“Goodbyes breed a sort of distaste for whomever you say good-bye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again.”
It seems I’m writing far too many of these at the moment. Barely three weeks after being hit by the new that Paul Thompson is leaving Coventry for pastures new, we see Greg and Brad Leeb both declaring their retirement from pro-hockey yesterday and today it being announced that Shea Guthrie is leaving the Blaze to follow Thompson to Troja-Ljungby in Sweden.
Crash. Bang. Wallop. That’s the sound of the Blaze being hit by a nightmarish one-two-three of departures early in the off-season.
I was already formulating a farewell to Guthrie today, then realised I couldn’t really do a post without paying tribute to the brothers Leeb at the same time. So here we are.
Chasing Dragons offers a triple-tribute for three of the best players to be seen in a Blaze jersey, and arguably three of the best players I’ve had the pleasure to call a game of so far, all with their own distinctive qualities.
Farewell I: The Quiet Magician
When I first saw Greg Leeb play live, it wasn’t in a Blaze jersey. It wasn’t even in an EIHL jersey. I was living in Cologne in 2005/06 and watched his Nurnberg Ice Tigers take on my Cologne Sharks in the DEL. That year, he was in his third season in Nuremberg and fourth in the DEL…a centre who seemed to fit in beautifully to the fast, skilled game played in Germany. He stood out mainly defensively, winning faceoffs and neutralising the offensive forwards well, while providing an offensive threat at the other end. His size didn’t seem a handicap as there were plenty of smaller, skilled players around him-so many, in fact, that others stole the limelight ahead of him. I remember the older Leeb being a good player at DEL level, but others on that Nuremberg team drew my eye more.
Seven years later, he came to Coventry as a signing that aroused interest but not hype-he seemed to be a similar two-way forward…a very good one-brought in to take some of the creative load off Shea Guthrie (of whom more later), true, but his brother Brad stole the limelight when signing a little later.
Then we saw Greg play. At 5’7 and 161lbs he was small, fast and smooth skating-that much we noticed quickly. But Greg was the kind of player who you come to appreciate more and more the more you watch him. He rarely lost a battle along the boards and was a superbly smooth skater but for me the memory of Greg Leeb I will take away more than anything was the sight of him, on a Blaze powerplay, setting up in his favourite position along the right half-boards, head up and puck on his stick-the great creator.
Greg’s calmness on the puck was almost supernatural-the game seemed to slow down when he took the puck on his stick in a way that I’ve only ever seen from one other player in all my time watching UK hockey-that player being Tony Hand. It didn’t matter what the game situation was-Greg operated in a dimension where time rarely seemed to matter. He turned passing the puck and setting up the play from a necessary, mundane skill into an art form.
At its best, watching Greg Leeb in action was to watch him as director of an intricate dance in which he seemed to mould the action on the ice to his will and not so much pass as caress the puck to his team-mates with a touch lighter than a summer breeze on a sleeping eyebrow.
In short, he made the mundane beautiful. And he did so quietly, consistently and in a way that will only be noticed by its absence next season.
Farewell 2: The Silent Assassin.
While Greg Leeb was calm and quiet, Brad, who came to join his older brother shortly after Greg was signed, was almost silent, but with a truly volcanic temper and a mean, ruthless streak that boded well for someone who made his career scoring goals.
Greg took pleasure in the intricate artistry of the game and out-thinking opponents. Brad, on the other hand, preferred to use his hockey stick like a rapier, thrusting killer blows through defences in the form of a deadly-accurate wrist-shot and a lethal one-timer. His speed and movement was the equal of Greg’s, but his style of play was the yin to his brothers’ yang…Greg prepared and loaded the rifle and set up the killing shot, and Brad pulled the trigger.
His volcanic temper was that of a typical younger brother, too…despite the difference in age it was Brad who seemed to be the protector, always stepping in where necessary and raging at any injustice, real or perceived.
But there was no question that together the Leeb brothers combined beautifully like, say, hydrogen and oxygen-two disparate elements forming to make a deadly, cohesive whole.
The EIHL losing one is painful. Losing both is a hammer blow. And yet, somehow, you couldn’t see it happening any other way.
Farewell 3: Captain Canada
And so we come to the final of our three farewells. In 2011/12 the Blaze signed a 24 year-old from Carleton Place, Ontario, of whom nobody really knew. Shea Guthrie was sold as a dynamic skater who would provide useful scoring, supplementing the likes of Owen Fussey and Matic Kralj with a bit of speed and timely goals. He wasn’t the star name on that roster at the star of the season, but was still greeted with a little cautious optimism…however, there were some who wondered how productive the new Blaze forward would be.
Then he arrived. In a season where the team went up and down in performance and the exploits of the team as a whole were mixed, just like fans’ reactions.
Guthrie almost instantly won the hearts of the Blaze crowd with his swashbuckling style and sublime stick-handling, though, stepping forward to drag the team along behind him through sheer force of will throughout that season. His commitment and never-say-die attitude throughout a season of turmoil on and off the ice led him to be a universally-acclaimed choice for captain for 2012/13 and referred to in hushed tones as “a franchise player” by fans.
Some players, particularly those barely into their mid-twenties, may have buckled under the pressure. Guthrie didn’t. Perhaps the best praise of his influence on the Blaze can be seen by how different a team they were without him-an injury in December saw the Blaze lose their talisman and the season suffered as a result.
However, for all the talk, perhaps Shea’s greatest game was one of his last. Captain Shea’s hat-trick at Ice Sheffield in the PO Quarter Final 2nd leg, including a truly thundering blast of a slapshot for the overtime winner, was the game that finally saw him go from franchise player to god in Coventry in a truly great captain’s performance that will burn bright in Blaze fans’ memories for years to come.
Some hockey players use their stick as clubs to smash the puck and opposition into submission. Guthrie used his as a wand, with his hands & feet working together in a mesmerising dance to conjure the impossible from nothing as he danced across the icy plains of UK rinks like a young gazelle. There have been few better stickhandlers in the Elite League era, and few better skaters either.
Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to Guthrie as he departs is that there is no player I’ve ever seen out of the thousand or more I’ve watched at the Skydome who played the game with such primal joy, nor who could make you believe in the existence of a hockey deity so easily. He enjoys playing as much as we enjoy watching him play-to see Guthrie in full flight is to catch a glimpse of humanity touching the stars with its fingertips. It’s a sight that burns itself into your hockey-loving heart and makes it sing with joy. And sadly, it will light up Swedish rinks next season, not the UK. But we are all happier in Coventry for having seen it.
PART 4: FINAL FAREWELL
All three men above will now bid farewell to Skydome ice, two at least certain never to return to it. The third…well, we can hope.
To Greg Leeb, Brad Leeb & Shea Guthrie, Coventry says goodbye and good luck.
Safe travels, gentlemen. And thank you.