Flyers' Leclair Leaves Backyard Days Behind He's The Talk Of The Team - And Of Hockey-crazed Vermont.

Posted: March 28, 1995

ST. ALBANS, Vt. — Toofie drove five hours from Vermont the other day to see his best friend, Johnny, play a game in the National Hockey League. He watched him fake out the Whalers goalkeeper and stuff home a score to give the Flyers a 2-0 edge. The goal extended John LeClair's point streak to 11 games, a streak that was the longest in the league.

The Flyers wound up losing in Hartford, snapping an eight-game winning streak. Toofie turned around and drove home without having said a word to Johnny. Not even "Hey."

"If they won, it would've been different," Toofie said. "I just felt that he wanted to be alone for a while."

Toofie, whose full name is Mark Toof, has seen John LeClair score more goals than anyone else has. Most of them were scored on a sheet of ice in a backyard here, a community of 12,000 people in northern Vermont, on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain.

Johnny, Toofie and their friends would skate and shoot and joke around all day, and well into the night, at the backyard mini-rink, the neighborhood hangout created by a teammate's father.

It was a simple enough idea: Flood a piece of the yard by diverting the brook that ran through it.

The frozen water, shaped like an oval, was surrounded by boards, some running up and down, others horizontal. Nets were placed at each end. There was even a warming shack, a small brown wooden house, with an old woodstove in it.

Shoveling the snow from the rink was a wicked pain, but the kids were rewarded with a new batch of ice. The father would just stick his pump in the brook and reflood the rink for a clean skating surface. Every day or two, there would be a decent sheet.

"Me and John used to stay there till after midnight," Toof said. "Pump up the woodstove, go in there and thaw out, come back out and play some more."

When the whole crew was there, eight or 10 guys, a tennis ball was used. It was safer, and not bad at all (though not as good as a golf ball) for puck- handling.

"It was just hanging out," LeClair said. "Everybody that was there was pretty good. It was about having fun."

In the mini-rink across the field from the LeClair home, in the boys' winter kingdom, Toof was one of the first people to witness what the coach at the University of Vermont, Mike Gilligan, recognized 10 years ago, and what Flyers coach Terry Murray is getting used to now: Johnny can score.

"If you ask Johnny to play hard and give him his freedom, he's going to do what he's doing in Philly," Toof, a high school hockey coach and teacher, said. "People think this is a streak. It's not a streak. The kid's that good. The kid could always score. He'd be spinning on his head, he'd score."

At the University of Vermont, where LeClair drilled a goal on his first shot in his first college game, Gilligan thought of him as a better pro prospect than a college player. He was a kid with a great pair of hands and a true sense of the game. Watching him play at hockey camps, Gilligan became convinced that LeClair was the real thing.

"The better the competition, the better he was," Gilligan said. "He had pro style and size. I'd never seen such enthusiasm around the other team's net."

Since LeClair was traded to the Flyers from Montreal on Feb. 9, he has recorded points in 17 of 21 games, including a 12-game streak that ended Sunday. He has 17 goals and 15 assists for the team.

The Flyers, in that time, are 14-4-3. By contrast, in nine games this season with the Canadiens, LeClair had one goal and four assists.

Skating on a line with center Eric Lindros and right winger Mikael Renberg, LeClair has emerged as one of the hottest players in the league.

No one is surprised in Vermont, where 9-year-old boys analyze with disdain the ice time and situations he was given by Montreal coach Jacques Demers; where a Burlington police officer spoke for the state when he said, "John LeClair didn't learn to play hockey on the bus ride from Montreal"; and where local radio personalities take time each morning to skewer Montreal general manager Serge Savard, whom they call "Sergei," while relishing every detail of LeClair's game.

Vermonters still marvel at the way the young LeClair used to kill penalties on his own: circling the ice on his skates while opponents couldn't knock him off the puck.

Here in Franklin County, where LeClair is second on the list of famous exports (behind Ben & Jerry's), LeClair is known both for his scoring touch and the amount of time he spent on his rear end.

"There were times when the blue line would come up and trip him," said Luke Cioffi, who skated on LeClair's line in high school.

LeClair, it seems, is the only Vermonter reluctant - even loath - to talk about his hockey game. Leave him alone and let him play.

"A lot of it has to do with just playing with the line I'm playing with," he said of his progress with the Flyers. "I'm playing with two quality players. That's the biggest reason for my success."

The three forwards have nothing but praise for one another and can't help smiling about a simple fact: LeClair, at 25, is the oldest among them.

"I'm very happy," said Renberg, 22. "I'm almost proud that I can play with those two guys. To me, Eric Lindros is the best player in the world and John LeClair is not far behind."

Murray formed the line because of the size of the players. At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Renberg is its smallest member. LeClair is 6-2 and 220; Lindros, 22, is 6-4 and 235.

The coach has since discovered a chemistry he says he couldn't have predicted. Dubbed the Legion of Doom - although Murray prefers to call it, simply, the Lindros Line - the line's strength and speed are complemented by the players' ability to hold the puck till the final second, stay in stride, and finish off the play.

Heading into last night's games, Lindros led the league in scoring with 49 points, on 19 goals and 30 assists. Renberg was tied for sixth with 38 points, on 16 goals and 22 assists, and LeClair was eighth with 37 points, on 18 goals and 19 assists.

"Teams have to come with a game plan to deal with all three of us," Lindros said.

"To play and play well, you need really good players around you, and he is that," Lindros said, referring to LeClair. "Life is much more enjoyable."

The skaters expect the line to improve and anticipate scoring at an even greater rate as they work on their game off the rush.

"We're just chipping away," Lindros said.

"After seeing them together for the time they have been, I can say it's for real," Murray said. "It's not an accident what's happening out there. They're reading each other and supporting each other and enjoying playing together.

"That's what it's all about: You want to be having fun. You want to be able to enjoy the road trip."

NHL road trips didn't figure into the plans of Butch and Bev LeClair, even as they became involved in the youth hockey programs of John, the fourth of their five children. Butch LeClair, who operates a paint store, often accompanied John to tournaments throughout New England, to Quebec and even Europe. LeClair's mother, an operating-room nurse, stayed home with their other children.

"He's still only one of five children," Bev LeClair said. "The whole family can't lose its center."

John also was just one child in a community whose winter life is centered on hockey. Kids learn to skate not long after they start walking, using two milk crates, stacked one on top of the other, for balance as they negotiate their first steps on blades.

"The thing I hoped for him is that he would have a good high school career," Bev LeClair said. "We never even dreamed that he would aspire to such heights. It didn't occur to us."

Growing up here, kids dream of playing for the high school, the Bellows Free Academy of St. Albans, commonly known as BFA. The development teams run by the St. Albans Skating Association are feeder programs for the 15-man Bobwhites. This winter, 400 boys, aged 3 to 5, skated in the Young Blade and Mite programs.

"Hockey is a way of life in that community," LeClair said, "and I was fortunate to be part of it. It just reinforced my interest."

The Bobwhites have played in 17 state championship games since the playoffs began in 1969, winning 12. LeClair, whose team won the title his senior year, watched BFA win seven straight championships as a boy.

"When you grew up, you were expected to win," LeClair said. "I'm a firm believer in high expectations, and I don't settle for less. If you can instill that at a young age, it helps."

LeClair's success in the NHL has only intensified St. Albans' devotion to hockey. LeClair was drafted by the Canadiens in his senior year in high school, the first American chosen that year and the 33d pick overall. He opted to forgo the minor leagues and enrolled at the University of Vermont, becoming only the second Vermonter to receive a hockey scholarship to the state university.

Despite two injuries during his college career, LeClair recorded 56 goals and 60 assists in 92 games. A week after scoring his final collegiate goal, in a playoff game, he was on the ice for the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum.

The first Vermonter ever to compete in the NHL, LeClair had the good fortune to play just an hour north of St. Albans. His backyard buddies and his family could still see him play.

"Kids here think hockey is their world, and John LeClair is God of that world," said Isaac Gilbert, a senior at BFA and the right winger on the Bobwhites' top line. "They view him as immortal."

His place in the community is now fixed beyond hockey. The John LeClair Foundation, which he established more than two years ago, gives money to disadvantaged Vermont youths.

Two seasons ago, during the Stanley Cup finals, LeClair realized the dreams of a town, and of a state, when he scored overtime goals in consecutive games for Montreal. He added two assists in the final game as the Canadiens defeated Los Angeles to win their 24th Stanley Cup championship.

When he brought the cup home two months later, more than 10,000 people jammed the Collins-Perley Sports Complex, where LeClair played high school hockey, to greet him. For eight hours, LeClair signed autographs and posed for photographs. People were allowed three items to be signed, and most showed up with the full complement. LeClair, never comfortable as the center of attention, just smiled.

The ice is gone now from the rink here. They took it away after the Vermont high school hockey championships. In its place, last weekend, the Rotary Club set up the annual home show.

There was a little run on satellite dishes and a lot of talk about what that meant. It was hard to miss the connection: Frequencies from Philadelphia are carrying John LeClair.

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