Brothers John and Ryan Leonard share intense passion for hockey as each continues rise in sport



Last modified: Thursday, October 08, 2015

Considering their hometown and family background, John and Ryan Leonard of Amherst would appear to be unlikely hockey prospects.

But to hear the brothers speak of their dedication and how they push each other despite a seven-year age difference gives an insight into their tremendous success.

“Of course we have a friendly brotherly rivalry, especially in the basement,” John said. “We play down there almost every night. At first it starts off with no contact, but that doesn’t last long. It becomes physical really quick. But it’s all fun and helps improve each of our games.”

These informal pick-up sessions have served to improve their stick-handling, shooting and other skills.

“I always want to work as hard as John,” Ryan said.

Following a summer during which they left the country to showcase their ability, that hard work and enhanced talent have put the brothers in the position to embark on their next challenge on the ice.

After a stellar three-year career at Cathedral, 17-year-old John is playing for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, the premier junior league based in the United States.

Ten-year-old Ryan appears on the same track as his big brother. He starts with the Springfield Rifles junior team this fall. John suited up for the New England Junior Falcons before moving on to the Rifles.

Last season, Ryan skated a year up for his elite youth team and was named player of the week three times.

Despite having the same genes and a fairly similar skill set as forwards, the brothers are far from identical on the ice.

“I’ve always enjoyed the fast pace of hockey,” John said. “I don’t think any other sport can match it in that respect. It’s fun every time you step on the ice. The game’s changed my life and I’m so glad I started.”

Ryan countered, “I like to hit people. That’s the part of the game I like the best. I just think hockey is more competitive than other sports.”

Their mutual affinity for the game only strengthens their relationship, which will see them apart for the first time.

“I’ll definitely call him during the week, before games or after games,” John said. “We can always tell each other how things are going, whether it’s hockey, school, friends, anything.”

Breaking away from basketball

The boys’ father, John Sr., was drafted by the New York Knicks in the early 1980s and is a former assistant basketball coach at UMass. His daughters, Alyssa and Brianna, both starred on the court for Amherst Regional and played in college.

But first John, then Ryan broke away from the family game to forge their own paths.

“They’re totally different from Alyssa and Brianna, which is great. It makes things interesting,” John Sr. said. “Hockey has set up John with great opportunities, including a chance to get into a good college. Ryan’s still a ways away from that, but hopefully he can also advance a long way in the game.”

It started when their mother, Cynthia, saw a flyer at the Mullins Center for a learn to skate program.

“I was 4, too young to start basketball, so my mom signed me up,” John said. “I quickly fell in love with it and starting playing with the mites team in Amherst. I just kept advancing in the game.”

John Sr. said hockey’s become his thing, too. He travels to all their games and managed his sons’ respective teams last season.

“My wife wanted John to get involved in a sport. It was good for me because it was in the same building as my job. But I never had any idea these guys would take it this far,” he said. “I didn’t know much about hockey at the time, but now I definitely consider myself a hockey guy. It’s a lot of fun, and everyone we’ve associated with has been great.”

Ryan simply sought to follow in the blade marks of his older brother.

“I kind of just copied John,” Ryan said. “I went to play basketball but didn’t like it too much. Maybe our dad would be a little happier if we played the same sport, but he’s let us do our own thing.”

But John and Ryan haven’t completely eschewed the original family sport. The three Leonard men will still shoot some hoops in the driveway.

“I’ll mess with him a little bit, telling him I’m better,” John said. “But he’s extremely supportive in everything we do. We couldn’t ask for a better dad.”

Sensational summer

Both Leonard brothers were chosen to participate in tournaments of high renown this summer.

Ryan was recruited by the Junior Bruins to join the squad for a few tournaments, including the prestigious Brick Tournament in Edmonton, Alberta. Most of his teammates were from eastern Massachusetts.

For Ryan, who was advanced enough to play with 8-year-olds at age 5, the experience proved a considerable challenge and the thrill of his young career.

“That was my first plane ride, too,” he said. “In that tournament, everyone was as good as me and my teammates. The competition was great, and we played against older kids before the Brick to prepare.”

Meanwhile, John traveled to Slovakia and the Czech Republic for the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup. In four games, he had a goal and an assist as Team USA finished fifth.

“I’d been to a few USA tryouts and camps, but this was the first time I was able to go overseas to represent my country,” John said. “It was such an honor to play in the tournament. I couldn’t have asked for a better chance against the best players in the world my age. And we had a great group of guys, so I had a lot of fun.”

He added, “It was the most high-paced game I’ve experienced, so I saw what I have to learn to adjust and get bigger and stronger.”

To Green Bay and back

John left for training camp in Green Bay, Wisconsin, at the end of August. He made it through the last round of five cuts and started the season Saturday.

“It’s definitely a different experience. It’s the first time I’m away from my family for this long a time,” he said. “But I’m here looking to improve all aspects of my game and prepare for the collegiate level.”

College hockey will bring John back to Amherst as early as 2016. He committed to play at UMass before his junior year at Cathedral, but he could play in Green Bay until he’s 20.

“He’s going to play in the USHL, and that’s great,” Ryan said. “But we’re excited that he’s coming back to play five miles away for college.”

Green Bay selected John in the fourth round of the 2015 USHL draft.

“John puts a ton of effort into it. It’s awesome to see him rewarded to this point,” John Sr. said.

The future

As one of the top high school players in the state who’s competed against high-end talent most of his career, John knows hockey and is in a good position to judge talent.

So when asked to compare himself with his little brother, the response was telling.

“Ryan will probably be better,” he said. “I think he’s quicker and has a harder shot than I did at his age.”

But Ryan quickly jumped in, saying, “Because John taught me so much.”

There was likewise no hesitation when asked their ultimate hockey goal.

“Going to the NHL,” Ryan said.

“Same,” John said. “There’s obviously a lot of work left to go, but the USHL is a big step in that direction. Hopefully he’ll be able to get there, too. It would be pretty cool.”

John appeared on the NHL Central Scouting preseason “players to watch” list, which was released Tuesday. He was tabbed as a C-rated prospect, projecting as a potential fourth-to-sixth round selection in the 2016 NHL Draft.

While John’s professional aspirations could possibly be realized soon, Ryan is still at the point of getting the most enjoyment out of playing. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t focused.

“I just want to get better in the years before high school,” Ryan said. “I’d also like to follow John in trying out for Team USA.”

But no matter where each of their careers ends up, John Sr. is thrilled to see his boys pursue their passion.

“It’s fun because they’re happy and they’re good kids,” John Sr. said. “We never pushed anything on any of our kids. From day one they’ve loved hockey and you can see it in their faces. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”

Michael Wilkinson can be reached at mwilkinson@gazettenet.com.


 


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