by Alyssa Dombrowski || for NHL.com
For the vast majority of National Hockey League prospects, playing in the American Hockey League is a time to learn.
For Rockford IceHogs center Drew LeBlanc, it’s also a time to teach.
Just seven weeks into his rookie season, the 24-year-old has already become a regular at community appearances for the IceHogs, the top development team of the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks. Most recently, he has reached out to begin tutoring students in math at a Rockford-area middle school.
“For me, it’s kind of selfish because I like teaching and I like being around kids,” said LeBlanc. “Honestly, it was just something that I’ve wanted to do and be a part of.
“I think it’s fun to give back and try to help kids learn, and I love seeing their faces light up when they finally get it. It’s something I look forward to doing.”
The Hermantown, Minn., native student-taught at a local middle school during the final season of his collegiate career at St. Cloud State, where he was a math education major. He made school history in April when he became the university’s first-ever recipient of the Hobey Baker award, the annual accolade that recognizes the NCAA’s top hockey player.
“It was a special moment for our university, myself and my family, and it’s obviously a great honor to be in that company [of past recipients],” said LeBlanc. “It’s something that I take pride in and try to represent as best as I can.
“Hobey Baker was really well known for what he did off the ice as well as on, so I’m just trying to keep his legacy and I take great pride in representing him.”
LeBlanc has carried that legacy with him to the pros, something that Rockford head coach Ted Dent has taken note of since the forward joined his team just a few months ago.
“He’s definitely active in the community early in the season, and that’s great to see,” said Dent. “He’s a very mature kid. He’s coming out of college at an older age than a lot of the first-year players we have, and that’s noticeable as well.”
LeBlanc missed most of the 2011-12 season due to a compound leg fracture and was granted a medical redshirt, allowing him to return for a fifth season with St. Cloud State in 2012-13. After captaining the Huskies to the first Frozen Four appearance in program history, the undrafted LeBlanc signed an entry-level contract with the Blackhawks. He made his NHL debut on April 24 and skated in two games with Chicago before the end of the regular season.
LeBlanc was assigned to Rockford prior to the start of this season and has notched four goals and five assists in 19 games played so far.
“[Drew] has great hockey sense, he sees the ice very well and making plays is his strength,” said Dent. “He has a great work ethic, he’s one of the last guys out of the locker room every day and he’s definitely putting in the time and trying to better every day with his game.”
Somewhat unexpectedly, one aspect that has translated over to LeBlanc’s game is the subject he devoted his college studies to – math.
“[Hockey and math are] two different things, but at the same time math is about problem solving and trying to figure out solutions to things,” said LeBlanc. “When you’re facing a new opponent, that’s kind of what you’re doing – trying to solve them and figure out what they do well, and then trying to counter that.
“It’s really one big equation that goes into trying to win a game, and I know it sounds a little corny, but I think there’s some truth to it.”
Dent, who has served on the IceHogs’ coaching staff in various capacities for the past six seasons, has been instrumental in the development of numerous AHL grads who have gone on to become NHL standouts – including several players on the 2013 Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.
He continues to work with LeBlanc on his transition from college to the professional leagues in an effort to help him join those ranks.
“The pro game is a little different,” said Dent. “The speed of the game is quicker and the players are stronger. It’s [learning to play] more of a north-south game while still trying to maintain and keep the playing ability that he has now.
“That’s something Drew has been working on – his quickness with and without the puck as well as his defensive responsibilities and awareness. He’s just trying to learn those responsibilities until they become second nature.”
Developing a sense of regularity has emerged as one of LeBlanc’s biggest priorities with Rockford.
“I’m a big routine guy – I like trying to prepare the same way and doing the same things,” said LeBlanc.
“I think I’m still trying to find that right now. Last year I could have told you what I’d be doing at every hour of every day. This year it’s been a lot more hectic with travel, games during the week and things like that. It’s a work in progress for me, and hopefully I can find a routine that works for me and try to get into the swing of things.”
Dent, who played collegiately himself at St. Lawrence University before a brief pro career, draws on his own experiences when advising young players such as LeBlanc.
“Just to be patient,” said Dent of the advice he’s given the forward. “We’re [one quarter of the way] into the season right now, and it probably hasn’t come as easy to Drew – as far as creating offense – as it did in college.
“It takes some time to get to know your teammates and to get to know the system we’re playing. There’s new rinks, new cities, the whole schedule – playing mid-week games is something new for these college players.”
The schedule of the American Hockey League is among a plethora of differing factors LeBlanc has experienced since turning pro.
“Off the ice, [our coaches] really stress nutrition and eating right, and making sure your body gets what it needs,” said LeBlanc. “On the ice, it’s a different game. It’s faster, guys are older and they’re stronger.
“It’s trying to learn how to play your game within a new system and also against the better competition – that’s kind of the crossroads that I’m at right now.”
Dent has emphasized to LeBlanc the importance of both patience and perseverance in adjusting to his role with the IceHogs and eventually returning to the Blackhawks’ lineup.
“My message to Drew is to stick with it and keep working hard, which he is,” said Dent. “Don’t get frustrated – it’s a process and it takes some time, especially as a first-year pro.”
As his first professional season progresses, LeBlanc continues to take it all in stride.
“I think for me, it’s just trying to figure out how to play my game at a faster pace,” said LeBlanc. “I’m also trying to get stronger, bigger and quicker to match that speed. It’s easier said than done – it doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually quite the process.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into it and it doesn’t happen overnight. I’m just trying to keep getting better as the season goes on and see where I end up by the end of it.”
For the math enthusiast, one thing can be certain – all of the various components add up to a bright future.