Former Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers forward John LeClair was in Toronto, over the weekend, for a rare autograph session at AJSportsworld.
Leading up to Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final between two of his former teams, I had a chance to sit backstage before public the signing to chat him up on his career and playing on and against his two teams.
“I don’t do many of these at all,” LeClair said as he finished up the back room signings. “I’m in town for this one and another project, then I fly home later today.”
LeClair’s most notable highlight with the Canadiens came during Games Three and Four of the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, where he score the overtime winners in both games.
By the time the 1994-95 got underway, the Canadiens were struggling. Having played most of his career on the Canadiens second or third lines, the team even tried moving LeClair to centre in a desperate attempt to boost the offence.
With things still not working, Montreal traded LeClair and Eric Desjardins as part of a package to the Flyers for Mark Recchi on February 9, 1995.
“The team was struggling at the time, especially on offence,” LeClair said. “It was hard to leave the team, because I had some great friends and good memories there, but it turned out for the best.”
At the time, the Flyers had been five years removed from the playoffs and were looking for a defenceman. In giving up Recchi (93 goals over the last two years) in the deal, they needed some scoring to fill the void.
“We had to get an experienced NHL defenceman,” said then Flyers GM Bob Clarke at the time of the deal. “With the two forwards (LeClair and Gilbert Dionne) we hope that we can compensate for the goals that we gave up.”
Dionne never panned out and was out of the NHL by the end of the 1996-97 season.
LeClair’s career on the other hand took off. Put on the Flyers’ top line. a line with Eric Lindros and Mikael Renberg, he scored 14 points in his first seven games. He also surpassed his previous career single-season goal total of 19 with 25 in just 37 games.
I asked LeClair if the pressure of Montreal affected his play. Surprisingly he didn’t think that made much of a difference, “I enjoyed playing in both cities, but it was a real good chemistry between us that worked in Philadelphia.
“We also played a more offensive oriented style than in Montreal and that helped.”
When it came to playing his former team, LeClair certainly tore up the score sheet.
In 34 games with the Flyers, he scored 28 goals and added 17 assists. He also had a plus-23 rating and the Flyers were 20-10-4 against Montreal with him in the lineup.
One thing LeClair never got to do was play his former team in the playoffs. “I had some good success against them,” he said in a modest tone. “Things never worked out for us to meet in the playoffs.”
Despite his great personal success with the Flyers, that saw him score three straight 50-goal seasons and ranked fifth all-time in Philly with 333, he never got to hoist another Cup.
That’s not to say the Flyers tanked in the playoffs, because they certainly didn’t. In his first season they reached the Conference Finals before bowing out to the, eventual Cup winners, New Jersey Devils.
Two years later they were swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Detroit Red Wings and would see two more Conference Finals (2000, 2004) where they took the eventual Cup champions to seven games.
“We had some chances, but we came up against some really good teams,” LeClair said. “Detroit had a great team and the (two) series against New Jersey were really tough.”
Now 40 (he’ll be 41 in July), LeClair hasn’t suited up in an NHL game since being released by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2006. He still looks to be in great shape for a player nearly three years removed from the game.
“No one’s called me yet,” he laughed when I asked about him being “unofficially retired” and still classed as a UFA in the NHL. “I get out on the ice with my kids once in a while but that’s pretty much it.”
LeClair was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame last December. He is the first American-born player in the NHL to record three straight 50-goal seasons.
The question asked by myself and nearly everyone who was at the signing was who he felt was going to win this year’s Eastern Conference Final. LeClair was very diplomatic in his responses, not conceding to either team.
“It’s been a great playoff run and both teams have shown that they’re not going to give up. We saw that in the last game (Game Three),” he said. “This series will go six or seven.”
How good against Montreal was he?: John LeClair had four games with three or more goals in his career against the Canadiens. His first came in his first game back against his former team, on Patrick Roy, in a 7-0 Flyers win.
Most difficult goalie to score on: Without looking at stats to back it, LeClair felt Dominik Hasek was the toughest goaltender to play against. “He was so unpredictable,” LeClair said. “You never knew what he was going to do.
Most aggravating opponent: Surprisingly LeClair never had many issues with opposing players getting into his face, that unenviable task fell to his longtime center. “Eric (Lindros) was almost always the target,” he said. “Their guys were always going after him. It made things a lot easier for me to do my thing.”