by Steve Brown | AHL On The Beat
La Mirada, Calif., isn’t your typical hockey breeding ground.
But for San Diego Gulls forward Chase De Leo it’s where he called home until the age of 15 and learned to love the game. As a kid he attended Anaheim Ducks games in their inaugural season 25 years ago and the dream to play in the NHL started then.
De Leo’s Southern California home is a world away from the hockey hotbed of Winnipeg, Man., and the home to the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets and AHL’s Manitoba Moose. But that’s where his dream became a reality.
Following his third of four seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Portland Winterhawks, De Leo was chosen by Winnipeg in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft. Two seasons later he made his NHL debut for the Jets on Mar. 20, 2016, against the team he grew up watching, the Anaheim Ducks. He would appear in two games with the Jets in 2015-16 and spend the majority of it in his first pro season with the Moose.
“It’s special. It’s every kid’s dream growing up to play in the NHL,” said De Leo prior to his first game back at Bell MTS Place on Sunday, a 4-1 Gulls victory. “I know I wanted to be an NHL player from a very young age. Being able to make that dream come true here and have my parents fly up and watch it here was a special night.”
De Leo spent his first three seasons with Manitoba where he earned 107 points (45 goals, 62 assists) in 211 games. He also led the Moose in 2018 postseason scoring to conclude his time in the organziation; on June 30, he was acquired by Anaheim in exchange for fellow Southern California native Nic Kerdiles.
Reflecting on his time in Winnipeg brings a smile to his face, but in his first return to where it all began for two games against the Manitoba Moose, De Leo is all business.
“It was a special time here. I got to play with some longtime friends which you normally don’t get to do. I enjoyed that but it’s all part of the game and I’m here to get some points and get some wins. I’m looking forward to the games. They treated me well while I was here but there’s no friends on the ice, that’s for sure.”
Playing for the organization he grew up supporting is a dream come true. But De Leo is further motivated to get back to the NHL and make an impact for the Ducks when the time comes. In his first season with the Gulls, he has scored a career-high 45 points to date, surpassing the 40 he collected as a rookie with Manitoba. He currently leads the Gulls in assists with a career-high 28 and is second on the club in points.
“I think any time you get a fresh start it’s refreshing. I want to be here,” said De Leo on being a part of the Ducks organization. “I think when someone really wants to be somewhere… I’m home. Everybody wants to be able to play at home. Every professional athlete’s dream is to be able to play for the team they grew up watching as a kid.
“That’s a big part of it. Getting to see my family a bunch helps me mentally.”
De Leo has been recalled by the Ducks twice this season, but has yet to don the sweater in a regular-season game. Despite that, he’s continued to push along with his dream undoubtedly in front of him.
“I love it. This is the place I want to be. It’s my hometown team, I grew up watching the Anaheim Ducks, even going to some Gulls games when I was younger,” added De Leo. “It’s where I want to be. I’m a California kid and I want to help grow hockey in California. It’s getting bigger and bigger and it’s fun to be a part of it.”
De Leo has been a part of it. From the numerous community events he attends, practicing with local youth teams as a guest instructor to using his love of animals to help veterans be paired with service dogs, he’s helping grow the name of the Gulls and Ducks in Southern California.
He’s also helping the Gulls down the stretch with less than a dozen games on the schedule and a playoff spot on the line. In facing the Moose (the teams play again Tuesday night), it’s all business again — despite his best friend Eric Comrie between the pipes at the other end of the ice.
The two have been best friends for nearly a decade, having played together for the L.A. Selects growing up. They made a pact to make it to the NHL together. Sure enough, they both have and did so with the Jets, albeit at separate times.
The pact signed by both on Aug. 14, 2011, read: “I Chase De Leo, and I Eric Comrie pledge to do whatever it takes to play in the NHL together or against each other and be best friends until the end.”
“He moved to Southern California when we played in the Brick Invitational in Edmonton,” said De Leo of Comrie. “We became best friends then. When I was little I hated skating if I didn’t have a goalie in the net. One day I saw he was walking to the rink and was wearing goalie pads, so I invited him to skate. I think ever since then we’ve been really good friends.”
De Leo and Comrie were teammates for three seasons with the Moose, and even shared time as roommates their first season as professionals.
“It was special. I wish we would have been able to get into a game together for the Jets. We lived together both of our first year professionally. He took care of me for a bit. He’s my lifelong friend.”
Friends they were, and while they haven’t done so on NHL ice yet, they are foes once again in Manitoba when it is business as usual.