There were a couple of years there where I was playing with pain and inflammation, going down to the rink knowing it's going to hurt and you're going to battle through it again. It's nice to have those days behind me."

Whether he's as good as -- or better than -- before the injury, who knows? Leclerc says it's been so long he can barely remember to compare.

But he does know this: he feels like he's been granted a second chance at doing what he might have taken just a bit for granted.

"I appreciate every game I play," Leclerc said. "Before, the little things that would bother you or get under your skin or frustrate you ... now I have a different attitude. I look at it that every day, every game I play, is another opportunity that I thought I wouldn't have again."

Leclerc's new team is showing some life, too.

After a slow start, the Coyotes look like they might be a playoff contender, after all, having finally reached the .500 mark (8-8-1-1, before last night).

"We finally battled back," Leclerc said. "We don't want to look back now."

So has he. And he'd rather not, either.


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