To the surprise of no one, Brian Leetch was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame yesterday, in what may be the best induction class the Hall has ever seen. It’s only fitting that Leetch is among that group (which also includes Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, writer Dave Molinari, and — Oh, baby! — broadcaster John Davidson), because he is the rare player for whom superlatives are entirely appropriate. No less than Mark Messier has called him the greatest Ranger of all time, and he could very well be the greatest American-born player ever, too.
The one person who you’ll never hear say this, of course, is Leetch, who’s as humble as they come. When the Rangers won the Stanley Cup (fifteen years and ten days ago, not that anyone’s counting) and he became the first American to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, he seemed almost hesitant to accept the award without his teammates standing there with him. When the Rangers retired his number, 2, in 2008, he deflected the attention away from himself by announcing during his speech that the Rangers were going to do the same for Adam Graves the following year. Not that anyone would blame Leetch if he did have an ego: Two Norris Trophies (given to the league’s best defenseman), the Calder (rookie of the year), and that Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) would more than entitle him to one.
But if we may add another superlative to the mix: There’s never been a New York athlete easier to root for than Brian Leetch. It wasn’t just that he was so skilled both offensively and defensively, or that he played his absolute best when the team had their one true chance to win the Stanley Cup. But we also got to watch him develop over the better part of two decades, and he was a class act all the way. (And yes, much of the above statement could probably apply to Derek Jeter, too — well, maybe not the defense part — except that there’s no Yankee equivalent to 1994. It’s hard to overstate what that season meant to Rangers fans, and still does to this day.)
All of which made his trade to Toronto and his return to New York the following season in a Bruins uniform so difficult to swallow. The Rangers were a month removed from fêting Mike Richter as a great career Ranger, and there was Leetch, in his seventeenth season with the club, sitting in his hotel room — on his birthday, no less — waiting for a trade-deadline phone call from Glen Sather he hoped would never come. It did of course, and Leetch was gone. The Daily News’ Michael Obernauer draws a comparison from that day five years ago to yesterday, when Leetch was waiting for another phone call. This one came, too, but from Toronto’s 416 area code. This time, though, it was a call he deserved.