Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Stanley Cup Heroes:

Gary Leeman – Critical Piece?

Of all the stories passed down over the years about the 1993 Stanley Cup win, very few cast Gary Leeman as a central character. This is right. Gary was not a central character – he was benched in many playoff games and relegated to fourth line on many others. But at the time, Gary Leeman was a very important and significant player to me.

My first acquaintance with Gary Leeman was made in 1989-90. I had recently begun taking hockey very seriously and Stephane Richer was my favourite player. Back then, it was customary to think that the Canadiens would be in the running for awards and league leads in various categories. 1989 was laden in trophies for the Canadiens and Patrick Roy was setting standards.

For me the race to watch was the goalscoring lead. Gretzky could shut down the Art Ross competition in December, but since he wasn't a goal man, that race seemed open to me. What's more we had a horse, and his name was Stephane Richer. He'd done 50 goals before, so he was legit. Anyway, as the season went on and I watched for Richer goals and Habs wins on HNIC, it became clear that Stephane was going to have a little rivalry going with Gary Leeman.

Though I certainly kept tabs on Gary from that point (thinking back, I was probably unlucky enough to have picked him in the pool the next year), his career didn't really make that big an impression on me. The Leafs back then were in the West and I wasn't even aware that I was supposed to dislike them. They were sufficiently bad anyway, so there seemed little point. Any hockey fan would certainly cite the 10 player holiday season swap announced during HNIC as a big moment, but again it was Campbell conference fodder (Leafs:Flames), I was immersed in Habs:Bruins.

The next big Leeman moment in my life came on January 28, 1993. That was the day Serge Savard traded Brian Skrudland to the Calgary Flames for the now severely fading star.

Brian Skrudland, you see was a special player in my household. For one thing, he was my younger brother's favourite player. But for another, he happened to be the only NHL player I knew personally, as he was the only one on my paper route. I wouldn't say that Brian and I were friends or anything, but he was my best tipper and probably the best house to go collecting money from on a cold January afternoon. He'd always invite me in to warm up and talk about hockey, his car, or the very cold weather of course. He was a nice guy.

By 1993 I was no longer a paper boy, but the Leeman trade was a full dose of reality for a young impressionable fan. I knew that players were traded – I'd seen my favourite Richer traded and a few more. But I thought that certain players were Canadiens for life, players like Brian. Now I knew the truth.

Leeman as a Hab

My memory of Leeman as a Canadiens player is patchy at best. I'd be lying if I told you I remembered his storming 0.9 point-per-game introduction to the Canadiens faithful. And he doesn't figure greatly in my memories of the Stanley Cup run. Certainly not in the way that Lecalir, DiPietro, Dionne, Lebeau, and the star players did.

My lasting memory of him, if I'm honest, came during the Stanley Cup parade. When I got the chance to touch the Stanley Cup that day and get every Canadiens hockey card I owned signed by the corresponding new champion, it is Leeman I remember best. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that as the mob moved towards Roy and Damphousse that Gary was one of the less popular Canadiens autographs that day. When it came time for him to sign the card I gave him (a Leafs card as it was), he seemed to relish the occasion. With my permission, he took the card and promptly showed the back of it to everyone on his float that day. There was real glee on his face when combined with the Stanley Cup winner's aura he could now verify his 51-goal season to his teammates. Signed and handed back to me, Gary Leeman thanked me for the chance to show off a bit. It was a cool moment for me – even more so looking back.

As quickly as Gary came, he seemed to be gone. Obviously not a Demers player, Leeman was marginalised and then allowed to leave after the original lockout of 1994.

The 1993 Cup: the Leeman effect

Now, I wouldn't normally have been writing a section about the Leeman effect regarding a Stanley Cup run; but in my summer rambles I came across a very interesting piece that was lost in time about the Gary Leeman award (no, not the award for the least deserving 50-goal man).

The award (a bit of fun proposed by Chris Fell and his friends at the Meaford Express) is given to:
"recognize the season’s luckiest player, most fortunate player, or player that was in the right place at the right time."

Every year since 1993, the reporter and his friends have been picking a player who emulates Leeman's run of luck and every year, sure enough they find one.

It got me thinking that there may be something to it. Perhaps a requirement of winning the Stanley Cup is to bring along a player who might not otherwise have had the chance. Perhaps it's the hockey gods' way of doling out some good will here and there.

It certainly can't just be coincidence, can it, that every Stanley Cup winner back to 1987 has had their very own version of Gary Leeman on the squad. A player from a team with no shot who suddenly lands on his feet to get his name engraved. It would be hard to prove the opposite, with so many trades in the league, but there are examples of good teams falling to lesser ones, perhaps all because of their flaunting of the charity Cup winner tradition. The 1994 New Jersey Devils come to mind, as do the 2007-08 Montreal Canadiens.

My Gary Leeman award winners

Unfortunately, Chris Fell and his friends don't publish their rulings anywhere I can find them, so we don't know who has won the award officially each season. Instead, I have gone through all the seasons back to 1986 (the last one without a trade-in winner) to pick out a winner:

1987 Edmonton Oilers: Moe Lemay (from Vancouver)
1988 Edmonton Oilers: Dave Hannan (from Pittsburgh)
1989 Calgary Flames: Brian MacLellan (from Minnesota)
1990 Edmonton Oilers: Petr Klima (from Detroit)
1991 Pittsburgh Penguins: Peter Taglianetti (from Minnesota)
1992 Pittsburgh Penguins: Ken Wregget (from Philadelphia)
1993 Montreal Canadiens: Gary Leeman (from Calgary)
1994 New York Rangers: Nick Kypreos (from Hartford)
1995 New Jersey Devils: Danton Cole (from Tampa Bay)
1996 Colorado Avalanche: Dave Hannan (from Buffalo)
1997 Detroit Red Wings: Tomas Sandstrom (from Pittsburgh)
1998 Detroit Red Wings: Dimitri Mironov (from Anaheim)
1999 Dallas Stars: Derek Plante (from Buffalo)
2000 New Jersey Devils: Vladimir Malakhov (from Montreal)
2001 Colrado Avalanche: Steven Reinprecht (from LA)
2002 Detroit Red Wings: Jiri Slegr (from Atlanta)
2003 New Jersey Devils: Richard Smehlik (from Atlanta)
2004 Tampa Bay Lightning: Stanislav Neckar (from Nashville)
2006 Carolina Hurricanes: Doug Weight (from St Louis)
2007 Anaheim Ducks: Richard Jackman (from Florida)
2008 Detroit Red Wings: Brad Stuart (from LA)
2009 Pittsburgh Penguins: Mathieu Garon (from Edmonton)

To Gary Leeman.

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