Unlike his dad—but because of his dad—Brian has always been a defenseman. While a BC forward in 1960-61, his sophomore year. Jack Leetch was asked to switch to defense his junior year. "I had trouble making the transition." he says. Thus, when young Brian wanted to play forward, his dad "told me to start with defense. Learn the harder position first, then move up if I wanted to." Of course, he didn't want to. He was playing offense anyway.
As Peterson sees it, Leetch's ability to make that speedy transition from offense to defense will be a key to U.S. chances in Calgary. "You've got 15 feet more ice on the big sheet at Calgary." he says. "That opens up a lot of pockets, creates a lot of space for players to dart into. So you'll see less of an up-and-down transition game and more cross-ice movement." That's precisely Leetch's game. On the big international-size rinks, his weaving rushes—he is often compared to the Buffalo Sabres' Phil Housley—and his unfailingly accurate passes (Leetch leads the team in assists) help get the puck out of the defensive zone in a hurry. Even when things get jammed up, Leetch can move through traffic like a Manhattan cabbie.
"He'll give you a spin-o-rama, he'll look you off the puck, he's got great one-on-one moves." says Team Canada coach Dave King. "Makes you wonder why [North America] can't produce more such creative players."
Much of Leetch's creativity is put to use on the power play, on which he is sometimes used as a solitary point man—sort of like a point guard in basketball—when the U.S. team employs its umbrella formation. "Our power play is lost without him." says Smith, noting that the U.S. went 2 for 14 in four late-November games that Leetch missed because of a pulled groin.
"He's going to be our next great American player, one of those rare decade players," says U.S. general manager Art Berglund, One of those what? A decade player, says Berglund, is a guy "who projects to play about 10 years in the NHL."
For Leetch that decade should begin in March, when he is expected to join the New York Rangers. They drafted him in the first round in 1986. The Rangers tried to sign Leetch to a pro contract for the current NHL season, but playing on the Olympic team was a lifetime dream. "The best moment for me was when they read off my name for this team." says Leetch.
In fact, Leetch was selected for the U.S. team because of his reputation and not his performance in The Olympic Festival '87 last summer, which served as the team's tryout camp. In the first minute of his first game, Leetch took a check from Providence College's Tom Fitzgerald and strained the medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. Leetch thought the injury might kill his Olympic chances. Wake up and smell the Zamboni fumes, Brian. A kid who was All-Tournament at the 1987 World Junior Championships in Prague and All-America as a freshman was not about to be kept off the team because of strained ligaments. What the injury did do, however, was keep Leetch off the ice for six weeks, during which time he put on a couple of pounds.
"He was on our All-Body-Fat team in August," says trainer Dave Carrier. Since then, Leetch has worked himself back to a well-muscled 184 pounds, an ideal playing weight for his 5'11" frame. No matter. Leetch still gets a little weight-related needling. Take the day he came off the ice after practice at Dane County Memorial Coliseum in Madison. Wis., and was met by equipment manager Bob Webster in a forklift. "Hop in, and we'll go pick up your girlfriend," said Webster.
Unlike a lot of other highly skilled players, Leetch apparently thrives on the heavy going. "One of the strengths of 3 this team is that we can change 2 styles," he says. "We can play the skating game, but if the Russians or somebody are buzzing around, then we may have to play the body and slow them down."
Indeed, Leetch seems headed for Calgary in a thoroughly aggressive state of mind. "We're shooting for the gold," he says. "We have a realistic chance of getting to the medal round. After that, it's up for grabs."