Dramatic turnabout for Letourneau-Leblond

by Chuck Gormley || NHL.com


leblond_200.jpgSomeday, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond would like to be remembered for something other than having the longest name in the NHL.

But for now, the double-hyphened New Jersey Devils rookie is happy to be simply sharing the ice with stars like Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta and Martin Brodeur.

"It wasn’t long ago that I was playing pickup games for fun," Letourneau-Leblond said before a weekend doubleheader against the Philadelphia Flyers. "I didn’t even know if I would make junior level.

"My mum said to me the other night, ‘Remember when you weren’t even sure you could play organized hockey? Now you’re in the NHL.’"

And with that, a big smile creased Letourneau-Leblond’s scarred face, as if the realization of a dream had finally sunk in.

At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Letourneau-Leblond (he hyphenates his mother’s and father’s last names) has the shoulders of a moose and the single-mindedness of a 23-year-old rookie with no intention of going back to the minors.

Maybe it’s the boxer in him.

As a teenager growing up in Levis, Que., about 25 miles outside downtown Quebec City, Letourneau-Leblond took up tennis and boxing to keep in shape. As a boxer, he literally fought his way up the Canadian amateur ranks, beating the country’s under-18 heavyweight champion not once, but twice.

"When I beat him the first time, everyone thought it was a fluke," Letourneau-Leblond said of the Olympic-style bouts with headgear. "Then I beat him again in his hometown."

As good as he was as a boxer, Letourneau-Leblond said he never gave much thought to boxing professionally. Playing professional hockey was also the furthest thing from his mind when he was taken by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

It was with the Drakkar that Letourneau-Leblond first learned to fight on skates. He said he tried dancing on his toes in his first hockey fight, lost his balance and cut his finger when his opponent stepped on his hand.

"My first six or seven fights I got beat up pretty bad," he said. "I’m a pretty good puncher, but one fight I got my jersey pulled over my head and I thought, ‘What the heck is this?’"

The Devils liked Letourneau-Leblond’s potential because after his rookie season in Baie-Comeau they drafted him in the seventh round of the 2004 draft, the 216th player selected overall.

Letourneau-Leblond turned pro a year later and split the 2005-06 season between the United Hockey League and the AHL’s Albany River Rats. In just 58 games that season Letourneau-Leblond piled up 295 penalty minutes, fighting anyone and everyone that crossed his path.

That path continued the following two seasons as Letourneau-Leblond tore through the East Coast Hockey League and the AHL. But it was not until he was demoted from the AHL Lowell Devils to the ECHL Trenton Devils that the hulking left wing got his wakeup call.

"When I was sent down, nobody wanted to mess with me," Letourneau-Leblond. "I had more room on the ice and I wanted to develop my game a little more."

leblond_200.jpgTo do that, Letourneau-Leblond had to change everything – his workout habits, his diet and his conditioning. Over the summer he went to work on his body and dropped 12 pounds. Suddenly, getting to loose pucks in the corners didn’t seem as difficult, and the Devils coaching staff noticed.

"Improving his skating has allowed him to get to areas he wasn’t able to get to a year ago," Devils coach Brent Sutter said. "He’s more involved in the way the game needs to be played. You’re not afraid to use him. That’s a credit to him. … And yet it takes a good attitude to want to get better. He’s a very caring and disciplined person."

Letourneau-Leblond said his skating will never be on par with boyhood idols Mats Sundin or Peter Forsberg.

"I’ll never score 50 goals a year in the NHL," he said, "but I’m going to work at it."

When Sutter gave Letourneau-Leblond a chance to show what he had in the preseason, the heavyweight-turned-welterweight went after the NHL’s big boys, taking on Washington’s Donald Brasher and twice going toe-to-two with frequent Flyers puncher Riley Cote.

"All game long he was asking me if I was tough in French," Letourneau-Leblond said of Brashear, who was raised in Montreal.

Brashear won the fight, but Letourneau-Leblond won over his teammates.

"I thought he did a great job," backup goaltender Kevin Weekes said. "He’s a big guy and he gives up 25-30 pounds to Brash. Brash has been a top five guy in the league for how many years? So, the fact that he even chose to fight him says a lot about the kid. It shows a lot about his character and how gutsy he is."

Letourneau-Leblond started the season in Lowell, where he piled up 32 penalty minutes in four games before the New Jersey Devils recalled him to fill in for injured forwards Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik.

Cote, who traveled a similar route to the NHL and finished second in fights last season as a rookie, fought Letourneau-Leblond twice in the preseason and again in the first meeting between the Flyers and Devils.

"He doesn’t seem to like me," said Letourneau-Leblond. "Maybe I caught him with some good shots. I don’t know."

Said Cote: "He’s a tough dude. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be here."

Cote, who routinely asked other heavyweights for fights last season, said there is a certain respect NHL enforcers need to establish. And with each fight, Letourneau-Leblond will earn his reputation.

"The biggest thing is to stick with what got him here," he said. "It clearly wasn’t his point production. That’s not a knock on him, but he knows his role. If he stays on track and answers the bell, he’ll be OK. To get your name out there you’ve got to be willing to fight the big boys and I’m sure he will."

Ironically, it was Letourneau-Leblond’s ability to say no that earned respect among his teammates. Midway through his NHL debut, with the Devils leading the Dallas Stars by three goals, Stars rookie forward B.J. Crombeen challenged Letourneau-Leblond to a fight and Letourneau-Leblond refused.

"I didn’t want to change the momentum," he explained. "It’s not that I’m scared and he knows that. But I didn’t want to give them a chance to get back in the game. I would fight every night for the fans here because the crowd loves it. But it doesn’t happen like that."

Devils veteran forward Mike Rupp, whose goal last week against Dallas gave Letourneau-Leblond his first NHL assist, said that kind of discipline will keep his newest linemate in the NHL.

"It’s a long season and there are always opportunities," Rupp said. "If it’s not needed, I don’t know if it’s necessary."

Rupp said the hardest adjustment a fourth-line winger makes in his rookie season is making the most of his six minutes of ice time.

"When you’re out there, there’s not much room for error," Rupp said. "You have to be able to read when your team needs a spark. It’s not just dropping the gloves. As a rookie you try to sneak under the radar and not make many mistakes."