The Word

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:56 PM ET


 Brian Leetch is about 5-foot-11, 190 pounds with an unremarkable build for an athlete, especially one whose capacity to rebound between shifts is the stuff of legend.

 His hair is the same colour as his eyes, which is to say the hue of good bourbon with just the right amount of ice.

 In this way, it is unique to God and man.

 In a dressing room full of characters -- the silvery ambassador Ron Francis here, the engaging Alexander Mogilny there, the wary Ed Belfour way over there, -- Leetch's buttoned-down brand of superstardom has fit in perfectly.

 "He wasn't brought in as a saviour, but as another piece of the puzzle," Maple Leafs defenceman Ken Klee said.

 "That's important."

 CORE GROUP

 "This team has already had success," Leetch said yesterday. "There is a core group of leaders here. For myself or Ron or (defenceman) Calle Johansson, we've been able to feel right at home. It has been great for us."

 Leetch, of course, has been great for the Leafs. A point-a-game producer over 15 contests, Leetch has posted a plus-11. Compare those numbers with the ones racked up by the supposed plum of the trade deadline sweeps, Sergei Gonchar, who has nine points and is a plus-6 for the Boston Bruins.

 Leetch has been the best Maple Leafs position player since he got here last month. That, in the trading business, is known as bang for the buck.

 Consider the Leafs' win over Boston on March 25.

 Leetch had two goals and an assist but his greatest play came on the game-opening goal.

 Leetch blocked a shot and, with the Leafs playing two men short, found Mats Sundin with a short pass.

 Now, honestly, who looks to make a pass when they are playing two men short?

 Sundin relayed to Gary Roberts, who was just charging out of the penalty box to give the Leafs the game-opening goal. The best play of Leetch's night was a phenomenally audacious 15-foot pass.

 Indeed, Leetch's game is a superb blend of skills, some subtle, some eye-catching. He is, obviously, a phenomenal skater but there is a rare quality at play here. Leetch is one of the few players who seems to speed up while he cradles the puck.

 "What's really amazing is how well he moves with the puck on his stick," Klee said.

 From his spot on left defence, Leetch orchestrates the game, veering over to pressure attackers into a premature dump-in, holding his ground on the opposition blue line while attackers sweep past him, always finding not only the right move but the right occasion.

 No Leaf defenceman since Borje Salming has brought Leetch's ingenuity, yet it is his sense of economy that makes it work.

 "One thing Brian does is really read the score and the game," assistant coach Rick Ley said. "He understands when to take a chance, but also when he doesn't have to. That's something a lot of players don't do."

 Brian Leetch left his heart as well as his family in New York.

 When asked if he was enjoying the atmosphere of hockey-mad Toronto, Leetch replied that he has been too busy preparing for games to really notice.

 It took six years of missed playoffs and the promise of a few more to come for Leetch to leave Manhattan. Toronto may be giddy over his arrival, but for him this is a business trip.

 This guy is as rare as a three-headed coin, and I'll tell you something else.

 He is here to win.


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