John LeClair, who at one time in his career didn't have a prayer of being an NHL star, scored a goal from his knees last month. Maybe you saw it. The tally made nearly all the television highlight packages, even the ones that usually show just the fights. LeClair, the Philadelphia Flyers' resident stoic, stumbled to the ice near the net after jostling with a Montreal Canadiens defenseman, took a pass from linemate Eric Lindros and pushed the puck into the cage. That simple. That complicated.
"Yeah, well," says LeClair when asked about the goal, "I saw the replay the next morning, and it didn't seem like anything spectacular to me. I mean, Eric made that play with his pass, and the goalie was out of position. There were a lot of circumstances involved. That's all. That goal is no ESPY winner or anything. Really, you just have to take things for what they are."
That's LeClair. When he looks at a cup, he sees it as neither half empty nor half full. He sees water. So why can't he see himself as anything but half empty?
After scoring the game-winner with 1:53 remaining last Thursday in a 4-3 victory over the Calgary Flames, LeClair was leading the NHL with nine goals. So why does it seem as if the first words out of his mouth are always, "Yeah, but..."? Why does he have a goal-scoring streak of six games and say, "In honesty, we haven't been that consistent?" Why does he hit the 50-goal mark two straight years during an era when scoring is off more than World Series ratings and still feel he hasn't really proved himself? Why doesn't he crow that most defensemen need a Denver boot to handle him in front of the net instead of fretting that he doesn't use his industrial-strength shot coming down the wing often enough? "My goals don't usually travel very far," LeClair says. "Face it. If you wanted to put on a uniform and skate, you could score most of the goals I do."
When is this 6'3", 226-pound bundle of self-deprecation going to realize just how splendid he is? If we're lucky, never.
Of course, a part of him understands that he is Big John LeClair, NHL star. He knows that he's one of 37 players in league history to have multiple 50-goal seasons, because that fact is cold and hard, plain and simple, not subject to debate. But another part of him is Little Johnny LeClair from St. Albans, Vt., who married his college sweetheart, Christina; who thought that a four- or five-year career in the minors would be swell; who, after twice scoring 19 goals in a season for Montreal, thought he had reached his potential; who envisioned himself as "a third-line checking forward who could go up and down the wing, not hurt the team and maybe chip in with a goal once in a while."
With 15 points at week's end, LeClair was four points behind Lindros for the NHL scoring lead, yet Little Johnny still stalks Big John. With his name regularly popping up in box scores and his likeness featured in a video game, he sometimes wonders if the job of hockey star isn't two sizes too large for him. He is routinely mentioned with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Paul Kariya (a restricted free agent who has yet to sign a contract), the Detroit Red Wings' Brendan Shanahan and the Phoenix Coyotes' Keith Tkachuk as one of the NHL's four top left wings, but LeClair says, "Those guys are a lot better than I am." Such comparisons take LeClair into the uncomfortable realm of opinion and interpretation. Nuance never has been the strong part of his game. "I want to be respected around the league, but it's not my goal to be the top left wing," says LeClair, who didn't report to training camp for nine days until the Flyers agreed to upgrade the remaining three years on his contract, to $3.3 million annually, plus incentives. "What matters to me is what matters to the guys in the dressing room."
When general manager Bob Clarke called after the Feb. 9, 1995, trade in which the Flyers swapped right wing Mark Recchi and a third-round draft choice for LeClair, defenseman Eric Desjardins and forward Gilbert Dionne and told LeClair he would be playing with Lindros, LeClair's first impulse was to hang up before Clarke changed his mind. "We figured we would try him with Eric, and if that didn't work, we'd move Rod Brind' Amour to the first line and use John at center on the second line," Clarke says. "We wondered whether he would be a good player or a failure, but he gave no indication he would do what he has done."
LeClair scored 25 goals in 37 games with Lindros and right wing Mikael Renberg on the newly minted Legion of Doom that spring, an outburst of scoring that had LeClair envisioning not a spot in the Hall of Fame but the possibility that he might become the next Warren Young. Say Warren Young around the NHL and eyes roll. Young was a middling winger for the Pittsburgh Penguins who scored a total of two goals his first 20 NHL games over three seasons, before riding Mario Lemieux's coattails to 40 in '84-85. After he was taken off Lemieux's line, Young averaged 10 goals a year for the rest of his career. "The thing that drives me most is not embarrassing myself," the 28-year-old LeClair says. "Not being a joke, like Warren Young, not having people use my name like that. That drives me more than self-doubt. Nobody likes to be embarrassed. I scored some goals  my first full year here, but it was important for me to back it up the next season. It's the next year that says a lot about you."
LeClair was spectacular in 1996-97, helping the U.S. win the inaugural World Cup and then scoring 50 goals during the NHL season, including 17 in the 30 games that Lindros missed because of injuries—only a modest decline in per-game average from the 33 goals in 52 games he had when Lindros was in the lineup. Though the Flyers were swept by the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals, LeClair scored twice despite playing with a badly bruised left shoulder. Lindros, meanwhile, didn't score a goal until 14.8 seconds remained in the series.