John LeClair, who at one time in his career didn't have a prayer
of being an NHL star, scored a goal from his knees last month.
Maybe you saw it. The tally made nearly all the television
highlight packages, even the ones that usually show just the
fights. LeClair, the Philadelphia Flyers' resident stoic,
stumbled to the ice near the net after jostling with a Montreal
Canadiens defenseman, took a pass from linemate Eric Lindros and
pushed the puck into the cage. That simple. That complicated.
"Yeah, well," says LeClair when asked about the goal, "I saw the
replay the next morning, and it didn't seem like anything
spectacular to me. I mean, Eric made that play with his pass,
and the goalie was out of position. There were a lot of
circumstances involved. That's all. That goal is no ESPY winner
or anything. Really, you just have to take things for what they
That's LeClair. When he looks at a cup, he sees it as neither
half empty nor half full. He sees water. So why can't he see
himself as anything but half empty?
After scoring the game-winner with 1:53 remaining last Thursday
in a 4-3 victory over the Calgary Flames, LeClair was leading
the NHL with nine goals. So why does it seem as if the first
words out of his mouth are always, "Yeah, but ... "? Why does he
have a goal-scoring streak of six games and say, "In honesty, we
haven't been that consistent?" Why does he hit the 50-goal mark
two straight years during an era when scoring is off more than
World Series ratings and still feel he hasn't really proved
himself? Why doesn't he crow that most defensemen need a Denver
boot to handle him in front of the net instead of fretting that
he doesn't use his industrial-strength shot coming down the wing
often enough? "My goals don't usually travel very far," LeClair
says. "Face it. If you wanted to put on a uniform and skate, you
could score most of the goals I do."
When is this 6'3", 226-pound bundle of self-deprecation going to
realize just how splendid he is? If we're lucky, never.
Of course, a part of him understands that he is Big John
LeClair, NHL star. He knows that he's one of 37 players in
league history to have multiple 50-goal seasons, because that
fact is cold and hard, plain and simple, not subject to debate.
But another part of him is Little Johnny LeClair from St.
Albans, Vt., who married his college sweetheart, Christina; who
thought that a four- or five-year career in the minors would be
swell; who, after twice scoring 19 goals in a season for
Montreal, thought he had reached his potential; who envisioned
himself as "a third-line checking forward who could go up and
down the wing, not hurt the team and maybe chip in with a goal
once in a while."
With 15 points at week's end, LeClair was four points behind
Lindros for the NHL scoring lead, yet Little Johnny still stalks
Big John. With his name regularly popping up in box scores and
his likeness featured in a video game, he sometimes wonders if
the job of hockey star isn't two sizes too large for him. He is
routinely mentioned with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' Paul Kariya
(a restricted free agent who has yet to sign a contract), the
Detroit Red Wings' Brendan Shanahan and the Phoenix Coyotes'
Keith Tkachuk as one of the NHL's four top left wings, but
LeClair says, "Those guys are a lot better than I am." Such
comparisons take LeClair into the uncomfortable realm of opinion
and interpretation. Nuance never has been the strong part of his
game. "I want to be respected around the league, but it's not my
goal to be the top left wing," says LeClair, who didn't report
to training camp for nine days until the Flyers agreed to
upgrade the remaining three years on his contract, to $3.3
million annually, plus incentives. "What matters to me is what
matters to the guys in the dressing room."
When general manager Bob Clarke called after the Feb. 9, 1995,
trade in which the Flyers swapped right wing Mark Recchi and a
third-round draft choice for LeClair, defenseman Eric Desjardins
and forward Gilbert Dionne and told LeClair he would be playing
with Lindros, LeClair's first impulse was to hang up before
Clarke changed his mind. "We figured we would try him with Eric,
and if that didn't work, we'd move Rod Brind'Amour to the first
line and use John at center on the second line," Clarke says.
"We wondered whether he would be a good player or a failure, but
he gave no indication he would do what he has done."
LeClair scored 25 goals in 37 games with Lindros and right wing
Mikael Renberg on the newly minted Legion of Doom that spring,
an outburst of scoring that had LeClair envisioning not a spot
in the Hall of Fame but the possibility that he might become the
next Warren Young. Say Warren Young around the NHL and eyes
roll. Young was a middling winger for the Pittsburgh Penguins
who scored a total of two goals his first 20 NHL games over
three seasons, before riding Mario Lemieux's coattails to 40 in
'84-85. After he was taken off Lemieux's line, Young averaged 10
goals a year for the rest of his career. "The thing that drives
me most is not embarrassing myself," the 28-year-old LeClair
says. "Not being a joke, like Warren Young, not having people
use my name like that. That drives me more than self-doubt.
Nobody likes to be embarrassed. I scored some goals  my
first full year here, but it was important for me to back it up
the next season. It's the next year that says a lot about you."
LeClair was spectacular in 1996-97, helping the U.S. win the
inaugural World Cup and then scoring 50 goals during the NHL
season, including 17 in the 30 games that Lindros missed because
of injuries--only a modest decline in per-game average from the
33 goals in 52 games he had when Lindros was in the lineup.
Though the Flyers were swept by the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup
finals, LeClair scored twice despite playing with a badly
bruised left shoulder. Lindros, meanwhile, didn't score a goal
until 14.8 seconds remained in the series.
LeClair and Lindros have a grand working relationship,
understanding what kind of passes the other can and can't make,
and who will go to the corner and who will head for the net in a
given situation. They may not finish each other's sentences, but
they can finish each other's passes, as LeClair did from his
knees last month and as Lindros did late in Game 4 of the 1997
semifinals, after New York Rangers defenseman Jeff Beukeboom
nicked LeClair's face in four places with a high stick. LeClair
missed just 30 seconds of action--trainer John Worley applied
Vaseline and pressure to the streaming cut above LeClair's left
eye--returning to create the winning goal with a blind, backhand
pass through the crease to Lindros at the left face-off circle
with 6.8 seconds left. "People made a big deal out of my coming
back, but the only cut that was bleeding was over the eye, and
that was mostly because of the sweat," LeClair says. "It looked
a lot worse than it was."
When he left the University of Vermont to join the Canadiens in
March 1991, LeClair was already a big, strong kid, but he skated
like Bambi on the pond with Thumper for the first time. His
balance was so poor that he would often cruise into a corner
with his left leg pointing north and his right leg heading
south, and down he would go. He set off a Rube Goldberg reaction
at practice during Montreal's 1993 Stanley Cup run by stumbling
and knocking down a teammate, who in turn slid and wiped out
coach Jacques Demers. Too bad. Back then Demers was about the
only person standing up for LeClair. Other than occasionally
lamenting his shortcomings, LeClair was about as quotable as
those fictional Vermonters, Darryl and his other brother Darryl.
So analysis fell to the voluble Demers, who proclaimed LeClair
the next Kevin Stevens, then a two-time 50-goal scorer and the
NHL's top power winger. That Jacques, what a kidder. Montreal
writers would smirk and jot down the name Connie Stevens.
Still, LeClair had his moments as a Canadien. He established
squatter's rights outside the crease and scored overtime winners
against the Los Angeles Kings in Games 3 and 4 of the 1993 Cup
finals. He was delighted to contribute but unimpressed with his
play. "It's not as if I dominated the games and deserved to
score," LeClair says. "Did you see those goals? The first went
off their guy [defenseman Darryl Sydor] into the net, and the
other I took three swipes at."
"All I know," says Demers, now a Montreal scout, "is that I have
a Stanley Cup ring I owe to John LeClair."
The Cup, as tradition dictates, journeyed that summer to
LeClair's hometown, which is 70 miles from Montreal. In a state
that has produced twice as many presidents (Chester Arthur and
Calvin Coolidge) as NHL players (LeClair), this was a huge
event. The newspaper reports said that 10,000 people, including
Senator Patrick Leahy, passed through the St. Albans rink to see
the Cup, though LeClair suspects the figure was inflated
considering that only 12,000 live in the town. St. Albans,
primarily a farming community, is at 45 degrees latitude,
halfway between the equator and the North Pole. This is but one
of its several claims to fame. Not only was St. Albans a stop on
the Underground Railroad, but it also was the site of the Civil
War's northernmost skirmish. LeClair invariably fails to point
out such fascinating facts to his guests. Shjon Podein, his road
roommate with the Flyers, says, "The first time I was up there
for his golf tournament"--the John LeClair Foundation has raised
$500,000 for Vermont children's charities since 1993--"we're
going through town, and Johnny's pointing out all the sights:
'There's Bill's shop. There's Tony and Wendell. There's Frank's
workout place, that's where you'll be going later.' He's the big
fish who's come from the small pond, the small-town kid who's
made good. Everybody knows him, and he knows everybody."
LeClair really does seem to know everybody, though he has never
been introduced to Ben or Jerry. If those ice-cream emigres from
Brooklyn really wanted to honor their adopted state, they would
come up with a flavor named for LeClair. Vanilla is taken, so we
humbly suggest LeClair Eclair, which would be a little bit of
everything--except the fluff.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO LeClair scores most of his goals in tight but can uncork a ferocious slap shot when he needs to. [John LeClair and opposing player in game]
COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER Stickhandling is among the assets LeClair brought to Philly. [John LeClair and two dogs]