This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of Capitals’ website production specialist Brett Leonhardt signing an amateur tryout contract, donning goalie pads and dressing in a Caps’ sweater, and taking warmups and briefly serving as a backup goalie for a regular season NHL game. It was one of the better feel-good stories of the 2008-09 NHL season. (Recommended reading: Ed Frankovic’s fantastic blog account of that special night against the Ottawa Senators). What’s perhaps just as interesting with Leonhardt’s story is the status of his goalie career ever since.
Leonhardt got on the ice enough with the Caps out at the team’s Ballston practice facility last season to inspire him to devote his playing offseason to a level of training and conditioning he never before had. Near the end of last season he worked with Capitals’ strength and conditioning coach, Mark Nemish, to design a training and fitness program to pursue all summer long. And pursue it he did.
“I actually went to the gym every day [last summer],” Leonhardt said. He put on 20 pounds of muscle, and this season, as he travels with the team for every road game to generate video and imagery for the team’s web site, he makes a point of regularly working out at gyms and fitness rooms in the hotels where the team is lodging.
But he’s not just sweating on treadmills at Hyatts on the road with the team — he’s a not uncommon practice participant as well. It’s actually standard practice by the club to tote along Leonhardt’s goalie gear for roadtrips of more than one game, and this coming week, when the Caps make their first trip out West of the season, Leonhardt expects to see the ice again in practice.
If Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov get 30-plus shots’ exertion in a game the night before, Leonhardt explained, it’s not uncommon for him to dress for the next morning’s practice to give the weary goalie a rest. Or if the team is playing back-to-back games, at home or on the road, and the guys have been given the morning off, sometimes just a handful of guys who’ve been recent healthy scratches or are rehabbing an injury will still want to get in a skate, and Leonhardt sees practice time then as well.
New Capitals’ goaltending coach Arturs Irbe is in charge of all goalies out on the ice during practice, irrespective of the nameplate on the back of the practice sweater. That means that Leonhardt is instructed by Irbe just like the six- and seven-figure star backstoppers around him. It’s heady stuff for the young web guru.
“One day I’m the guy cutting pictures and highlights of these guys for the web site, and the next day I’m staring them down in practice,” he said.
“This organization treats me like I’m an NHLer every instance I help out.”
It’s a Walter Mitty winter routine, all right.
Does he ever sense that guys like Ovi and Semin let up at all on their shots on him during practices?
“I’ve got the bruises all up and down my arms to prove that they don’t,” he replied, “and truthfully, if I sensed that they did, I’d say something about it.”
He’s had a few scary moments to go along with his bruises. Back during fall camp, Capitals’ goaltending prospect Brayden Holtby came up lame with a muscle tweak in his leg, at a time when training camp’s full compliment of goaltenders hadn’t yet arrived, and so Leonhardt was again pressed into emergency service. Not long after, Capitals’ newcomer Mike Knuble snapped off a laser that kabonked Stretch right in the ’noggin. It was, briefly, a scary moment for Leonhardt’s friends in the media following the session.
How does the new media manipulator and Ovi-Backstrom-Semin part-time shot blocker balance the demands of wearing two very different helmets — has he ever missed a communications assignment because of his versatility?
“When Brent Johnson went down last season and Theo [Jose Theodore] followed, I practiced every day that week, and we had [web] work to do,” he acknowledged. “I remember dropping a subtle hint to George [McPhee] one day – ‘Oh, uh, Kurt [Kehl, the team's VP of communications] said I gotta do . . . ‘ and he shot me this eye like ‘don’t ever say that to me again,’ as in, what happens on the ice comes first.”
Talk about a Most Valuable Web Guy.
“They’ve been great about it ever since,” he added. “Paul [Rovnak, Caps' media rep] will sometimes keep watch over my gear until I’m off the ice, and then maybe when I’m still in half [hockey] gear I’ll run out and press record, or back at the hotel, they’ll make Bruce [Boudreau] available to me so I can shoot something.”
So where is Stretch’s game now, having had a full year-plus of intermittent skating with some of the world’s best shooters of pucks, a committed off-ice training program, and a well-established on-ice routine with the league’s best team on the road?
“Obviously, Theo, Varly, and Neuvirth come first [working with Coach Irbe],” Leonhardt noted. “Where Arturs helps me the most is in between drills. When everyone gathers around the chalk board and Bruce is explaining the next drill, Arturs will take me aside and, if he notices something small, he’ll correct it, he’ll say, ‘Try this.’”
“It’s awesome. It’s surreal. When I’m in [practicing], I don’t realize [the novelty], but after practice . . . here I am taking advice from a guy that was in the Stanley Cup Finals, and then when working with [player] footage, I realize again what I’m doing.”
“Goalies are late developers, you know,” he pointed out with his trademark wit.