SCOTT BILLECK, MyToba.ca
California. It may not be what we as Canadians are used to when it comes to growing up playing hockey.
The snow-covered pines are replaced with tropical palm trees; snow with sand, and outdoor ice with humid, sticky indoor rinks. But hockey remains the same, whether up in the Great White North, or down on the pacific coast of the United States — a place where the kid from Cali, Chase De Leo, honed his skills as a recently drafted NHL prospect.
De Leo, pronounced dee-lee-OH, grew up in La Mirada, a suburb a few skate glides from Los Angeles and the nearest beach. His parents, Janie and John, who run a family plumbing company, had him enrolled in the sport early, where De Leo started out hockey life between a different set of pipes.
“My favourite goalie was Patrick Roy growing up,” said De Leo. “One of my neighbours was a good friend with (then-Colorado Avalanche head coach) Bob Hartley. Luckily, I got to go into the locker room and see all the guys.”
The switch from stopper to scorer came without much hesitation.
“My favourite player was Joe Sakic and I was in net with his No. 19, and my dad though that looked really weird and my mom found goaltending to be boring,” said De Leo. “I also had a Russian goalie coach … I couldn’t understand a thing he was saying, so I made the switch. I hope it was the right choice.”
You could say the decision has turned out to be the correct one.
The 18-year-old already boasts an impressive resume, one that includes a WHL Championship, a Memorial Cup Finals appearance and a couple of prospect games. He will also attend the U.S. Junior Evaluation Camp later this summer, ahead of the 2015 World Junior Hockey Championships, a team he would be honoured to play for.
“I’ve never played for Team USA so it would be an honour to play for my country,” said De Leo. “A bunch of guys back in Portland went this past year, said it was the time of their lives.”
And don’t forget that he was drafted 99th overall by the Jets back at the tail end of June, perhaps his biggest accomplishment yet, one he now shares with his close childhood buddy.
De Leo’s friendship with Tri-City Americans’ netminder and fellow Jets’ prospect Eric Comrie is well documented at this point. They have played with each other and against; they visited the same Denver college together and have a special note between the two, pledging to one another to do whatever it takes to make the NHL one day.
The pact, which they both signed as 10-year-olds, originates from a chance meeting at the rink one day, one that would see them grow into the best of friends.
“It was 2005 when (Eric) first moved from Edmonton, I remember it exactly,” said De Leo. “I was skating at the rink and all the sudden I see a big, goofy looking kid walking in with long hair.
“I hated not having a goalie to shoot on as a kid so I immediately went up to him and asked him if he wanted to come out. Every since then our friendship has grown from there.
“It’s something special for sure.”
De Leo’s decision to play in the Western Hockey League, like the move from goalie to forward before it, seems to have paid off.
Coming from a family of academic excellence, De Leo, who holds education in high regard, said the decision came down purely to the love of the game.
“School is so important in my family, grades were always No. 1,” said De Leo. “Right up until the day before the (WHL) draft, I had my mind set on playing college hockey in Denver — I didn’t even know what the WHL or how the draft worked.
“But my coach at the time, Bill Comrie (founder of The Brick and father to Eric) told me that the Portland Winterhawks wanted me. Turns out I got drafted.”
De Leo was selected in the ninth round of the 2010 WHL Bantam Draft, 192nd overall by the Winterhawks, a result of teams not fully understanding his allegiance to the game, despite his academic aspirations.
“I went up to camp and guys like Ryan Johansen (now with the Columbus Blue Jackets) and Nino Niederreiter (now with the Minnesota Wild) were there and they took me under their wing. It became kind of a no-brainer for me. I saw the talent that Portland was producing at the time. It made it, again, a no-brainer.”
Down in Oregon, De Leo isn’t the star, per se. That spot, at least at the moment, is reserved for the likes of 100-point men, Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand, who command the spotlight each and every night.
“It’s great. There is so much talent on that roster and so many players who have come through there,” said De Leo.
De Leo’s production on the Winterhawks’ “second line” is admirable given that he plays next to a 50-goal scorer in Bjorkstrand and 79-point man, Winterhawks’ captain Taylor Leier. His point totals since his rookie season in 2011-12 have risen by a minimum of 25 per annum, helping his line produce a staggering 261 points during the 2013-14 season.
De Leo is sharing the ice once again with Comrie and with fellow Winterhawk Petan, both of whom are making their first time with the big club as easy as it can be.
“Like most guys, you get a little nervous, it’s a big step up,” said De Leo. “But it definitely makes it easier, even with (Nic) Petan being here as a teammate and him going over it last year when he came back to Portland. It’s definitely a special situation.”
De Leo is in Winnipeg to show his skills, talents fostered in California and honed in the WHL. And, perhaps more importantly, put to rest any issues people see in his physical stature.
“Making the first impression … I want to make a good first impression for myself,” said De Leo. “It’s nice to see that it doesn’t matter the size … the size of the heart is more important than anything else.
“I think that is one of the things I am here to show at camp, that I am not going to back down from any battle, no matter how big the guy is. Hopefully that is going to make me have a long career in the NHL.”