The ultimate benchwarmer, Brett Leonhardt of Grand Bend lived a dream and almost became tallest NHL goalie
The son of “Hardt of Huron” bed and breakfast owners Brian and Karen Leonhardt, Brett Leonhardt moved to the United States after receiving a hockey scholarship at NCAA Division III SUNY Oswego in upstate New York, where he majored in communications and media arts. His background made him the perfect candidate when the Washington Capitals made a push to improve their web presence last season. Now living in Washington, DC with his girlfriend Logan Kapinus, Brett Leonhardt made international headlines December 12 when his job put him in the right place at the right time.
As told to Casey Lessard
My parents got me into Learn to Skate when I was four years old, and I started playing tyke hockey when I was five. At six or seven I started liking goaltending. My older brother was a goaltender so it was natural for me to want to do it and I never looked back.
I was invited to Kitchener Rangers camp, and I was there two or three weeks and it was down to three goalies. I played in an exhibition game, and that year they had two goalies that were drafted higher than me, so I just went down and played Junior ‘B’ in Cambridge and kept my college eligibility.
Getting a scholarship was a goal of mine. I did well in high school and was definitely going to university afterward. I applied to Laurier, Waterloo, and U of T, but if I didn’t get a scholarship I was definitely going to go to university in Canada.
I got a scholarship to SUNY Oswego, and after two years transferred to Neumann College near Philadelphia, about two hours from Washington. My girlfriend graduated the year before I did and took a job in D.C., so when I graduated, I looked for a job here in Washington. I called the Capitals, and from what I did in college and my résumé, the perfect job opened up. I went for two interviews and got the job.
There are two things I love doing. One is video and film, and the other is hockey. Not only at college, but after graduation, to be able to have the job I have is a dream come true.
A lot of people forget that there a lot of people behind the scenes that keep everything going in the office other than what’s on the ice. You take away the fact that there is a pro hockey team playing, and it’s run just like any corporation. There are so many different departments: sales, marketing, and communications, which is on the rise right now. I do most of the video on the website and that’s something the NHL started last season. That was when my job opened up.
Our owner was one of the founders of AOL (America Online), and everyone tells us that we have the best website in the league. We track our views and people are starting to rely on us for our video work. Whenever there’s an event, I cover it with video; our team writer is my boss and I try to include him as a personality in my videos so he is with us in this transition from the written word to video.
When I got the job, the sports information director at Oswego knew a guy named Nate, the director of media relations here. They went to school together and Nate told him that he had a guy from Oswego who had just gotten a job here. “What’s his name?” “Brett Leonhardt.” “Oh, he’s a good kid, a good goalie.”
Nate was talking to our goalie coach and told him that a college goalie had just got a job if he ever needed anyone for practice, but he was just joking around.
That’s when Olaf Kolzig, who was our goalie last year, started taking morning skates off; he was older and felt more energized when he didn’t skate the morning of a game. So last year, the goalie coach came up to me and asked if I wanted to go home and get my gear to practice with the team. I was floored. It happened once every few weeks and rolled into this season.
It was crazy (facing NHL players). It was a huge jump. They shoot so hard and so accurate. The skating and shooting, everything is so fast. Everyone is so big and so good. You naturally just find a way to play better, so I started making saves and did what I knew what to do, and started to fit right in.
The fateful week
Brent Johnson was a little sore after a game, and our coach was asked in a post-game press conference, “Johnson looked a little sore; what are you going to do?” He was like, “I’ll give him the day off. Our practice goalie is right beside you,” and they all looked at me and had a chuckle. That was Wednesday night.
Friday morning, the goalie coach called me in my cubicle and said our other goalie, Jose Theodore had been nursing an injury, and that I should come down and take some shots. I knew something was up but they wouldn’t tell me. I ran down, and they still had my equipment from the day before, so I suited up two practices in a row.
I showered and went back to work, editing the video of what the coach had to say at practice. The general manager, George McPhee, came up and put his arm around me and told me they were calling up a goalie, Simeon Varlamov. “Theodore cannot dress and cannot play, and the backup might not get here in time. Make sure your equipment’s ready because you might have to dress.”
I had to sign a one-day emergency tryout contract and fax it to the league. At 3:30 they called to tell me that Varlamov couldn’t get here until just after 7:00 and I would have to be on the bench for warmup and for maybe the whole first period.
When they have rookie camp every year, they make a jersey for everyone there. On the depth chart of the team, I guess I was the 80th guy, so they made me number 80. When I got there at 5 o’clock, I went back into the trainer’s room to get some socks because I only had dress socks on, and I there was the trainer sewing the letters into the back of my jersey. That was pretty cool.
Warmup was the thing I was most nervous about. People are watching to see if you’ll make saves, and you’re skating around seeing Spezza and Alfredsson across the red line. I just did my thing from college, recreating my routine like where I stretch on the ice. I just tried to stop everything and look like I belonged. It was pretty cool. It’s so bright out there and to have an NHL jersey with your name on the back is pretty incredible. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
I had a pretty good warmup and coming back out to the bench, it was dark with no lights on. The fans were going nuts. Sitting there on the bench, it just felt like college again. You hear the guys talking, like “I need tape; my skates aren’t sharp.” The coaches saying, “Come on, let’s go.” I was on the bench when we scored a goal so the guys came down the bench giving high fives and they treated me like I was one of them.
I later found out that Ottawa knew what was going on because we had three goalies on the lineup when you’re only allowed two. I wasn’t too sure how they were going to take it. Johnson would make a crazy save from outside, and Alfreddson would come in way after the whistle and bump into him. It started a couple of scrimmages and there were two goaltending interference calls. People were trying to say that it was something to do with me, but I just think there was some bad blood between the teams from previous games. During warmup, no one looked at me or stared at me; they just acted as if it was business as usual.
People asked me if I was nervous when that was happening, and I can’t lie; I definitely was. I knew Johnson was sore earlier in the week, but he looked good in warmup.
At around the 10:00 mark, Simeon Varlamov arrived; it was the first NHL game that he dressed for, too, and he was a first round draft pick. He walked down the tunnel and the trainer hit me and we just switched positions. I was a bit relieved because these guys are professional athletes and I’d been out of the game for more than a year. I’m not saying that I didn’t deserve to be there or belong there, but it was definitely right to see an NHL player replace me.
The local cable network always does one interview during the break, so when I came back into the room, they grabbed me and did an interview there. The VP of communications said to me, “You’re not going to believe this, but you’re the top story on ESPN, TSN, and SportsNet, so be ready when your equipment is off.”
I got showered and put my suit on. Usually I do a lot of pre-game and post-game videos, but during the game I sit in the press box and watch so I know what to ask after the game. I went to the press box and our media relations officer said, “Everyone wants to talk to you. Let’s do one big scrum.” I did a quick interview with our radio guy and did the scrum. It was pretty crazy.
Everyone had the story: our local NBC, Fox, and I even saw it on ESPN and CNN Headline News the next day. (Sports Illustrated later ran a brief on his appearance.) I never thought it would be this big.
We always joked that for this to ever happen, we’d have to have the perfect storm. A guy would have to get hurt the day of the game, and both of our farm teams, Hershey and South Carolina, would have to be in the middle of nowhere on the road in a small market. We always joked that someday it might happen.
My parents are just floored. My dad was pretty happy when he found out that I got to practice with the team, so he couldn’t believe it. They were speechless. That’s the first time in my life I’ve seen them like that.
I got all these emails and letters mailed into the office, like “You’re my hero,” and “You give regular guys a chance.” Around the rink I’ve seen three or four of my jerseys on people I don’t even know. I made sure my family all got one for Christmas for sure.
I love being around the sport every day. No one likes getting up Monday morning and going to work. It’s my dream job. I wouldn’t change it for anything. No matter how many days in a row you work or how many nights you’re out late after a game working, the next day it’s right back to hockey. I can look out of my office, and there’s Alex Ovechkin skating on the ice. I just love that I’m doing something that I’ve been passionate about since I’ve was so young.
Grand Bend holds a special place in Leonhardt’s heart. Growing up, the family spent summers here, and now that the Leonhardts are based in St. Joseph, Brett visits when he comes home. “I still have my membership at the Grand Bend Fitness Centre and I’d always work out there. Every time I come home, it’s Tim Horton’s, the gym and Sea Jewels. Our whole apartment in D.C. is decked out in Sea Jewels stuff.” He says he and Logan would like to move back to the area when they retire.