It’s early March in Amherst and a tangible excitement fills the winter air.
The Massachusetts hockey team is on the brink of winning its first Hockey East Association playoff series in over 10 years at the Mullins Center, following its largest single-season turnaround in college hockey.
Tied at one game apiece in the best-of-three series with Vermont, the atmosphere in the building is tense to start, but a sudden, commanding 4-1 lead transforms the Game 3 tension into glee.
With time winding down, the aura changes once again; this time from joy to utter disbelief.
As the Catamounts fail to enter the UMass zone, then-freshman John Leonard, already moving at high speed, collects the rogue puck, sees open ice ahead of him, and sets out on a grueling foot race.
Using the speed that makes him a dangerous forward, arms flailing and jersey behind him, the Amherst native pulls away, setting his sights on the kill shot and goaltender Stefanos Lekkas.
After a split hesitation, Leonard unleashes a filthy toe-drag that sends UVM’s Corey Moriarty sliding out of the way. All that stands between the forward and the final, decisive blow is Lekkas’ six-foot frame.
As if he’s done it a million times, Leonard unexpectedly pulls off another toe-drag, pulling the puck from forehand to backhand, before slamming it past Lekkas’ body to cap off the series with a bang.
As the puck slides across the crease, No. 9 crashes into the boards and shoots his hands into the air in parallel with the crowd, followed by a flood of UVM defenseman that were left in the dust.
Spurred in large part by Leonard’s freshman campaign, which led the team in scoring on 28 points, the Minutemen brought the joy of success and postseason excitement back to the Mullins Center faithful.
A season later, the sophomore remains among the team’s top scorers on 18 points through 16 games.
However, for Leonard, a 2018 NHL draft pick, a life in hockey wasn’t always in the mix.
In the early 2000s, Leonard’s father, John Sr., was an assistant basketball coach for the Massachusetts men’s team, while his sisters, Alyssa and Brianna, were kickstarting their careers on the court as well.
Feeling bad that her son was too young to pick up the rock, John’s mother, Cindy, diverted John from the family’s basketball roots and enrolled him in Learn-to-Skate at the Mullins Center Community Rink.
From the first time he laced up the skates as a youngster, the rest — as they say — is history.
Now a cornerstone of No. 2 UMass during its finest start in history, Leonard, who attended games at Mullins as a youth, is back and wreaking havoc on the same rink where he fell in love with the game.
“Pretty much every Saturday night we’d come out to the games,” the sophomore remembered of his time playing with the New England junior Falcons in Springfield. “Almost everyone on our team would be here, so it was a fun time and it’s something that [my buddies and] I still talk about it to this day.”
Through 49 career contests donning the same Maroon and White that he grew up wearing in the stands, Leonard has recorded 46 points on 18 goals, adding the key presence of a highly elite goal-scorer.
Before he became a staple of the revitalized Minutemen (14-2-0, 7-0-0 HEA) and their newfound success, the five-foot-eleven winger was already busy making a name for himself in Western Massachusetts.
After outgrowing the Amherst youth hockey circuit, Leonard enrolled at Springfield Cathedral to play against elevated competition at one of Massachusetts’ top college-preparatory schools for hockey.
As soon as he hit the ice, Cathedral coach Brian Foley knew Leonard was special.
“You could tell right away, he was very talented,” Foley, now in his 16th coaching season at Cathedral, said. “He always had really good hands and you could just always tell he was a next level player.”
In his opening season with the Panthers, Leonard got off to a quiet start. But as a sophomore, he nearly doubled his point production from the season before and collegiate scouts began to take notice.
His prospect as an elite scorer really started to heat up as a junior, though. Playing alongside six players committed to Division I colleges, Leonard amassed 75 points on 47 goals to lead the state in scoring.
According to Foley, that major uptick came around the time Leonard and his teammates began to train more and more. To this day, No. 9 frequently remains the last skater to leave the ice at practice.
“That whole group that he came in with just worked so hard in the offseason and really took training to heart,” Foley said. “They just worked all throughout the year to get better and improve their skills.”
Following his breakout junior campaign, Leonard left Cathedral a year early to complete high school in Wisconsin, where he simultaneously played two seasons on behalf of the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League.
Before he knew it, the forward was returning to his roots in Western Massachusetts to play in Hockey East.
During his sophomore season at Cathedral, Leonard was recruited by UMass, but it was the staff before Carvel that was interested. When Carvel arrived, his roster spot on the 2017-18 team was up in the air.
“Once the previous staff had been let go and Carvel came in,” Leonard said, “I sat down and talked with them to see what they thought and to see if there was still a place for me here — luckily there was.”
The season before Leonard arrived, Carvel’s first at the helm, the Minutemen won just five games.
Facing the stark reality that change had to be made to shift the direction of the program, Carvel and his staff set out to redefine the culture alongside the arrival of Leonard and his high-profile freshman class.
With a solid foundation of newcomers and the inception of the “NewMass” culture in place, UMass won 12 more games than the year before, hosted the UVM playoff series, and burst its way onto the scene.
In the aftermath of his 28-point freshman season, the rising sophomore’s life changed forever.
In the midst of a golf outing with a group of high school buddies and fellow Minuteman forward Brett Boeing, Leonard’s summer roommate and workout partner that spent the offseason training with strength coach Clayton Kirven, the Amherst native suddenly received the phone call of a lifetime.
On the other line was the San Jose Sharks; he’d been selected in the sixth round of the NHL draft.
In his third year of draft eligibility, Leonard became the first UMass skater to be drafted following his freshman season since current San Jose defenseman Justin Braun was selected 201st overall in 2007.
“That was a tremendous honor in my life,” Leonard said. “I was extremely excited and speechless at the time. I don’t want to look too far forward, I still have a long way to go, but it’s definitely pretty special.”
Upon the selection, the forward became just the second player in Cathedral history to be drafted.
“My first thought was that someone got a steal of a player,” Foley said. “John has a chance to be a dynamic player at every level, I think he will reach the next level, and I think the Sharks saw that.”
In addition, Leonard joined defenseman Mario Ferraro’s company, who was selected 49th overall by the Sharks in 2017.
“I was fired up,” Ferraro said. “I was so happy for him because I knew he deserved it and he's worked so hard. Like everyone on our team, his goal is to play in the NHL and now his goal is to some day for the Sharks. Just the thought of us potentially playing there someday, it’s pretty awesome.”
Before Leonard gets the chance to play at the next level though, the sophomore is looking to make good on a statement he made prior to this season. “We just want to be Hockey East contenders,” he said.
At the top of the league standings at the end of the first half, the Minutemen have delivered thus far, and then some.
Out to its best start in program history, UMass gained the nation’s top rank on Dec. 3 for the first time ever. In addition, Leonard currently leads in-conference scorers with 15 points through seven matchups.
Although he led the team in scoring as a freshman and is currently among the top point-getters on the team this season, Carvel continually points out Leonard’s need to become a more complete player.
“We’re just looking for consistency in his effort and his play without the puck,” he said earlier this season. “He has the potential to be a pro, but he can’t get there without an attention to detail away from the puck. We work hard to make sure it’s consistently there. On nights it’s not, he hears about it.”
“Those high-skill guys, they’re under the microscope for us,” Carvel added after practice leading up to the recent Quinnipiac series. “You don't just get to be a skill player, it doesn’t go along with our culture. I think early on last year, he only knew one way to play and we had to build some trust with him. This year, [he’s made] huge strides from where he was day one to where he was at the end of last year.”
Following another summer of training and his first development camp experience along with Ferraro in San Jose, Carvel noticed a dramatic change in the forward’s game that didn’t take place on the ice.
“I think his biggest growth has been in his attitude toward wanting to be a better player,” the UMass coach said. “When you’re as skilled as he is, and his teammates see him attempting to be better without the puck, that adds a lot to the culture.”
Since opening up to more in-depth coaching, Leonard said the group is constantly dissecting his game.
“The entire staff, they’ve helped me a lot,” he said. “We do a lot of video sessions and text messages, things like that — ‘Hey, did you see what you did here? You could have done this,’ kind of thing.”
Quite a bit of work goes into crafting a next level player, Carvel said, but it can be pretty enjoyable.
"Johnny’s a gifted player, he’s gotten stronger physically — I think he’s got to get stronger mentally — but he’s the kind of kid you love to work with, because it’s a project,” the third-year coach said. “You love to see a kid mature, get better, improve, and feel that you had an impact on him as a player.
Leonard’s progress in becoming a more complete, consistent skater became very apparent on Nov. 8, when the Minutemen, then-No. 9, were facing off with Hockey East foe and then-No. 3 Providence.
Already with a 1-0 lead in the first period, Leonard put his hard work on display and stole the puck from a Friar defender crossing the UMass blue line. After collecting the puck, he dropped it off to Brett Boeing trailing behind him. Boeing returned the favor with a crisp pass off the boards to a streaking Leonard.
From there, the winger was off to the races. Out-skating a pair of Providence defenders into their zone, Leonard did what he does best and made it look easy, swiftly dropping Friar goaltender Hayden Hawkey.
Forehand, backhand, five-hole, goal.
The deke Leonard displayed in front of 6,357 at Mullins doubled the lead in a big-time showdown for the Minutemen and brought back memories of his individual scoring effort in the playoffs against Vermont.
Long removed from the days of Cathedral workouts that molded him into the player capable of scoring those type of goals, Leonard’s friend and roommate, Ferraro, said the winger’s drive has only increased.
“He works on his shot every day,” the sophomore defenseman said. “He’s got one of the best releases on our team and it's not by fluke, it’s because he’s on the ice early and he's always working on it.”
For all that Leonard’s done to help bring a winning culture back to Amherst in front of his home town, Ferraro said the standout sophomore’s presence with the Minutemen extends beyond the ice, as well.
Earlier in November, Leonard hosted UMass teammates Marco Bozzo, George Mika and Ferraro at his family’s home for Thanksgiving dinner, because those skaters couldn’t make it back to theirs.
“We’ve all seen him play and we know what he’s capable of, but what makes him special is his character off the ice,” Ferraro said. “He's a really good person that comes from a really great family and he's got a good head on his shoulders. He's on the ice early every day working on his game and in the changing room, the guys love him. He’s a great kid and he's a great teammate — he’s a leader.”
With four wins over top-10 opponents at the winter break, the Minutemen have turned heads in college hockey in a major way. But Leonard isn’t ready to let up. He knows what comes after the holiday.
“It’s a privilege to be a part of this group,” he said. “We knew we had something special last year and now we’ve got a lot of momentum here in the first half this year, so we’ve got to keep it going and stay strong. We’re all proud of what we’re doing here. Obviously, we know we haven't done anything yet, but we have a real good foundation. Hopefully we can do something real special at the end of the year.”
At the moment, the fate of UMass is unknown and the outcome of its most explosive start in the first half of a season, ever, is still uncertain. But one thing is for sure: John Leonard's been a huge part of it.
Wherever the forward lands after his Minuteman career, the local kid that grew up in Amherst — who’s played a major role in transforming the UMass hockey program into a nationally recognized ‘wagon’ — ultimately made the right decision, with the help of his mother, to pick up a stick instead of a rock.
Liam Flaherty can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @_Liam Flaherty.
Photos by Caroline O'Connor and Amelia Shaw.