25th Anniversary Special – Top 25 Rebels in franchise history; No. 23 Brad Leeb
The notion of pulling on a WHL jersey hundreds of kilometres from his hometown was appealing to Brad Leeb heading into the league’s bantam draft in 1994.
Instead, the Red Deer product was selected by his hometown Rebels in the second round of the draft, 25th overall, and went on to play four seasons with the club before embarking on a professional playing career that concluded three years ago.
“I was excited about the possibility of going to a team far away and moving away from home. That sounded exciting,” Leeb reminisced.
“But when I started playing in my hometown I quickly realized how special that was and how nice it was to have family and friends in the stands every night. Looking back on it now, I wouldn’t have changed it for anything.”
At the age of 15, Leeb suited up with the midget AAA Optimist Chiefs as an underage forward and scored 31 goals and collected 45 points in 36 regular-season games. He helped the team win the Pacific Region (Alberta/B.C.) title and advance to the 1995 Canadian championship at Sherbrooke, Que., where Red Deer fell to Thunder Bay in the gold medal game.
Leeb also played three games with the Rebels that season, then appeared in 38 regular-season contests — and 10 playoff outings — as a rookie in ’95-96.
The Rebels won their first ever post-season series in the spring of ’96, taking out the favoured Swift Current in six games and wrapping up the best-of-seven set at the Centrium. Leeb recalls the final game like it was yesterday.
“I remember how loud it got and how many people were in the building,” he said. “I hadn’t seen that many fans in the rink before. That was a special time.”
Leeb played under four head coaches — Peter Anholt, Rick Carriere, Doug Hobson and Terry Simpson — during his years with the Rebels, and it was during Carriere’s second season as bench boss that the team reached the Eastern Conference final in the spring of 1997.
“That was definitely the best Rebels team I played for,” said Leeb.
Unfortunately, the Rebels ran into a Lethbridge Hurricanes squad that had been strengthened by a deadline deal that brought in two key players — defenceman Chris Phillips and forward Shane Willis, a Sylvan Lake native.
The end result was a 4-1 series win for the ‘Canes, who went on to sweep the Seattle Thunderbirds in the league final and lost to the host Hull Olympiques in the Memorial Cup championship game.
“We had a pretty good idea that whoever came out of that (Eastern Conference final) series was going to the Memorial Cup,” said Leeb. “That was a pretty special time. You’re such a young player and you’re learning from all these older guys. That was fun.”
Leeb fired 23 goals and garnered 46 points the following season, then turned in a 37-goal, 93-point campaign in 73 regular-season and playoff contests as a 19-year-old.
He also earned a berth with the national junior team in his final WHL season and played in the world championship at Winnipeg, where Canada qualified for the gold-medal game and fell to Russia in overtime despite a heroic performance by future NHL netminder Roberto Luongo.
“That was definitely a highlight of my hockey career,” he said. “Everything really just fell into place as far as playing well at the right time and getting an opportunity (with the Canadian junior team). As with anything, the timing has to be right.
“That was such a good team. We did everything right except score in overtime.”
As a 20-year-old, Leeb embarked on a pro career that included eight seasons in the American League, five more in Germany and one final year in the English Elite League with the Coventry Blaze.
Along the way, he appeared in five NHL games — four with the Vancouver Canucks and one with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Everyone wants a long career of playing in the NHL, but to even get to play there is very special and obviously a dream come true,” said Leeb.
“It’s what you think of growing up . . . every little kid wants to play in the NHL and to fulfill that dream was pretty special.
“Both of my parents (now deceased) were around to experience it too. I also got to watch my (older) brother Greg play in an NHL game with the Dallas Stars. Those are all definitely highlights.”
Leeb finally got the opportunity to play alongside his sibling when he ventured overseas.
“We played together a number of years in Germany and then the last year in the United Kingdom,” he said. “During those years we were able to play on the same line.
“After not playing any minor hockey together that was a great way to kind of finish up my career. The hockey was pretty decent over there as well.”
Now 37, Leeb moved to Vancouver Island after hanging up his skates and relocated back to Red Deer last year.
To this day, he credits his years of playing in the WHL for helping him prepare for what followed in his playing career.
“I think it’s the place where you learn how to become a professional, the place where you’re playing a lot of games, you’re practising every day and you’re treating it like a job,” he said.
“It’s the first time that hockey really becomes your occupation, almost. It is baptism by fire because you’re jumping in with the big boys. When you’re a 16-year-old playing against 20-year-olds . . . that’s a really big gap in maturity.
“With the great coaching that’s available at the major junior level, you see players who are able to step right into professional hockey and even the NHL.”