Call him ‘goal-oriented’: Amherst hockey prodigy Ryan Leonard likely a top 10 NHL Draft pick
|Published: 06-27-2023 4:59 PM
AMHERST — John Leonard calls his youngest son Ryan “goal-oriented.”
As much as Amherst’s Ryan Leonard excels at putting the hockey puck in the net, his father is referring to aspirations and desired achievements.
“He keeps a lot of the goals to himself, kind of quiet,” John Leonard said. “Then he checks them off and moves on to the next one.”
It’s a long list already. Play varsity hockey at the highest level in Massachusetts as a freshman? Check. Represent the United States and join a team with the other best players in your age group? Check. Commit to Boston College? Check. Win a gold medal? Check. Be drafted into the NHL? Coming soon.
Ryan Leonard will likely be among the first 10 picks in the 2023 NHL Entry Draft on Wednesday in Nashville (7 p.m., ESPN). Mock drafts slot him anywhere from No. 5 to the Montreal Canadiens to No. 11 to the Vancouver Canucks. Most project him as a Philadelphia Flyer at No. 7.
“I don’t know if it really feels real yet. It might feel real on draft day,” Ryan said. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
He’s in uncharted territory, not just for the family but for western Massachusetts prospects in general. No one from this part of the state has been selected that high since future Stanley Cup winner Bill Guerin of Wilbraham went No. 5 to the New Jersey Devils in 1989.
Ryan’s older brother John Leonard, who played three years at UMass, was selected with the 182nd overall pick in the 2018 draft. He’s dressed for 64 NHL games with the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators.
“Obviously I’m his big brother so I take a lot of responsibility in that and try to be a brother he can lean on, whether it’s hockey or just life in general,” John said. “Obviously I didn’t go through the exact same thing he did, and I wasn’t a high pick like he’s going to be, but he’s taking a different path than I am, and a little bit better of one. I try to give him advice whenever I can or whenever he asks for it.”
Their paths began in the same Amherst basketball family. The New York Knicks picked John Sr. out of Manhattan College in the 10th round of the 1982 NBA Draft. He coached at UMass, and two older sisters Alyssa and Brianna played college basketball after standout careers at Amherst Regional.
Their mother Cynthia signed John up for a learn to skate program at the Mullins Center when he was 4 years old, too young to start basketball. Ryan followed his older brother onto the ice rather than the rest of the family to the hardwood.
“He’s been awesome. John’s probably my biggest mentor in life,” Ryan said of his older brother. “To have him by my side has been special.”
John played three seasons at Cathedral High School, which eventually became Pope Francis, before leaving for the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers and matriculating to UMass. Ryan spent two years at Pope Francis, but their paths diverged well before high school.
Ryan always played competition at least a year older than he was, regardless of the sport.
“He was always that dude, always. He was playing Little League when he was like 8 years old and hitting dingers off of 12-year-olds,” said Eli Slovin, an Amherst Regional graduate that skated with Ryan despite a three-year age difference. “He was out there and was a young, young kid and just put the puck in the net every time. He was moving his feet all the time. He clearly had a different motor than everybody else.”
Early on, that motor proved a detriment. Once he graduated to full-ice games, the intricacies of hockey’s offside rule evaded him. The blue line hampered more of his scoring chances than opposing goalies. Eventually at a tournament in New Hampshire, Ryan stopped at the line and waited for the puck to enter the zone. His coach, a family friend, looked at his father John and raised both arms in celebration.
“Like, ‘Finally he gets it,’” John Sr. said. “The kid was so young, he always was strong and always was able to skate. He had success at an early age. The kid is just so gosh darn competitive, he had the drive in him. As he got older, he was able to [compete in] some events that, quite frankly, didn’t exist when Johnny was playing.”
Those included The Brick in Edmonton and the Meltdown in Montreal, as well as tournaments in Toronto and Chicago. Ryan also competed with future National Team Development Program teammate Will Smith, likely a top-five pick in Wednesday’s draft, as part of a Brick Alumni team at events in California and Minnesota.
“He’s seen an awful lot of the world at a very young age. He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” his father John said. “He’s taken advantage of it, and he keeps everything in perspective.”
Ryan’s reputation preceded him before he arrived at Pope Francis. Between coaching John and seeing Ryan in middle school and during his time with the Springfield Rifles youth program, Cardinals coach Brian Foley knew what he had.
“Coming into Pope we knew he was a varsity player day 1, but didn’t know he would dominate like he did his freshman and sophomore years,” Foley said. “He was everything we had hoped for.”
Ryan led the team in goals by a comfortable margin despite not scoring much early. He needed to adjust to the rigors of varsity hockey as a freshman. That included other teams taking extra runs at him and being particularly physical with someone they saw as a big name.
“I take it as a compliment,” Ryan said. “You try to play with a little bit of power and use it as an advantage.”
He found his scoring touch for the stretch run after a slow start.
“By the end of the year he was scoring two goals a game,” Foley said. “He was the most dynamic player in the state in the tournament as a freshman, which is extremely rare and unique.”
South Deerfield native Ben Zaranek backstopped the Cardinals for both of Ryan’s seasons with Pope Francis. He faced the shots opposing goalies feared every day in practice.
“They didn’t really have any chance. He’s just an all-around amazing hockey player. He can pick a spot on a net and put it right there, and it’s coming quicker than you expect,” Zaranek said. “He’s always the hardest worker on our teams. We’d have these dry land things we’d do all fall and he’d never miss one.”
Zaranek still keeps up with Leonard and golfs with him every once in a while.
“He’s a funny guy to be around. He’s so competitive, it’s hard to be with him and not be competitive over everything,” Zaranek said. “He’s extremely humble, which makes you like him more.”
USA Hockey liked him as a youth player but made stronger overtures as he showed his skills on the national stage when Pope Francis won a national high school title during 2020 when the program couldn’t compete in Massachusetts due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Truthfully that was his dream, to get on that team. That was his goal,” John Sr. said. “I would not have wanted to be near him if he didn’t make that damn team.”
The National Team Development Program is a two-year residency based in Plymouth, Michigan, that gathers the best American players to compete in the USHL, the top junior ice hockey league sanctioned by USA Hockey, as well as international competition. Nearly every player commits to one of the nation’s best collegiate programs early. Many become first-round NHL draft picks.
Ryan pledged to BC in August 2021, three months after he joined the program. He spent much of his first U17 season playing a year up with the U18 team.
“He’s a really quiet kid in terms of the way he handles himself. He’s an NHL-ready prospect and he handles himself like that everywhere. In the weight room, in the classroom, in the shooting room, he does it,” said National Team Development assistant Chad Kolarik, a program graduate. “I’ve never seen anything like it from a 17-year-old or an 18-year-old. He’s got this maturity to him.”
Representing Team USA at the 2022 IIHF U18 World Championships in Germany proved bittersweet. The U.S. came home with a silver medal that drove Ryan and the handful of returners for the entire 2022-23 season. He tied for second on the team with 51 goals and amassed 94 points, third on the squad.
“(I enjoy) scoring goals, the physicality, being part of a team where I’ve created a lot of friendships you can lean on in your life,” Ryan said.
He needed those connections living so far from home and his family. John and Cynthia couldn’t travel to the Midwest or Europe for games often because of their work schedules. They caught exhibitions against colleges in New England and streamed every game no matter what time it was broadcast, but that wasn’t the same.
“It hurt us, to the point where I’m retiring because of it. We were one of the few families not to go to Switzerland for the Worlds. We couldn’t do that with our schedules,” John said. “That was challenging. It never affected Ryan.”
Ryan still drove practice every day with the National Team Development Program like he did with the Cardinals. His teammates voted him an assistant captain near the end of the season unanimously — and four times over after the coaching staff called for additional rounds to ensure they were doing the right thing.
“It’s very rare for a 17- or an 18-year-old. As you get older in the NHL or in the American League, guys bring it every day, but as a 17-year-old, 18-year-old to do it every single day is very hard, and it’s not normal,” Kolarik said. “That’s why he’s put himself in the top 10 conversation and why he’ll be such a high pick.”
That doggedness placed him between two Swedish defenders in overtime of the 2023 U18 gold medal game on April 30 in Switzerland. Ryan ripped a shot past the goalie for a truly golden goal that delivered the U.S. its first gold medal since 2017.
“It’s a moment you dream about in your life and then it becomes real,” Ryan said. “It takes a little bit to sink in, but it’s become real now.”
Another moment awaits. The Leonard family gathered in Nashville, Tennessee, this week ahead of the draft. Alyssa lives there, working at Vanderbilt University, while brother John is a member of the Nashville Predators organization.
“We’re gonna get everybody to go over to [Alyssa’s] house Tuesday night and have some laughs and say thank you for supporting Ryan,” John Sr. said. “It’s been all really exciting. I’m trying not to talk to Ryan really much about it. He’s excited about it, but I think deep down he’s a little nervous, the anxiety of not knowing where you’re going to go, knowing your future could possibly be in somebody else’s hands.”Kyle Grabowski can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.