What Michael Leighton has brought to the Rockford IceHogs on the ice has been obvious.
He’s 12-7-4 with a 2.01 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and four shutouts, forming half of a strong and competitive goaltending duo with Scott Darling. On Tuesday, Leighton was named the American Hockey League’s goaltender of the month after going 4-0-2 with a 1.05 GAA and .969 save percentage in January, helping to keep Rockford on top of the Midwest Division.
What Leighton has done off the ice is just as important, though not as obvious.
Per usual, Rockford is a young team without a lot of older veteran players. The IceHogs usually depend on younger leaders but have spent almost the last two months without their captain as Joakim Nordstrom has been up with the Blackhawks since the middle of December.
Enter the 33-year-old Leighton, who Rockford coach Ted Dent said has brought a “calming effect” with his experience.
“He’s very mature, great guy and gets along with teammates real well. Sort of acts in some respects as the captain, being from the goaltender’s position,” Dent said. “We have some older guys but he’s definitely one of them that leads the way.”
That’s something Leighton’s been trying to do. He saw veterans do it during his first stint in the Hawks organization when he was breaking into the AHL in 2001 with the Norfolk Admirals, and he’s doing it now.
“When I was younger, I was 20 years old and came into the league and we had a lot of older players on my team in Norfolk. You learn from those older guys and you want to be one of those guys that the 21-year-olds look up to,” Leighton said. “For me, I just want to show these guys that I’m 33 years old but I’m still working my butt off and still working hard in practice and in a game I never give up. Hopefully they see that and they kind of learn from that and build off that.”
What those younger players are watching is someone who’s having a career year after spending last season overseas in the KHL. He’s done that in ways that the IceHogs (and Blackhawks) hope rub off on the younger players.
“He has good work habits. He cares about winning, cares about the team and puts the team ahead of himself and his individual numbers. I think that’s important,” Dent said. “Guys see that and everyone has a lot of respect for him.”