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NEW PLAYERS 7
Even as he won two Norris Trophies, donned the C for three seasons and carried the Stanley Cup on Broadway as a Ranger, Brian Leetch showed hints of the torn allegiance experienced by athletes who grow up in Cheshire, Conn. The sleepy town lies in a sort of sporting no-man's-land separating the warring factions of Boston and New York. Leetch, who played one season at Boston College, would revisit the BC dorms and sleep on friends' floors when the Rangers' season ended. He ate pasta in the Hub's North End, kept a summer place on Cape Cod and occasionally referred to his predecessor in the New York captaincy as "Mahk" Messier.
Thus, after signing with the Bruins as a free agent, Leetch will find it easy acclimating to the city. Getting comfortable with being the team's new elder statesman is another matter. "In New York, I always had Messier as a buffer," says Leetch, 37. But he is enthused about being Papa Bear. "This team is not only young, it's talented," Leetch says. "They'll be good for a while."
Boston's centerpiece is Joe Thornton, who was anointed the franchise's captain and savior three years ago at age 23. Thornton has been one of the game's best players since then but hasn't won a postseason series; he went scoreless and took the brunt of the blame 17 months ago when the Bruins blew a 3-1 lead to the archrival Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs. "Joe's the leader here," Leetch says. "He'll be there when it counts." Thornton can probably learn a thing or two about playoff performance from Leetch, who has amassed 97 points in 95 postseason games and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1994.
The Bruins led the NHL in shots in 2003-04 but were 15th in goals; maturity and focus should yield more scoring. "We had good players in New York," says Leetch, "but Mark made sure we expected to produce and to win." In bringing that attitude to Boston, Leetch should feel right at home. --B.C.