Photo: Rena Laverty / U.S. NTDP
Ryan Leonard, whom the Capitals drafted in the first round with the eighth pick overall, is a native of Amherst, Massachusetts. Observers consider him a power forward and a playmaker on the ice. He can also play on the boards, which makes him a tough matchup for opponents.
Leonard is the youngest of the four children of John and Cindy Leonard. The family, as a whole, has excelled in athletics. His father, John, was a basketball player whom the New York Knicks drafted in the tenth round of the 1982 NBA draft as a guard.
Both of his elder sisters, Brianna and Alyssa, played Division III basketball. His elder brother, John, six years his senior, also played hockey and was drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft (pick #182 overall). He was traded to the Nashville Predators after the 2021-22 season. He has played in 56 NHL games.
Ryan followed in his elder brother’s footsteps. His mother got John into hockey after seeing a sign for a “Learn to Skate” program at UMass. John, at age 4, was too young to start basketball, so he started to skate and soon joined a local Mites team.
Ryan described his initial attraction to hockey, “I kind of just copied John. 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.”
Photo: Rena Laverty / U.S. NTDP
Ryan’s mother described the family as “very competitive”. She added, “Like even when you play a game, the people in this family want to win. It’s not a low-key game of Monopoly or Sorry, or Connect Four or anything, it’s always with the intention to win. Don’t play unless you think you’re gonna win, don’t play a game not caring. Second place isn’t good enough.”
If Ryan didn’t win, the family would have to continue to play the game until they won. As the youngest child, he likely bore the brunt of the rough stuff with his older siblings. Ryan concurred with the assessment, saying with a smile, “We’ve always been fighting over pretty much anything”.
Ryan played other sports before settling on hockey, which included Little League baseball and soccer. Regardless of the sport, Ryan generally played against competition at least a year older than he was.
Eli Slovin, who skated with Ryan despite being three years older, described it. “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. 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.”
Admiration of Older Brother
Ryan described the admiration he has for his older brother, “He’s been awesome. John’s probably my biggest mentor in life. To have him by my side has been special.”
He continued, “Anything I need, I can ask (John) for help or just how he has gotten through it. He’s there for me. He has gone through tough times with his career and he has a lot of experience because of it. He’s my biggest role model.”
Ryan has generally worked out with his older brother, John, in the workout group led by Christian Ferrara at Olympia Ice Center since he was 15 years old. He started working out with Ferrara when trying to prepare for the USNTDP. His brother and his buddies had vouched for him to join their group even though Ferrara was initially uncomfortable with him joining at such a young age.
“He’s like a little brother to us, we’re going to him under our wing,” the others in that group said, a group that included long-time NHL forward, Frank Vatrano.
Ryan later picked up golf and lacrosse and played youth hockey with the Springfield Rifles 14U/15U AAA squads.
He attended Pope Francis High School in Springfield, Massachusetts, and won the Amo Bessone Award as the Most Valuable Player in Western Massachusetts high school hockey in his freshman and sophomore years.
Ryan’s coach at Pope Francis, Brian Foley, knew his reputation, even before he joined the team there. “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. He was everything we had hoped for.”
Ryan got off to a slow start at Pope Francis but ended up leading the team in goals by a comfortable margin. It was just a matter of getting used to the rigors of varsity hockey as a freshman, including getting used to getting run by opponents.
After two years of high school, he was selected for the US National Team Development Program where he was linemates with Will Smith and Gabe Perreault who will also attend Boston College this fall.
Patrick Tabb, an assistant coach with American International College (AIC) men’s college hockey program, who also runs a summer skate at Olympia Ice Center in Western Springfield, also can attest to Ryan’s competitiveness. He recalled how Leonard’s focus was to raise himself out of his age group and make the Under 17 team of the USNTDP.
“He has always had a target on his back because he always played up a year in Mass., and he has always been that Western Mass kid where in Massachusetts, once you cross Exit 9 on the Mass Pike it’s like a different world when it comes to hockey because they don’t think it exists and Boston supposedly dominates the game.”
By Diane Doyle
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