The puck doesn’t know size, it doesn’t know strength, it doesn’t know heights and weights, class year or age: it only knows who gets there first. It turns out that freshman and 2005-born forward Ryan Leonard of Pope Francis Preparatory School was getting to a lot of pucks first this season, notching 24 goals in his first year of varsity hockey at the D1 level playing for the Cardinals.
The 5’9 forward was playing up against a number of talented seniors this season across the MIAA, some of whom were four years his senior and many of them bigger and stronger than he was. Many of the top seniors in the state were under heavy consideration for this award, players like forwards Anthony Messuri and Brendan Jones of Arlington, forward Will Trischitta and goalie Jake Handy of Framingham plus a few others. But, our decision came down to a couple of factors: both how critical the player was to his team’s success, especially in the playoffs and how well that the player projects moving forward, both in MIAA play and beyond. Leonard double checked both of those boxes for all of our scouts who saw him during the year.
Ultimately he had the last laugh with the season he put together: driving the Cardinals to Super 8 Co-Championship, which he was proud to have won for his mentor and Coach Brian Foley.
The winning culture here is just a great atmosphere. We are so happy for Coach Foley: we finally got him that Super 8 title. He’s been doing this forever and we lost half our team from last year [that lost in 4OT to BC High] and nobody expected us to make the Super 8 this year. The coaching staff turned it all around.
As a freshman, not only are you trying to get your feet wet at the varsity level but you are getting familiar with new foes, new atmospheres and the level of play. One moment that he knew he was a part of something special stuck out during a January 18 game against a familiar foe:
We felt like we had such a good team, even early in the season during the BC High game at the Olympia Ice Center near the start of the year. The teams are school rivals and it was a surreal moment to beat them, especially in front of our hometown crowd. We knew we had a team capable of beating them, what an atmosphere that was. It was one of the most fun games I’ve played in. Coach said this would be one of our biggest crowds all year and he was right.
How did Ryan know this team was poised to do damage in the second season? The first real inkling came in early February as the team really started to gel:
It all came together in the playoffs. With this team, we were a part of each other, especially near the end of the year. We had our own two tournaments at home [the Pope Francis Invitational and the Cardinal Classic]. The team agreed that if we win both tourneys: we think we can win all three [including the Super 8]. That was our turning point. We beat St. Mary’s Lynn 1-0, who had a really good team, which showed us that we were capable of winning the whole thing.
It wasn’t by mistake that this Pope Francis team had success late in the season, their mental fortitude and late season consistency was built early in the year based on the teams they were playing against:
We played a lot of tough teams: BC High, Arlington, St. John’s Prep, Delbarton, and scrimmages against good prep teams like Dexter and Brunswick, Albany Academy and Rice Prep. They were great games to play in and they showed how we rank by going up against them. We lost big to Dexter, we played a good second period against them, but we could have been better. Those scrimmages were important to show ways we needed to improve early in the season. Playing against Framingham in the first game of the year showed us how we needed to improve too. We became more prepared after that.
The schedule was just one of the reasons why attending Pope Francis made sense for Ryan, who is one of the more celebrated 2005s in Massachusetts:
The schedule really appealed to me, I didn’t understand it at first, but now I do. What told me this was the right place to be? The BC High game. The Eagles have a winning culture, but we believe ours can be better. Our whole team and community loves to win and will do whatever it takes.
On the road to victory, there are always detours, challenges and struggles, and of course Ryan was not immune to that:
At the beginning of the year, in the preseason, I struggled a little but I made adjustments to my game based on the competition: top of the line prep and MIAA teams. What it showed was that size is a major part of the game. Your talents need to be on point and most importantly, getting shots on net is critical.
Of course, isn’t hockey more fun when you are playing with your friends? Ryan had a familiar linemate this year going back to his squirt hockey seasons:
It was nice to play this season with Ryan Shaw on the same line. I’ve played with Ryan since 2015 back when we played for the Boston Jr. Bruins Brick team that went to Alberta together. Since then, we’ve played together every summer at tournaments like Blue Chip Selects for the Jr. Bruins.
Of course we would be remiss if we didn’t ask Ryan how his older brother, recent San Jose Shark signee, former UMass junior and current Hobey Baker Finalist John Leonard’s 2012-15 tenure at Springfield Cathedral playing for Coach Foley played into his decision to join the Cardinals:
It was a major part of the choice, definitely. Coach Foley treated John well and showed him how good he could be as a high school player. I talked over the decision with the family, and playing for Coach Foley was the best option for me, that’s why I made the decision to go to Pope Francis. John playing at Springfield Cathedral [the predecessor to Pope Francis] was a big part of it: Mass HS hockey treated him well for three years, I saw how good of a league it is and how it can be challenging as well.
This is a refreshing sentiment that more local players need to be made aware of: the MIAA route is one that elite bantam players are selecting for the ability to develop, play in front of their hometown and carry on family legacies in cases just like this.
Our conversation quickly pivoted with Ryan and of course we needed to address the season’s abrupt end as well since Championship Sunday at the TD Garden was cancelled due to health concerns related to COVID-19:
For the few days during the week of cancellations we saw the NHL, NBA and other pro leagues getting cancelled so we all thought it was coming. Honestly, we were sad for a second but quickly realized that we were State Champs. Coach checked in with us via group text and we set a team party in the summer when we will celebrate the title.
So what does the future hold for the Cardinals star? We asked Ryan about his plans for next season:
I am staying at Pope Francis next season, no question about it. The goal is to win another Championship for the school. The rest of the goals will come as the journey comes. All of the underclassmen on the team and the returning upperclassmen are excited at the chance to come back.
If he had to look back, how does Ryan put this past season into perspective?
I loved the whole journey, the whole season, from the first game of the year to the last. It was a tremendous year: I wouldn’t change anything about it – or the group of guys who I played with.
Well said by the young man, it’s all about the journey. The rest of the MIAA should be on notice next year that the young core is returning for Pope Francis and looking to repeat in 2021. Congratulations to Ryan Leonard: our 2020 Mr. Hockey Award Winner.