Sports

Flea With A Flair Leeb, The Smallest, Speediest Chief, Does Big Things

He’s a phantom, stepping out of checks with cartoon-like timing, a roadrunner dodging the pursuit with sometimes comical results.

At 5-foot-7-1/2 and 155 pounds, Greg Leeb is an athlete of the people, the little guy thriving under the trees.

His flair for the spectacular was never better shown than last year in the Arena, against the Kamloops Blazers.

There was Leeb - the fastest skater in the Western Hockey League - carrying the puck behind the net with a defenseman in pursuit. The goaltender shifts. Leeb, the netminder believes, will try to score on the wrap-around.

But the puck is banked off the back of the net. The D-man shoots by. Leeb recovers, picks up the puck, re-traces his steps and stuffs it inside the pipe, with the defense hanging out on the wrong side of the net.

He did everything the Roadrunner might do that night but stick out his tongue, go “beep-beep!” and wait for an anvil to drop on the goalie’s head.

Greg Leeb - who’s back at it here tonight for Game 2 of the division quarterfinals against Kelowna in the Arena - smiles at the recollection.

“It’s been done before, but I never thought I’d do it in a game and it would work,” he said. “It was a split-second thing. On replay you can see the goalie didn’t know what happened. He was still looking for me to come around the other side of the net.”

In four seasons, Leeb has flaunted the expected. He’s supposed to be too small.

Nobody wanted him in the bantam draft. Nobody wasted a spot with his name on their 50-player protected list.

And then Ray Dudra, the Chiefs’ head scout, felt secure enough to go to the wall for the diminutive forward from Red Deer, Alberta, who at the time wasn’t 5-7 and might have weighed 140 pounds.

The Spokane super scout did something Leeb will always respect.

He begged.

Chiefs GM Tim Speltz remembers his own reaction.

“Ray, there’s NOBODY playing at that size.”

“He deserves a chance,” Dudra insisted.

Leeb had been invited to camp before. His hometown club, the Red Deer Rebels, took a look. They didn’t list him. Leeb had letters from Swift Current and the Rockets, then situated in Tacoma, but he wanted a fair shot.

“It’s one thing to invite a player like that to camp,” Speltz said. “But Ray wanted him on our list. It wasn’t like we’ll invite him and we’ll see. It was going to cost us one of our 50 spots.”

Speltz, known as a good listener, bought in. He listed Leeb and found out later that Leeb’s family had recognized this was a club with a reputation of looking after its players on the ice.

Leeb doesn’t fight. Someone, they reasoned, would probably have to step up for him.

At first that player was Kevin Sawyer. Later Darren Sinclair and Jay Bertsch kept their eyes out for him. Now he’s been around the block so many times the tough guys have to accept him, like a plow horse accepts a horsefly in the dead of summer, to be swatted at and missed - and endured.

On his resume are two All-Star games and a division championship. As the leading scorer on a team headed for the Memorial Cup, Leeb would be remembered here on the strength of numbers alone.

After 276 regular-season games, second on the club’s all-time list, the 20-year-old ranks in the top 10 in three Chiefs scoring categories. He’s sixth in goals (127), tied for fourth in assists (164) and fifth in points (291).

But numbers don’t quantify his hold on the fans. To his four seasons in the spotlight throw in skate nights and autograph sessions and myriad public minglings and Greg Leeb is an old friend to young fans who fill the Arena.

His popularity is founded on style and longevity. In the gone-tomorrow whirl of sports, his career has touched many of the important events in the evolution of the hockey club, from the Boone Street Barn to the Mallon Avenue Mansion and on to the Memorial Cup in May.

The fastest skater in the Western Hockey League, so proclaimed at the All-Star Game last January, Leeb’s name in Mike Lindskog’s pre-game introductions elicits the most excitement. Your son or daughter could have gone through high school watching him light it up.

Speltz supports the suggestion that Leeb is the most popular Chief in the franchise’s 13-year history.

“Ray Whitney might have been more popular for that one (Memorial Cup) season (in ‘91), but Ray left early and Greg played his whole career here,” Speltz said.

“The fans see him as defying the odds. He’s easy to cheer for. Fans love the little guy anyway. He’s made sure he’s earned their respect.”

Admiration is mutual.

“I have to thank everybody for that,” Leeb said. “You take the time to say hi, because they’re the people who support you, and are a big part of the reason why you’re here.

“The past four years have been the best four of my life, up to this point. I couldn’t imagine the things that have happened to me happening before I came. It’s been a thrill, something I’m going to miss.

“Living here pretty much on my own for four years - with three different billets, who’ve been great to me - has made this a hometown.”

And next season?

“It’s a year-to-year thing,” Leeb said. “You just hope to keep going and living the dream. I’ve tried to enjoy each day, and enjoy it while it lasts.

“Right now, I worry about the playoffs (Kelowna leads the series 1-0) and preparing for the Memorial Cup. We want to go as far as we can and I want to do the best I can to open some doors.

“Maybe Dallas will give me a chance again next year, hopefully invite me to camp again. I’d like to get into their system.

“Maybe the IHL is a possibility or there’s opportunity in Europe, or even college and Europe after that. People have told me I could succeed in Europe with the type of game I play. That would be interesting to find out.

“But, yeah, the NHL is the dream for everybody. That’s where you want to end up.”

His time in the speed-skating segment of the All-Star skills competition was a WHL-best 13.6 seconds.

“They said the NHL record was 13.3,” Leeb said. “That’s something to shoot for.”

Greg Leeb may never run into a shortage of something to prove, but he’s fired a shot for smaller players everywhere, and enjoyed himself immensely in the process.

Around the WHL …

Look for Kelowna coach Pete Anholt to make the switch to Chris Noble in goal for tonight’s game in Spokane. Jordan Watt is ready, but Noble has played well here. “That gives us a lot of flexibility now,” Anholt said. “We’ll be able to maybe come back with Watter here on Wednesday night (for Game Three).” … Kelowna rookie Bruce Harrison has mono, the third Rocket this year to come down with it.

The Tri-City Americans are looking for a coach after firing Rick Lanz on Friday. The development is viewed as a victory for GM Bob Brown. In what was perceived as a struggle for day-to-day control of the franchise that has come on hard times, Brown is now apparently free to hire a coach with a proven track record at the major junior level, or higher.

The Swift Current Broncos suffered a huge loss in their playoff bid when defenseman Lawrence Nycholat suffered a broken leg just above the ankle Friday night. He’s expected to be sidelined at least six weeks. … The Regina Pats are without high-scoring forward Josh Holden, who underwent 2-1/2 hours of surgery during the weekend to repair tendon damage suffered Friday night against the Moose Jaw Warriors. Holden lost a glove and had his left hand badly cut by a skate. He’s out at least a month… . The Pats lost another center earlier in the playoffs when Kyle Calder suffered a broken index finger against the Brandon Wheat Kings… Moose Jaw went into tonight’s game with Regina scoreless in 25 power-play opportunities.

Seattle goalie Cody Rudkowsky was on fire again in Sunday night’s Game Three of the T-Birds’ series with the Portland Winter Hawks, sweeping aside 40 straight shots until Portland defenseman Kevin Haupt broke through with a slap shot late in the second period. When center Todd Robinson set up Bobby Russell for his second short-handed goal of the playoffs just 33 seconds into the third period the Hawks were on their way to a 5-1 win. Rudkowsky faced a lot of rubber, stopping 60 shots… . The T-Birds are young on defense without defenseman Cory Sarich (elbow).

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos



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