For about eight winters, following a 15-year NHL career, John LeClair had his hockey bag stuffed in a closet somewhere in his Philadelphia area home.
Going all the way back to a star-studded career in the U.S. high school system in his native Vermont, to four years of college hockey with stints in the U.S. national team program, to a pro career that him play only eight games in the minors and the rest in the National Hockey League, hockey was all LeClair had ever known.
And then he was done.
“I’d had enough,” he said. “I was coaching my kids, on the ice with them, and that was so much fun.
“That was satisfying any hockey need that I might have had.”
And then the call came from the Montreal Canadiens Alumni squad.
“I played a couple of games, and kind of got the itch back,” he said. “It’s great fun out there, moving the puck around. And it’s great to see some of the guys again. We have good fun in the room.”
LeClair and a bunch of Montreal Canadiens Alumni will be taking on the Boston Bruins Alumni 7:30 Thursday night at Mile One Centre.
Among those dressing for the Canadiens are former all-stars Leclair, Stephane Richer and Gary Leeman, along with Chris Nilan, Lucien Deblois, Darren Langdon, Steve Penney, Mike Lalor and Alain Cote.
Hall of Famer Ray Bourque headlines the Bruins’ squad, who will also have Terry O'Reilly, Rick Middleton, Al Lafrate, Ken Linseman, Bob Sweeney, Andrew Alberts and goaltender Andrew Raycroft in the lineup.
“I played a couple of games (with the alumni team), and kind of got the itch back. It’s great fun out there, moving the puck around. And it’s great to see some of the guys again. We have good fun in the room.”
LeClair is one of the greatest American-born players to play the game, the author of 406 career goals — including three straight 50-goal seasons — and 829 points.
His best days came as a Flyer, but his career highlight occurred in Montreal, where he won the 1993 Stanley Cup. That was the spring when the Canadiens set a playoff record for most overtime games won in one year, with 10, and LeClair scored game-winners in the extra sessions against the Los Angeles Kings in Games 3 and 4 of the final.
Three years later, he helped the States win the World Cup, and was part of America’s silver-medal squad at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
LeClair would spend only two years in Montreal, before being packaged with Eric Desjardins and Gilbert Dionne to Philly for Mark Recchi.
It was in Philly that his career really took off, when he hooked up with Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg to form what would be known as the “Legion of Doom” line.
“We didn’t click right away,” said LeClair. “I remember it was our third game in three nights with the trade, and we (he, Dionne and Desjardins) didn’t play well.
“But the chemistry was there from the start, and we (LeClair, Lindros and Renberg) took off.”
The three Flyers forwards were huge, and had skill. LeClair was 6-3 and 230 pounds, Lindros stood 6-4 and weighed 240 pounds and Renberg was 6-2 and 235.
At the time, Lindros was in the prime of his career, a force not seen before in the NHL – a player who could skate and hit like a truck, who had vision and great hands.
Of course, injuries would derail Lindros, although the Hockey Hall of Fame saw enough to induct him despite playing only 813 career NHL games.
“Eric always pushed us to be better,” said LeClair, now 48. “I remember him for who he was when he was healthy, just a dominant, dominant hockey player.”
LeClair was drafted 33rd overall by the Canadiens in 1987, the only American selected in the first two rounds (42 players in total).
Today, there are several U.S.-born players dotting each NHL roster, and they’re coming from all over. Austen Matthews is from Arizona, and the league’s third-leading point-getter, Johnny Gaudreau, hails from New Jersey.
“We’ve come a long way,” LeClair said. “When I was coming up through, the only Americans who played were from Minnesota, Michigan or Massachusetts. Now the game is played in all 50 states, and certainly expansion by the NHL has helped that.
“But USA Hockey has a great job with its coaching programs. Coaching is critical. A good coach helps by making the game fun for the kids, and then you need good coaching with all the other teaching stuff as you get older.”
Tickets for Thursday’s game are $35 for adults and $25 for students, and are available at the box office.