The MIAA season was altered drastically as a result of the pandemic, but in terms of the top player in Mass HS? Not much has changed. For the first time in the history of the Mass NZ Mr. Hockey Award, we have handed the trophy to the same player for two years straight: sophomore forward Ryan Leonard of the Pope Francis Cardinals.
It has been a banner year for Leonard and the Cardinals: they played nine games and registered nine wins, averaging seven goals per game and giving up only one on average. Leonard scored 20 goals in those nine games, one of the most dominant performances in this shortened season. That was merely a warmup for the Cardinals who ended up winning the Final Four Showcase against Archbishop Williams, Xaverian and Hingham to earn a trip out to Omaha, Nebraska. That’s where the USA Hockey HS Nationals were played and the Cardinals swept those games as well: finishing with a National Championship.
It’s also hard to miss the fact that following that title, Leonard was invited to and earned a spot on the USNTDP U-17 team for next season, establishing his place as one of the top 2005-born players in the US. With that resume, it’s easy to see why he is our first two-time Mr. Hockey Award winner.
We caught up with him last week to talk about his season and how things have changed from his freshman season:
Q: This was such a strange year due to COVID-19: a shortened season and no Super 8 this season: what was the adjustment like for you along with your Pope Francis teammates?
Honestly, we still had the same mindset just like it was a regular season, even though this year was pretty different. There were no locker rooms this year so we had to get dressed outside…but we made it work. We wanted to be the best team in the MIAA and worked to get better everyday.
Q: What goals did you set as a team to accomplish this season?
Our number one goal was set by Coach [Brian] Foley: go undefeated this year, which we accomplished. Beyond that, we just tried to make each other better with each game. We also set a goal to qualify for the USA Hockey HS National Tournament: which we did when we beat Archbishop Williams in the first game of the Final Four Showcase.
Q: What goals did you set for yourself this season and were you able to accomplish them?
I just tried to get better everyday and I wanted to prepare myself for the next level. I needed to become a better two-way forward this year and focus more on my defensive game, in addition to making my teammates around me better.
Q: Obviously not every team gets to compete on a national stage at the USA Hockey Nationals – what was that experience like: traveling to Omaha and playing against some of the top HS teams in the country?
It was a great experience: one that all of us will remember as the greatest moment in our HS hockey careers. Every game was a new challenge for us in Omaha. From the first game we played: we wanted to prove that Massachusetts hockey belonged there. We wanted to make a statement early. We wanted to show Mass. was the real deal, while also representing our school and Massachusetts hockey.
Q: Last season when we spoke with you, you mentioned that it took some time to get acclimated during the MIAA season as a freshman: how comfortable did you feel this season? What changed between then and now?
I thought I was more confident this year and the success the team had really helped. I knew this year’s team was going to be the best team I’ve ever played on. I was confident in the team and I knew that even if I made a mistake? One of my teammates could pick up the puck and do something with it.
Q: Shortly after the Cardinals won the USA Hockey Nationals you were invited to U17 National Camp with the best 2005s in the country. What was your USNTDP U17 camp experience like? How was the competition and did you feel like you were able to play your game?
I thought the game was about what I expected: it was fast and the players were quick. I thought I was able to play my best game, I feel like I got better overall with every shift. I’ve been to other camps like this with a lot of good players in my age group before, but this was the first time I was competing for a roster spot.
Q: Just a couple of weeks ago, you were named to the USNTDP U17 Team, that must have been an exciting phone call: can you recall how it happened?
That phone call was a great moment: my family and I were hoping it would come after I got home. When they called and told me I was on the team, I was right next to my Dad and he cracked a big smile just like I did: I will never forget that moment.
Q: You will be heading out to Ann Arbor next season, but can you speak to how the MIAA has prepared you for this next step in your career? How has Pope Francis and Coach Foley helped to prepare you?
The physicality of the MIAA has helped a lot, especially preparing me for next year. I’m going to be playing against 20 year olds and the MIAA has been a physical league but going into the summer I know I have to get bigger and stronger in order to compete. The competition will be higher next year, in addition to the physicality.
The MIAA has done a great job of getting better as a league and producing more players than in the past. Last year we got to play better teams and I think we could have played in the Catholic Conference and competed with the top teams. I will always remember the Super 8 games in my freshman year at Loring Arena in Framingham. Those games were sold out and the crowd was jumping up and down on the bleachers. Those games were exciting to play in and it made me ready for next year.
I want to make sure I thank my linemates and coaches for the past two years at Pope Francis. My linemates never changed over those two years and I couldn’t have had the success I did without Brandon Spaulding and Ryan Shaw: it was perfect.
A: Finally, in your own words, what strengths will you look to bring to Ann Arbor? What can fans expect from you next season?
I feel like my shot sets me apart from some others: I work on it everyday in the basement at home. I do things differently based on feel: if my shot is working, I work on other areas but if not then I will be down there for a lot longer.
I’m still working on my size and being able to play two parts of the game with both physicality and skill. I worked hard on my two-way game this year, I was focused on being a more defensive forward. That was something Coach Foley mentioned to me early in the year. He said to play for the USNTDP U17 team you need to be more defense-oriented, that’s why I played center this year. I felt comfortable in that spot, and it helped me out because I could gain speed and jump into the play quickly.