Gawanke growing into leadership role with Moose

Photo: Jonathan Kozub

📝 by Daniel Fink | AHL On The Beat

Jumping into the rush as the trailer, Leon Gawanke accepts a pass from Greg Meireles before unleashing a wicked wrist-shot that zips past a lunging John Lethemon. The defender veers to the right and launches into a fist-pump before celebrating his 17th goal of the season with his teammates.

That tally on April 7 set a new mark for the most goals scored in an AHL season by a Manitoba Moose defenseman, and tied Brett Hauer for the overall franchise single-season record dating back to the team’s days in the International Hockey League.

Gawanke was selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NHL Draft by the Winnipeg Jets. He played three seasons with Cape Breton (QMJHL), racking up 121 points (29 goals, 92 assists) in 178 junior games.

Gawanke turned pro for the 2019-20 season with the Manitoba Moose and produced steadily for the club. Despite starting the season in a three-rookie rotation, Gawanke eventually led both Moose defensemen and rookies in scoring with 26 points (four goals, 22 assists).

Now over 200 games into his AHL career, the 23-year-old defender has matured into one of the AHL’s top offensive threats from the blue line.

“I’ve definitely grown up a little over the years,” Gawanke says with a smile. “Every day gets easier. Every day you get more comfortable. Every day you start taking more leadership. Now I see these kids coming in now at kind of the same stage I was. I’m able to help them and it’s nice to see. It’s for sure something over the years that I looked at myself and I feel I really took a couple steps over the years here.”

That cycle of more experienced players ushering on younger additions is an important part of the AHL. Moose captain Jimmy Oligny was one of the more veteran players on the team when Gawanke joined the club, taking the young defenseman under his wing.

“He was like a baby bird that stays in the nest,” Oligny jokes about his frequent defense partner back in 2019-20. “We just tried to make him comfortable and help him grow. Even with things like his apartment and everything he had to get. He’s turned out pretty good, so pretty happy with it.”

Much of the growth in Leon Gawanke the player had to come from within Leon Gawanke the person. The skill was obvious, and his signature shot was something power play coaches dream of. However, learning to be a full-time pro goes beyond the skills of the game. Like many young players, it was part of the process for Gawanke to learn how to make hockey both his passion and his job.

“His personality is very relaxed, so early on we had to push him, push him and push him to make Leon understand this is pro. You get paid for it. You have to put the effort in every day,” recalled Moose assistant coach Eric Dubois. “When you’re tired and you put the effort in, that’s where the growth happens. It took a while, but he understood. He puts in the effort and every year he gets better.”

That growth has been evident in Gawanke’s off-ice conditioning. Where previously he struggled early in his career, the defender now ranks among the team’s fittest players in training camp, according to Dubois. The player recognizes the change as well. Gawanke cites the off-ice and mental portion of the game as where he developed the most.

“Coming out of junior I was never the biggest, fastest, strongest or the one with the best cardio,” Gawanke recalls. “Over the years I understood what it takes to be a good pro and to consistently bring your effort and your game every day. When I started, I remember I would play a good game, but then I would have two bad games. Just that consistency, bringing it every night and every day is one of the biggest parts.”

Gawanke went on to lead Moose defensemen in scoring two out of his first three seasons in the AHL. Now with just four games left in the 2022-23 regular season, Gawanke is enjoying his most productive campaign as a professional. He holds a career-high 41 points in 65 games, placing him 12th among AHL defenders. His 17 goals are second among the league’s blueliners and his seven power-play tallies lead the group. That quest for consistency shows through with Gawanke racking up 16 points (four goals, 12 assists) in the past 15 games.

To cap it all off, the Moose honored Gawanke with the team’s Best Defenseman Award at their annual player awards ceremony prior to their final home game last Friday. It was a perfect acknowledgement of the player currently assailing the team’s various leaderboards and helping to drive the Moose toward clinching a second straight Calder Cup Playoffs berth.

It’s success that Gawanke attributes to the environment around the team he watched develop the past four seasons.

“We always had a great team, a great atmosphere, great staff, great people working. It’s this kind of culture we built here over the past couple years. Everyone who comes in is welcome. Everyone’s having a great time. Everyone likes everyone. I’ve never been on a team with so few fights within the group. It’s so nice. I think anyone who comes into the rink is coming in with a smile and is going to leave with a smile.”