by Kevin Zalaznik || AHL On The Beat Archive
When Veterans Day rolled around last week, youth hockey players in the Capital Region filled the void of a non-school day by taking in American Hockey League action as the Albany Devils hosted the Norfolk Admirals. Whether they knew it or not, the 6-foot-5 player in white, wearing the captain’s “C” was one of their own. He was once in their shoes, watching the same level of hockey in the same building.
“I was maybe 10 when they built the Times Union Center,” said Jay Leach. “I don’t remember the construction, but I remember coming to the games here. I went to quite a few games.”
Leach, who is in his 12th professional season, was raised in Altamont, N.Y., just 15 miles from downtown Albany. Growing up, he played for the Schenectady Youth Hockey Organization until he was 14 and then played for the Capital District Selects for five years with the bantam, midget and junior teams.
Nearly a decade and a half since leaving the Capital Region to play collegiate hockey at Providence College, Leach has the privilege that not many professional athletes are given — being the captain of his hometown team.
“It’s a great honor whenever you are named captain,” Leach said. “Obviously, the team thinks highly about who you are and what you do as a professional. I treat it with a lot of respect and try to do my best every day.”
Since the Devils arrived in Albany in 2010, Leach is the first captain since Stephen Gionta, who assumed the role between 2009-10. It marks the fourth time in Leach’s career that he is serving as team captain. He wore the “C” with the Devils in Lowell in 2008-09 and served for the Providence Bruins from 2005-07 and the Worcester Sharks in 2010-11.
“I’ve gotten the opportunity to play with Leach,” said rookie defenseman Corbin McPherson. “He’s a great guy, an excellent leader with a lot of years in the league.
“He knows what he’s doing and I always look for him for advice and leadership. He’s a great asset to the team.”
McPherson is one of seven Devils defensemen under the age of 25. With eight defensemen on the roster, the 33-year-old Leach is the elder statesman.
“He’s composed and quietly aggressive,” McPherson said. “He knows when to go and not to go. He’s always in the right spot and he’s always making plays. He’s a great player to be out there with and to watch from the bench.”
“Jay is our oldest guy on the team and has played the most years pro,” said head coach Rick Kowalsky earlier this season. “He’s a guy that’s not afraid to hold people accountable on and off the ice.”
The youth hockey players who caught the Devils Veterans Day game also witnessed Leach’s 450th career AHL contest and his 700th professional game.
“I knew it was around here somewhere,” Leach said. “I was having a hard time doing the math and because I’ve been on so many teams – I couldn’t figure it out. That’s a lot of games when I look back at it.”
Up until a lower-body injury sidelined him for all but 21 games in 2011-12, Leach had averaged 66.8 games per year for the 10 years prior.
“Until last year, I think I was healthy,” Leach said. “I’m always in pretty good shape and that helps. I’m always willing to play. You just have to go to work every day and after a while they figure out, ‘Oh, this guy is willing to play every night.’
“Seven hundred, here I am.”