My favorite hockey player is being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame tonight. My favorite player - ever.
I don't think many of us - I certainly didn't - knew just how blessed we were to get to watch someone like him play, night in, night out. How his style of play, his work ethic, his quiet demeanor, would so deeply affect the team while he was on it and make us all, over five and a half years after his departure, still long for those days as if they were yesterday.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm talking about Brian Leetch, my favorite player. Arguably - and yes, a very, very good argument can be made - the best Rangers player. Ever.
If he's not the best player ever to don the red, white, and blue, surely he's among the best. No one dare argue that.
The man of relatively few words off of it, Leetch never failed to make every statement while on the ice. The way he was able to lead a rush and get back, effortlessly, flawlessly - you just don't see that anymore. I get a odd sense of bittersweet joy when I remember it even today. Joy because he was simply that good, and bittersweet because he couldn't play forever.
Speaking of joys, I truly consider it one of my greatest joys that I was a Rangers fan and able to watch someone of Leetch's, in ways unparalleled, talent play for my favorite team. Players like him do not come along every day. If you are a Rangers fan, until recent seasons perhaps, you were still waiting for a decent to semi-good defensemen, let alone one that could be described as great, spectacular, marquee, and yes, homegrown.
For I would have loved Brian Leetch if he were from any country. I seriously would have. But it gave me satisfaction to know that Brian was both mine, as a Rangers fan, and mine, as an American. It was a great source of pride. Someone that it can be argued was one of the best defensemen to ever play in the game - from any country - and he was born in Texas, and raised in the New England area.
The American roots would be intertwined with him forever, for more than just two reasons, but never for more than these two.
- Brian Leetch was the first American born player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. I would imagine he will not be the only American to ever win the award, but 15 years later, he is still the only one.
- Brian Leetch captained the greatest American hockey team to come together in our lifetime. I still get chills thinking about the 1996 World Cup. I've seen exciting hockey, but I certainly have not seen as exciting hockey played on an international stage. Certainly not with the Americans coming out on top. What a series. And Leetch was very much a part of that.
When looking back on Brian's remarkable career - and remarkable doesn't even begin to do justice to the guy so often overlooked because while he was graceful and smooth, he wasn't flashy - the only disappointment I can name is that it didn't end in New York. If anyone - anyone - deserved to retire a Ranger, it was Brian Leetch. He's not over it, understandably, and we can't go back, but as much as the disappointment is there, I think it's now been buried far enough. Buried under all the wonderful memories of the player that Brian was, and the person he still is.
I could probably go on about Brian Leetch forever, but instead I think I'll let his former teammate, Mike Richter, speak for me, just this once.
"There's only going to be one Brian Leetch," said Richter. "He was not just great, he was unique in the way he was great. You know what? I really miss watching him play."
So do I, Ricky. So do I.
Congratulations, Brian Leetch, and thank you.