2006-03-24 / Sports

New York Hockey Report: The Return of a Hero

By Joe McDonald Sports Columnist

By Joe McDonald
Sports Columnist

Boston Bruins' Brian Leetch, right, skates away with the puck from New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr. (AP/Bill Kostroun)
Boston Bruins' Brian Leetch, right, skates away with the puck from New York Rangers' Jaromir Jagr. (AP/Bill Kostroun) NEW YORK - The crowd was of course pulling for a Rangers' victory. After all, with a tight divisional race, the match against the Boston Bruins was a must win for coach Tom Renney's team.

But when the game was in hand for the Rangers with a three goal lead and five minutes left, the fans - dubbed the Garden faithful by Mark Messier - stood up and cheered their returning hero Brian Leetch, as he took the ice at Madison Square Garden for the first time since being traded a little over two years ago.

"All I kept thinking was that it reminded me of Yankee Stadium," said Leetch, referring to the booming 'Bri-An Lee-Etch' chant, which echoed throughout the Garden.

The MSG celebration of the defensemen was typical of the Ranger career he led. It was quiet and unassuming, but it made an impact nevertheless. Per his wishes, there were no video tributes and no on ice ceremonies. And only an announcement from Garden voice Joe Tolleson made it known before the game Leetch was in the building.

Of course, a standing ovation followed and the Ranger all-time leader in assists was very touched by recognition. "It was a strange feeling standing on that blue line," Leetch said. "All I can say is thank you."

It took a while for the Garden faithful to be able to share that gratitude. After he was traded to Toronto, the Leafs had finished their visits to the Garden and then he was injured in November when Boston came to visit 33rd Street the first time.

And the wait may have been a blessing, but it still was an emotional situation.

"Well it would have been really hard [to return] with Toronto," thought Leetch, but also knew "it was going to be difficult no matter what."

Leetch's teammates, Adam Graves, Mark Messier and Mike Richter, all went through their ceremonies at the Garden and they were on hand on Monday to also welcome back their former backliner. Though the defenseman was able to see how their ceremonies went, he was a different player and thus had a different connection with the fans.

I have a different personality," he said. "Mark had the connection with the city and Adam did a lot for the community. Mike and myself were drafted Rangers who came up as young kids and got to see us grow up. I wasn't worried about a negative reaction, because [the fans] saw us having success."

And though the reception was warm, there was still some underlying bitterness from Leetch because he felt he was unceremoniously traded. He only received a phone call from Glen Sather telling him he was traded, which ended his 15-year Ranger career. It was not the way he wanted to go out. "I didn't want to leave and wanted to be part of the team when it got better," Leetch said. Each year we didn't have success, we expected the next year to be better."

He does credit Renney's coaching staff for the success of today's Rangers and looking back, the trade did help the team's rebuild. After all was said and done, Sather was able to net three highly rated prospects [Jarkko Immonen, Lauri Korpikoski and Michael Sauer] and one player [Maxim Kondratiev] who was sent to Anaheim for Petr Sykora.

But for all his past greatness, Leetch looked ever bit of his 38 year on Monday. He was -2 with one shot on goal and a penalty and also was caught flat footed when Jason Ward set up Blair Betts shorthanded goal in the second period.

"I could have been better than that," Leetch said. "I would have liked to have a good up and down hockey game. I skated around in a bit of a fog during my shifts."

Perhaps it was the emotion or it could have been just age catching up with him, but maybe it is better this way. At least the Ranger fans will be able to remember the Brian Leetch of old, instead of former star with declining skills.

And when No. 2 is sent to the rafters, the Leetch of old will be the one fresh in New York's mind.

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