It is an impromptu after-practice game of chicken, a test of will and nerve. Team U.S.A. defenseman Brian Leetch is standing outside the hockey rink at the University of Wisconsin. Madison, his body and face pressed against the glass. Teammate Dave Snuggerud stands 30 feet away on the ice, three pucks at his feet, ready to shoot at Leetch's head.
Bwaaang! The first shot crashes into the glass inches from Leetch's left cheek. He doesn't flinch, doesn't even blink. Bwaaang! The next shot hits in front of his shoulder. Leetch snuggles closer against the glass. Bwaaang! The last puck smashes into the glass near Leetch's right ear. Still no reaction. Then, as Snuggerud skates in to pick up the pucks, Leetch smiles, gives Snuggerud a wave of mock contempt—that as hard as you can shoot, buddy?—and swaggers off to the dressing room. Test passed.
So what did you expect, Snugger? The kid has faced every challenge and hasn't taken a backward step since he started playing hockey as a five-year-old in his hometown of Cheshire. Conn. Now 19, the second-youngest player on the U.S. Olympic team (Greg Brown is four days younger), Leetch is about to face his biggest challenge—and the final step of his glittering amateur career—on the ice at Calgary.
Leetch is a product of the Bobby Orr generation, an offensive-no, make that attacking—defenseman whose rushes, world-class transition play and quarterbacking of the power play will strongly determine whether this U.S. team becomes a heavy-medal group or merely plays backup to the Soviets. Czechs, Swedes, Finns and Canadians.
Coaches generally don't like to put one player—particularly a young player—in the spotlight, but the U.S. Olympic staff empties the bucket of superlatives in assessing Leetch:
"I don't think there's anything he can't do." says head coach Dave Peterson, who previously coached Leetch on the 1986 and '87 National Junior team.
"I've been coaching college hockey for 12 years, and he's the best I've ever seen." says assistant coach Ben Smith.
"He's one of the best defensemen in the world." says assistant coach Jack Blatherwick, who was also an exercise physiologist for the 1980 Olympic gold medal and 1984 teams.
Brian is the oldest son of Jack Leetch, a 1963 Boston College All-America who coached his son through Squirt, Pee Wee and Bantam programs. The father says that the son stood apart—literally—almost from the first day he took to the ice. According to Jack, the young Brian's Learn-to-Skate class used to finish with the kids playing a 10-minute hockey game. They would all follow the puck like a swarm of bees. Except for Brian. "He would stay in the middle of the ice and wait for the puck to pop loose. Then he'd take off on his own," says the elder Leetch. The son has never looked back.
He was All-State as a sophomore at Cheshire High School in 1984. All-New England Prep at Avon Old Farms, a private school, in 1985 and '86, and then followed in his father's footsteps to BC. Last season he led the Eagles to the Hockey East championship and was named the conference's Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year.