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Sunday, 12 September 2010

Two Major Stars From The Lone Star State

In spending time examining the hockey history of Houston, I began to wonder why there aren't more hockey players from Texas. Of course, they have a burning passion for football, both NCAA and NFL, and they love their Rockets and Astros like any fans should. However, I've only seen one rink oustide the Toyota Center since arriving here, and that might be part of the reason. There have been a couple of high-profile players who have made their mark on the NHL, and these two men, besides both being from Texas, are also world-class defencemen. While Texas may not produce many NHL-caliber players, there have definitely been two that should make the state proud.

The one man that stood out as one of the best defencemen ever born in the United States is Brian Leetch. Leetch was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, and starred mostly with the New York Rangers as an offensive threat from the blueline. Leetch was the first American-born player named as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner when the Rangers captured the Stanley Cup in 1994, and he represented the USA internationally on a number of occasions. Leetch also captured two Norris Trophies as the best defenceman during his career, and was the NHL's top rookie in 1988.

While Leetch was born in Corpus Christi, his training came elsewhere. Leetch's father was a flight instructor, and the Leetch family moved to Cheshire, Connecticut when Brian was just three months old. Brian's father would continue the flight instructor business, but also managed an ice rink when the winter rolled around, giving Brian unrestricted access to skating opportunities.

While Brian grew up playing and excelling in both baseball and hockey, he truly shone in the sport of hockey. He earned All-State honours while in high school, putting up ridiculous numbers as a defenceman. At Avon Old Farms, Leetch scored an incredible 70 goals and added 90 assists in a mere 54 games!

In 1986, the New York Rangers, impressed by his remarkable scoring ability, chose Leetch ninth overall. However, Leetch followed the footsteps of his dad by enrolling at Boston College where he would be an All-American in 1987. He would only spend one year with the Eagles, though, as he jumped at an opportunity to play with Team USA in 1988.

On February 29, 1988, Leetch made his debut with the New York Rangers in St. Louis. He would record his first point that night, drawing an assist on a Kelly Kisio goal. While playing in only 17 games, Leetch looked right at home as he recorded 14 points. One year later, Leetch captured the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie after scoring 73 points in the 1987-88 season.

Leetch would continue to impress the hockey world with his abilities. In 1992, he became the first American-born defenceman and only the fifth NHL defenceman to record 100 points in a season. His 100-point season prompted the NHL to award him his first Norris Trophy as the league's most outstanding defenceman. Leetch's 100-point season is the last time that an NHL defenceman has reached that pinnacle to date.

Leetch's 1994 season saw the Rangers captured the President's Trophy as the NHL's top regular-season team, the Stanley Cup, and he was named as the first American-born player to receive the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoff MVP. He is still the only American to have won the award.

After Mark Messier left the team, Leetch was named as the captain of the Rangers in 1997. He would carry that honour until he handed the captaincy back to Messier in 2000 once he returned to the Rangers. But along with the captaincy, Leetch earned his second Norris Trophy in 1997 as the league's top defender.

While Leetch bounced around the NHL in the twilight years of his career, he formally announced that he was retiring from the NHL on May 24, 2007. That September, Leetch was one of four recipients of the 2007 Lester Patrick Trophy for his contributions to the US hockey program. January 24, 2008 saw the New York Rangers retire Leetch's #2 to the rafters of Madison Square Garden alongside the other legends. In October 2008, both Leetch and former Rangers teammate Mike Richter were inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame in Denver, Colorado. In November of 2009, Leetch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Ontario to sit alongside the game's greatest names.

Brian Leetch, in my estimation, might be the greates hockey player to have been born in Texas. His resume of work is second-to-none, but there is one young man who broke into the game in Texas after having been born in Houston.

Tyler Myers was born in Katy, Texas just outside Houston, and lived in the city until he was ten years-old. Myers moved to Calgary, Alberta at that point with his father and stepmother. However, Myers became smitten with hockey after attending Houston Aeros games as a child with his father when he was six. Moving to Calgary allowed Myers to pick up the game he watched in Houston.

Myers played minor hockey at Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, and followed an outstanding period there by jumping to the WHL's Kelowna Rockets. Myers was a towering defenceman in the league, standing at 6'7" tall, and routinely delivered bone-crushing hits while playing excellent defence.

Myers was just coming into his own when the Buffalo Sabres came calling in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. With the 12th overall pick, the Sabres added Myers to their team, and both GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff were excited to get Myers.

"There are two oddities to Tyler," Regier told USA Today. "One is size, and one is that he is a right-handed defenseman. (Coach) Lindy (Ruff) says find us a right-handed defenseman. But when I call up the rosters and look at every team's right-handed defensemen, there aren't many out there."

While the Sabres returned Myers to Kelowna, Myers stirred up a little controversy by choosing to play with Team Canada instead of Team USA in 2009. Hockey Canada began the controversy by naming Myers to their U20 team, and Myers' decision to accept the invitation was a slight role reversal in terms of Canada grabbing talent from the US Hockey Program.

"It was tough, I was born in the States," Myers told The Hockey News in 2010. "I based my decision on, if I hadn't of moved to Canada, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. I don't even think I'd be playing hockey right now.

"I just feel I owe Canada a lot and it feels good to put on the red and white."

The 2009 Team Canada World Junior team went on to capture the gold medal in Ottawa, and Myers was on the lists of many NHL scouts. That same year, the Kelowna Rockets went on to capture the 2009 Ed Chynoweth Cup as the WHL Champions, and he was named as the WHL Playoff MVP after scoring 20 points. Both tournaments allowed Myers to grow and mature as a player, and the Sabres were anxious to bring the young man back to training camp.

May 11, 2009 saw Myers sign a three-year, entry-level contract with the Sabres, and it was apparent through training camp that the young man was light years ahead of the Sabres' development plans. Because of his impressive camp, the Sabres chose to keep Myers with the club for the entire 2009-10 season. And what a season it was for Myers!

Myers recorded his first NHL point with an assist against the Phoenix Coyotes on October 8, 2009. His first NHL goal came eight days later as a Myers' blast found its way behind Dwayne Roloson of the New York Islanders on October 16. Myers hit another first eight days after his first goal by netting his first shootout goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on October 24. Myers recorded his first multi-goal game on January 8, 2010 against the Toronto Maple Leafs when he scored a pair of powerplay goals.

What made the transition of Myers from junior player to NHL player impressive was his growth as a top player. He logged the most ice time of all NHL rookies last season, and played on Buffalo's top pairing on the blueline for the majority of the season. He finished third in rookie scoring last season, and his incredible play earned him the 2010 Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie.

Myers looks to have a long and successful career ahead of him, and he got his start by watching the IHL Aeros in Houston! While he has chosen to play for Canada, he is still one of the two best Texans to come out of the Lone Star State to play in the NHL.

With Leetch and Myers, Texas is beginning to produce quality hockey players despite not having a lot of places to play!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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