Being part of '94 Cup highlight for Leetch

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:09 PM ET

Brian Leetch had trouble keeping it together the day of his first NHL game.

He'd just arrived in New York from the 1988 Olympics in Calgary after Team USA was eliminated, tentatively knocking on roommate Mark Hardy's door and being told they'd both catch a ride to Madison Square Garden with Marcel Dionne after a pre-game nap.

"I don't think I slept at all," Leetch said. "I was walking around repeating to myself 'I'm going to be in a car with Marcel Dionne.'"

The new defenceman assisted on a Kelly Kisio power play goal that night and a Hall of Fame story began unfolding. During a career where he was named playoff MVP of the curse-ending 1994 Cup team, he had a 102-point season, figured in Wayne Gretzky's 2,857th and last NHL point and wound up with 1,028 himself.

"I came into a team that needed a player like that at the time," Leetch said. "Michel Bergeron was my coach and he was very good at telling me to play that role, to pick the puck up, to create chances and be on the power play, so I didn't really have someone put the locks down and try and teach me the defensive part of the game."

The Rangers also needed strong dressing room personas, having played second fiddle to the rival Islanders too long. Leetch wasn't as physically intimidating a defenceman as the Isles' Denis Potvin or the emerging Scott Stevens across the river in New Jersey, but he was as big a part of the Ranger team as Iron Mike Keenan behind the bench and supreme leader Mark Messier in the dressing room. With Messier and a big roster, Leetch and the other Rangers could play in relative security, though not from their coach.

"(Keenan) was an adjustment, but the winning was most important," Leetch said. "He kept everyone on edge."

Leetch, who was born in Texas, but raised in Connecticut, says pressure from the Ranger fans was the other motivating influence.

"It had been 54 years since they had won a championship, and there's a very die-hard group of fans that pass down their allegiance to their kids, and through their families. So there was a large group of fans that didn't believe that the Rangers were going to ever reach that point.

"So to be on the team that was able to (win) I think there was a lot of people that just sat back and enjoyed it, and were appreciative to management and the players. (That was) our one shot at it. We never got back to the finals; never won another Cup with that group and the Rangers are still trying to get back to that point."

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca

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BRIAN LEETCH

- Played 18 NHL seasons (NY Rangers, Toronto, Boston)

- Won Stanley Cup in '94 with the Rangers, ending a 54-year team jinx

- Two Norris trophies, plus a Calder and Conn Smythe

- With 102 points in 1991-92, one of only five defencemen to hit the century mark

- Part of Team USA's 1996 World Cup win

- Reached 1,000 NHL points as a Bruin.

- In March of 1990 in a game against the Leafs, Leetch broke his ankle, part of a sophomore slump season. The Rangers seemed ready to contend for the Cup the previous season, but it would take Leetch and the team another couple of years to get straightened away for their 1994 title run.


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