04/12/2012 3:20 PM - Peter LeBlanc couldn’t have had a much better start to his second year of playing professional hockey as he entered the 2011 preseason this past September.
The center participated in the Chicago Blackhawks training camp as an invitee on an AHL contract with the Rockford IceHogs and played in three preseason games with Chicago, including their final contest on Oct. 2 against the Washington Capitals.
LeBlanc then returned to the IceHogs for the beginning of the American Hockey League’s regular season, but the forward couldn’t carry over the momentum from his strong preseason.
Despite notching three assists in the first four games of the 2011-12 campaign, LeBlanc stalled out, notching just one helper in his next five appearances between late October and early November, even sitting out a few games.
But IceHogs head coach Ted Dent knew LeBlanc would fight his way back into the lineup.
“He was just finding his groove and getting some confidence,” Dent said. “Not that he lacked confidence, because he had a good training camp in Chicago, a really good training camp.
“[He] was a healthy scratch a few games, which I think woke him up a little bit. Then he found his game and just took off.”
The Hamilton, Ont. native’s season hit full speed after a three-point effort (2g-1a) against Oklahoma City on Nov. 16, his first game in the lineup after being scratched for three consecutive contests.
Now, LeBlanc is second overall in points for the IceHogs this season, one of the leaders in power-play points and has nearly a dozen multi-point games on the campaign.
According to LeBlanc, the key to his success is relatively simple.
“It’s just a comfort thing,” he said. “Last year was my first year playing that many games in a season. This year I’m use to it…the three-in-three’s and back-to-back games. I’ve gotten use to that and have been able to handle the grind of the season a lot better.”
The 24-year-old has found success at every level he’s played at, adapting to increased expectations and higher demands on his time and body as he made his way to the professional ranks.
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KEEPING A POSITIVE OUTLOOK
The summer after completing his final season with the University of New Hampshire Wildcats, LeBlanc signed an AHL contract with Rockford and prepared to make the jump to the pro game. He started off on a positive note, garnering a helper in his professional debut on Oct. 9, 2010.
But like many rookies, the 5-11, 200 pound forward wasn’t playing many minutes, so the IceHogs loaned him to the Toledo Walleye, their ECHL affiliate, after the first three games of the season.
Though LeBlanc would have preferred to stay in Rockford, he took advantage of the time he spent in Toledo.
“It was disappointing at first,” LeBlanc said. “But when I went down I just tried to improve my game and get my confidence high.
“I played in every situation. I had tons of minutes. I had a lot of points there. It helped my confidence so when I came back here I could be effective.”
In 22 appearances with the Walleye, LeBlanc totaled 8g-14a-22pts. Rockford recalled the centerman in early December and LeBlanc tallied six points (5g-1a) in his next eight games with the Hogs, including a stretch where he notched a goal in four-straight contests.
“It worked out really well for me,” said LeBlanc. “When I came back to Rockford I was able to make an impact and stay here for the rest of the year.”
In all, the forward earned 12g-18a-30pts in 57 games with the IceHogs during his rookie season and tied for the team lead with four game-winning goals.
The positive attitude that kept LeBlanc on track during his first professional campaign also helped him endure a challenging season during his junior hockey days.
Growing up, LeBlanc played for the Hamilton Red Wings, a Junior A club in his hometown. The local rink was just a two minute drive from his house and he often walked to practice.
“I played since I was five years old until I was 17,” LeBlanc said. “I really enjoyed playing there. A lot of friends and family got to come see me play.”
Unfortunately, no one saw LeBlanc play very much during his final season with the Red Wings.
“I had mono. I missed 30-something games,” he said.
Thirty-plus games equaled approximately two-and-a-half months that LeBlanc wasn’t able to suit up. What made the situation worse was that, for the most part, LeBlanc felt fine. But an enlarged spleen kept him off the ice longer than he anticipated.
“I had to wait for that to go back to normal,” LeBlanc said. “That’s why it took so long. I was still going to school. I just couldn’t get hit because of my spleen. It was frustrating.”
By the time the forward was cleared to play, only three games remained in Hamilton’s regular season schedule. LeBlanc knew it would be rough, but he jumped back in so he could prepare for a playoff run.
“When I came back, it was tough to put the weight back on,” LeBlanc said. “The worst part was getting my legs back. After a couple of games, though, I felt pretty good.”
LeBlanc made it through the postseason and then spent the summer preparing for his freshman year at the University of New Hampshire.
Before he packed up for school, though, the Hamilton native was rewarded for his hard work. The Chicago Blackhawks made LeBlanc their 186th overall selection (Round 7) in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.
“I knew it was my draft year, but I didn’t know if anything was going to happen,” said LeBlanc. “I found out from my mom that I got drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks. I was ecstatic.”
The door opened for a potential career as a professional hockey player, but before LeBlanc could test his skills with the big boys, he took his talents to the NCAA where he built a strong resume both on and off the ice.
As a teenager, LeBlanc watched many of his friends move on from Junior A in Hamilton to play hockey elsewhere. Some decided to play Major Junior in Canada, while others choose the college route.
“When I was 15, I didn’t really know much about college hockey,” LeBlanc said. “My dad exposed me to it and said I should take a look at it.”
There were two schools that LeBlanc looked at with regards to both hockey and academics — Michigan State University and the University of New Hampshire. He took trips to see both schools, but after a stop in New England, LeBlanc knew exactly where he wanted to go.
“I went to visit New Hampshire when I was 16, and I fell in love with the place. I thought it was unreal. I really wanted to play there,” said LeBlanc. “I liked the way New Hampshire was set up. [It’s] a nice, perfect sized school, a lot of fan support. I just really liked the atmosphere.”
The forward did consider playing Major Junior in Canada, but when it came down to it, LeBlanc wanted to be prepared for a career outside of hockey. He graduated from New Hampshire with a degree in political science, and while LeBlanc is currently focused on playing professional hockey, he’s happy that he has something to fall back on.
“It was about having a back-up plan, never knowing what’s going to happen with hockey. I definitely wanted to get an education,” said LeBlanc.
LeBlanc skated four seasons with the Wildcats and was nearly a point-per-game player during his junior and senior campaigns. In 153 total games at New Hampshire, the forward notched 34g-51a-85pts.
“Every year I was there we were competing for the NCAA tournament, and we made it every year,” LeBlanc said. “We won three league championships, and in Hockey East that’s tough to do.”
During two of LeBlanc’s NCAA tournament runs, the Wildcats had the opportunity to play at the Verizon Wireless Arena, home of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs. Manchester is less than an hour from the UNH campus in Durham, and fans spared no expense to come cheer on LeBlanc and the Wildcats.
“It was packed, and it was unbelievable,” LeBlanc said. It’s just really exciting when it comes down to one game and your school is really supportive.”
“We definitely learned how to win there, and we had a winning attitude. It’s something that stays with you.”
SUCCESS AT THE PROFESSIONAL LEVEL
One of the most frustrating aspects about Rockford’s 2011-12 season is that the team wasn’t winning consistently in the first half of the campaign. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, but the IceHogs endured some rough losing stretches that would get any team down.
“I think we lost a lot of games that we could have won, and it just didn’t happen for us,” LeBlanc said. “For the most part, we were playing pretty well through the stretches where we were losing games. It was frustrating.”
Then, as the calendar turned to 2012, Rockford’s season also started to turn.
The Hogs had a record of 9-3-0-1 in January after a dismal December when they only won three times. In February they hit a rough patch, but won four games in a row to end the month and went on to garner another 9-3-0-1 record in March.
LeBlanc credits a more defensive-minded approach as part of the IceHogs’ success.
“We’ve stuck to it. We’re playing better defense as far as not giving up so many odd-man rushes. In this league, if you give up a lot of odd-man rushes, [the puck is] going to end up in the back of the net. We’ve definitely gotten better at that and that’s helped our overall game,” LeBlanc said.
The most significant aspect of a solid defense is goaltending, and LeBlanc points to Carter Hutton, who joined the IceHogs in December after spending the first two months of the season backstopping in Toledo, as having as big an impact as anyone.
“Hutton has really helped,” he said. “We got him and he started playing very well, and he’s continued that throughout the season. He plays the puck really well and gets the puck out of our zone quickly. He’s a big help.”
But LeBlanc has contributed to the turnaround, too. He has spent much of the season centering a line that includes Rostislav Olesz at left wing. The two forwards developed a strong chemistry, which resulted in goals and assists.
“Playing with Olesz is great,” LeBlanc said. “He’s a super strong guy, an unbelievable playmaker. It’s been pretty fun playing with him.”
But like everyone on the IceHogs roster, LeBlanc has seen his line change, sometimes on a daily basis, due to injuries, call-ups and trades.
“It’s difficult, but it’s one thing you have to learn with pro hockey,” said LeBlanc. “People move, things happen and you have to adapt to it.”
Regardless of who LeBlanc is playing with, Coach Dent knows that he can count on the forward to contribute under any circumstances.
“Peter penalty kills for us, he’s on the power play, he takes some important face-offs. He’s in all situations,” Dent said.
Not only does LeBlanc play in all situations, but he also brings a solid work ethic and positive attitude to the rink every day. That effort has resulted in LeBlanc becoming one of Rockford’s leading scorers in just his second professional campaign.
“I like the pro game,” LeBlanc said. “I like playing more. It’s nice to get into a good rhythm. I like the style of the game.”
The 24-year-old also likes the city where he has gotten his start in the American Hockey League.
“Rockford’s a really fun place to play. [There’s] great fan support and great support by the city.”