John LeClair on the Legion of Doom and his all-time NHL team
Philadelphia Flyers legend John LeClair sat down with Andrew Berkshire to chat about his NHL career.
Five-time NHL All-Star, Stanley Cup champion, and pivotal member of the legendary Legion of Doom line John LeClair came by Betway to talk about his career and his opinions on some of the current events in the NHL.
Andrew Berkshire: First of all, John, I know athletes are very aware of their career-long accomplishments, but in the day-to-day grind of playing sports, you can be so in the moment that you might not realize certain sections of your career stand out. Did you know that between the 1995-96 season to the end of the 1999-2000 season, no one in the NHL scored more goals than you did?
John LeClair: I’ve heard that stat before, but it’s exactly that. When you’re in the moment, you don’t realize or recognize any of that. It’s simply, you go into it game-by-game. You go back after and see the totals, but it wasn’t something at the time that I even knew about.
AB: I’m not sure people realize it, but you were also third in points in the entire league over that time, behind only Teemu Selanne and Jaromir Jagr. Those are some big names! We don’t use plus/minus for much these days, but over that stretch you also led the entire league in that category, and that’s even with Eric Lindros missing 100 or so games during that stretch.
JL: It was a good stretch for me, but let’s not kid ourselves, Eric had a lot to do with it! Being able to play with Eric and Mikael (Renberg) had a ton to do with it. I was fortunate enough while playing with those guys, my game improved, and my confidence improved, to where when Eric or Renny wasn’t in the lineup, it didn’t affect my game too much. A lot of the game is about momentum and confidence, and with the Legion of Doom line, that was a big part of it.
AB: Plus/minus used to be used as a defensive metric, not so much anymore, but over a five-year period, leading the league matters. I watched you growing up, but back then it’s not like you could watch every game. Talking to scouts and reporters from that era, you were seen as a solid defensive player, but do you think fans in general think of you as a great defensive player, or are people too focused on the big shot?
JL: I don’t know how things are in locker rooms now, but the plus/minus between players was a big deal. Nobody wanted to wear the green jacket, be the low man on the pole. To us it showed that you were a two-way player, that you would compete in both ends. You want respect from your teammates and players around the league, so for me that was something to be proud of. I think every player wants to have pride in how they play in their own end, you want to be out in the last minute, you want to be in those tough situations. I think it helped a tonne that I broke in with Montreal and that Pat Burns was my first coach. He put emphasis on checking, and playing with Guy Carbonneau, I learned about angles and how to approach playing defense. All that really helped me.
AB: Speaking of development, you took a unique path at the time in spending four years in college before breaking into the NHL, do you think spending that time maturing physically and mentally made you more prepared for the NHL game?
JL: I think so. I’m very happy that I stayed four years at the University of Vermont before I chose to go to Montreal. There was an opportunity to leave after my junior year, but I only played 10 games that year due to an ACL injury. Not knowing how the knee would heal was a big influence on that decision. The mental maturity from four years in college also helped me coming into Montreal, not being a 20-year-old kid with some money in my pocket.
AB: You mentioned Pat Burns previously, just based on your production, it looks like there was a difference in your role from Burns coaching compared to when Jacques Demers came in. Was that the case, or just the natural progression of your career?
JL: A little of both. Pat was good for me at the time, he taught me discipline, that you have to earn every inch once you get on the ice, you have to earn every second of ice time. At the same time, different coaches can see players differently, and Jacques saw more offense in my game, whereas Burns saw me as more of a checking forward and pushed me towards that a little bit. Getting a chance to play on a top line with Kirk Muller and Brian Bellows, we developed some nice chemistry.
AB: That chemistry paid off in the 1993 playoffs as you scored some of the most important goals on the way to bringing a 24th Stanley Cup championship back to Montreal. At the time did you realize how big of a deal it was?
JL: You definitely appreciate it a lot more after. At least I do, because that’s my only one (Stanley Cup). Being a younger guy there is a feeling of “This is great, we’re going to do this every year,” but you know it’s special because the older guys will tell you how rare it is to get this chance. They were dead right. We should have won at least two more in Philadelphia, but it just didn’t work out for us, but I’m fortunate that I did win. It was a terrific experience.
AB: On the way to winning the Stanley Cup in 1993, the Canadiens famously won an NHL record 10 games in overtime. It was a storybook run, but has the 10 overtime wins overshadowed the fact that you guys went 16-2 after dropping the first two to Quebec?
JL: We played well, but it all started in net with Patrick. Without Patrick I don’t think we’re playing in the Stanley Cup Final. All those overtimes it felt like we knew there wasn’t going to be a weak one that gets past us. So much changes with confidence.
AB: Speaking of Patrick Roy, the Canadiens have an opening in the general manager position, and Patrick has put his own name forward for it. Based on your experience both as a teammate and opponent of him, does he strike you as a general manager?
JL: Obviously Patrick has changed and matured since his playing days, but he hasn’t lost that desire, the fire to win. I think that’s something that’s contagious. When you’re around Patrick, you can feel that. I think he’s an incredibly smart hockey guy, and he communicates fairly well too. I see him as a very good choice, especially for that organization. He cares, he would put everything into it. When you surround yourself with winners, it’s contagious, and Patrick is absolutely a winner.
AB: Given the current situation in Montreal, do you think the next management group needs to better insulate the players from the pressures of playing in that market? I know social media wasn’t around when you were there, but it’s always been a pressure-packed market. Or does the team need to focus primarily on finding players who flourish under that spotlight?
JL: It’s tough because every individual is different. I feel for Drouin, where it got so bad he had to step away from the game for a little bit. I’m sure social media adds a tonne of pressure, and instant feedback the players get, usually not positive. On the other side, people talking about media or fans wanting a winner and demanding a winner, to me I don’t have much sympathy when players don’t want that or can’t handle that. To me, that makes you play better, you want to win for those fans. It was like that in Montreal and in Philly. It pushes you and makes you better. As an English guy in Montreal maybe I only got half the story, but truthfully you know what’s going to be in the paper the next day. You don’t have to read it. I didn’t need to read Red Fisher to see how I played, even though Red enjoyed telling me how I played. It can be tough, but if you should expect to win.
AB: Shifting gears a bit, we’ve got to talk about the Legion of Doom, arguably the most iconic line of the entire 1990s. Can you describe how it felt to not only dominate play, but to have the intimidation factor on your side?
JL: It’s one of those things where when we got on the ice, we knew we were the attackers. We never felt we were chasing the puck. It felt like as soon as we were on the ice, the other team were playing defense, like the prevent in football. They were just hoping we didn’t score. It was an exciting time to come to the rink, even for practice. Practices were high tempo and we pushed each other. Playing with players that talented, you were constantly pushing each other to get better. A big part of our success was pushing each other.
AB: Did you ever chuckle getting on the ice with that line, and maybe you see the eyes get a bit wider on the opposing side as they realize what’s about to happen?
JL: Oh, we had a good time with it. We all get along great too.
AB: How much does that matter? You hear often that a divided room can kill a team. Can a great team manage different personalities, or do you need to all get along to be great?
JL: You don’t have to get along, that’s not part of it. You’ve got to have respect for each other though. There’s a huge difference between those. You run into problems when people don’t respect each other, or think they’re bigger than the team. I don’t think I was ever in a locker room where people were at each other’s throats, but not everyone has to be friends.
AB: Does the coaching staff fall into that realm of needing respect as well?
JL: Somewhat, but I played for some coaches whose whole strategy seemed to be to bring the team together under the one common goal of hating them. A lot of coaches coach that way.
AB: Michel Therrien maybe?
JL: *Smiles* I’ve got a list. They’re usually pretty easy to figure out, they’re not dealing with kids in the NHL and it starts to be phony. Those guys consistently last about three years before the message gets stale.
AB: Speaking of coaches who maybe make some missteps, Terry Murray famously said about the 1997 Stanley Cup Final that the Flyers choked. I’m assuming that didn’t play very well in the locker room, and he wasn’t back with the team the following year.
JL: It didn’t, but his exact quote was: “It’s a choking situation”. It’s the same idea, but the implication wasn’t as directly blaming the players and saying it wasn’t his fault. He probably shouldn’t have said it, but we were down 3-0 in the series at the time, and the games weren’t close. I don’t know if it was choking but they were a good team. They were a bit of a dynasty, but we didn’t play our best either.
AB: In retrospect, seeing how that Red Wings team became a dynasty of sorts, winning again in 1998 and a third time in 2002, does it take a bit of the sting out of losing to them?
JL: No. No. Four wins away from a Stanley Cup, and it doesn’t ever get any easier.
AB: You won the cup with Montreal, but hearing you talk about that Flyers era, does it feel like there was unfinished business because you guys didn’t win? Was there a missing piece or to win does everything just need to break right?
JL: It does! We had some great teams in Philly, top-of-the-league teams. We just never got over that hurdle, and it is disappointing. There were different things in different years that didn’t go right, but that’s why we play the games. In 2004, maybe if we weren’t playing forwards on defense we get by Tampa Bay and beat Calgary, but you can’t spend your whole life on what ifs. As a whole, I know we had Stanley Cup teams in Philly.
AB: How did the 2004-05 lockout impact your career?
JL: For me it wasn’t a good time. When your body’s getting up there in age, you want to keep it going and get as much as you can out of it. I actually had back surgery during the lockout, so it did help with maintenance, but I don’t think it did anything for anybody. I think the sport took a big hit because of it, and took a long time to recover. For me personally, I ended up having to go to Pittsburgh, and I felt alright, but I think I could have been better without the year off.
All-time lineup made up only of players you shared the ice with?
Unfortunately, I had to play against Gretzky and Lemieux! Patrick Roy is net. I know Marty Brodeur was good too, but I have a ring because of Patrick. On D, Bourque and Coffey come to mind right away. Gretzky and Mario need a left wing so maybe… No, I can’t put myself, there’s so many greats. I think I’ll put Messier there.
All-time lineup made up only of players you never played with?
I can’t stop watching Connor McDavid. He’s a monster. Gordie Howe for everything he accomplished, he’s got to be there. Coming up through Montreal and learning the history there, nobody put the puck in the net like The Rocket, so Maurice Richard. On defense, legendary defenseman Toe Blake is in, and we’ll round out the defense with Bobby Orr. In goal, I grew up watching Ken Dryden, he just felt so far ahead of everyone else at the time.
Favorite goal you ever scored?
The first one was nice, you always remember the first one. It wasn’t much of a goal but I remember it. But the overtime goal in game three of the Stanley Cup Final, it doesn’t get much better than that.
Best teammate you ever had?
I had a tonne, Chris Therrien and Shjon Podein. Great guys that made the game fun to play. And Keith Jones too! Nobody makes you laugh like Jonesy!
Favorite coach you ever played for?
Roger Nielson comes to mind right away, there’s not a nicer man in hockey. Terry Murray when I first came to Philly, he played the heck out of me. And winning a cup with Jacques Demers, Jacques is a really nice man. One of those guys who is really just nice to be around. He’s just comforting.