Work ethic brought John Leonard from Amherst to the NHL

  • Amherst's John Leonard is making his professional debut Thursday when the San Jose Sharks open the season in Arizona. Leonard previously played for Springfield Cathedral, the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers and UMass. JACK LIMA/PROHOCKEYNEWS.COM

  • Amherst's John Leonard is making his professional debut Thursday when the San Jose Sharks open the season in Arizona. Leonard previously played for Springfield Cathedral, the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers and UMass. PHOTO BY JACK LIMA/PROHOCKEYNEWS.COM

  • Amherst's John Leonard is making his professional debut Thursday when the San Jose Sharks open the season in Arizona. Leonard previously played for Springfield Cathedral, the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers and UMass. JACK LIMA/PROHOCKEYNEWS.COM

Staff Writer
Published: 1/13/2021 9:36:49 PM

John Leonard likely won’t believe he’s making his NHL debut until he’s going over the Gila Arena boards for his first shift. The San Jose Sharks open the season at 9 p.m. Thursday on the road against the Arizona Coyotes. Leonard will be with them,wearing No. 43.

“You have conversations with the coaches. You start to realize ‘this is actually real, and this is going to happen,’” Leonard said. “I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.”

The Amherst native hasn’t taken anything for granted in his first professional season. He’s taken each practice one at a time, continuing the meticulous approach that brought him here. Before he’s fully a Shark, Leonard compared himself to another sea creature.

“Try to be a sponge, try to absorb everything and learn as much as I can and prove myself as much as I can. That is just going to the rink every day and working as hard as I can and doing everything the right way on and off the ice,” Leonard told NHL.com.

Making the NHL roster wasn’t a given for Leonard when he arrived in Arizona for training camp Dec. 30. San Jose had to start the preseason in Arizona because of a public health order in Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose and San Francisco. They’ve largely remained quarantined in hotel rooms trying to follow the NHL’s health and safety protocols. Leonard, who played three years at UMass, wasn’t one of the organization’s top five prospects in early December, according to NHL.com’s David Satriano. He thought he had a chance but also recognized the possibility of starting in the minor leagues with the AHL’s Barracuda.

“It being my first NHL camp, I didn’t know what to expect. You get through those first couple days trying to dip your feet in, at the end of the day you’ve got to be ready to go from the start,” Leonard said. “You can’t take too slow of an approach.”

He’s been a fast learner. Leonard, who will wear No. 43, skated on San Jose’s second line during the past two days of practice with Evander Kane and Tomas Hertl and was on the Sharks’ second power-play team. He’ll coordinate with former Minuteman Mario Ferraro, a second-round pick in 2017, on that unit.

Joining the same organization as Ferraro has been boon for Leonard. He and Ferraro are close. They were roommates in Amherst, and Ferraro spent a lot of time at the Leonards’ home for holidays and family dinners. Leonard has leaned on him as he establishes himself as a pro.

“It’s been great. Not everyone gets that opportunity to come to camp and an organization who you’re so familiar with,” Leonard said. “Having someone like Mario, I can go ask him a stupid question to that I don’t want to bother one of the older vets with.”

Because of how focused he is on the minutiae of a practice, a drill or a day, Leonard hasn’t taken much time to soak in his surroundings and reflect on what brought him here. He was a C-level prospect and a sixth-round pick — long odds. But Leonard has always set himself apart with two qualities: his talent and his work ethic.

Both emerged early. Wilbraham’s Daniel Petrick, now a sophomore at Sacred Heart, joined the program at Springfield Cathedral High School as an eighth-grader when Leonard was a freshman. He saw what set the kid from Amherst apart.

“He was dominant. He wanted it more than anybody at a young age,” Petrick said. “We all knew deep down his hockey career was going to go pretty far.”

It picked up speed at Cathedral. Leonard  starred for three years there, leading the state in goals as a junior. The Panthers made the Super 8 semifinals twice and played in the tournament three times. He’ll be the school’s third alum to play in the NHL after Paul Fenton (1977) and Bob Kudelski (1982).

“Early on in his career, his work ethic was outstanding. His skill level was a gift. The combination of the two, he improved from year to year at a pretty rapid rate,” said Brian Foley, who coached Leonard at Cathedral and currently leads the Pope Francis boys team. “You see him, and every year he looks better and better. You had a sense in college that he would play in the NHL.”

Just maybe not at first. Leonard wasn’t selected in the 2016 draft out of high school or the 2017 edition before he arrived at UMass. Then he led the Minutemen with 28 points his freshman season, and the Sharks took a shot despite having no contact or interviews with Leonard in the predraft process.

“I had no idea who I was going to get drafted by or if I was going to get drafted. I haven’t had an interview with them or anything on the phone, so it was a surprise,” Leonard said in 2018. “But one of the best surprises I’ve ever gotten in my life.”

He didn’t kick back thinking he’d made it. Leonard doubled down on his work. He started training in the summer at West Springfield’s Olympia Ice Center with former Cathedral teammates like Petrick and East Longmeadow’s Peter Crinella, Springfield Thunderbirds like Paul Thompson and Florda Panther Frank Vatrano from East Longmeadow, among others. American International volunteer assistant Patrick Tabb, who is one of the rink’s owners, ran the sessions with former Minuteman Jim Mahoney.

“Both of them (Leonard and Vatrano) have the drive to want to be the best. It’s awesome to see that from Western Mass. that another guy made it,” Petrick said. “(Leonard) makes the people he’s around better. He’s got a great attitude toward hockey and life. Hes’s an awesome friend, whatever you need, he’s there for you. Always has a smile on his face.”

Crinella, who is playing for the Wichita Thunder after a college career at Holy Cross, saw the impact of Leonard’s daily habits as they worked.

“Say we’re doing a shooting drill you see him spin on an a dime an put it top right (corner of the net),” Cirnella said. “And that’s pretty special to see, and for him that’s just a daily occurrence.”

Leonard boosted his scoring production each year in Amherst. He had 16 goals as a sophomore then led the nation with 27 last year before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sports world in March.

“The eight years I’ve coached in Division I, I don’t know if I’ve seen anybody with the ability to score like he does. He’s got elite talent. He matches that with a very good work ethic. John works as hard as anybody to  get better. You have those two things: a special skill and an elite work ethic, that puts you in good standing to succeed,” UMass coach Greg Carvel said.

He left the Minutemen on March 31, signing with the Sharks and forgoing his final season of eligibility. Leonard was an All-American in 2020 is the program’s eighth-leading scorer with 105 points. He’s fourth with 56 goals. The 27 tallies he had as a junior set the program’s Division I record.

“He’s earned this. In the town of Amherst, it’s great to have a professional athlete from a town like this. I think he will be there, and I don’t know if anyone would have expected that when he came on campus,” Carvel said. “I think it’s a strong statement about John and a strong statement about this program.”

There are 11 former Minutemen on NHL active rosters, as the league opened play Wednesday, Stanley Cup hoisters and major award winners among them. Leonard has simpler goals for this rookie year.

“This year’s going to be a big leaning experience for me. It’s my first year of pro hockey. I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m trying to play for a job, too. I’m trying to work on consistency, not trying to take shifts off.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.


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