Dec. 4, 2001
Making the adjustment from high school or junior hockey to the Division I game can be a slow process for many hockey players and being a defenseman adds to that challenge.
In the case of Notre Dame defenseman Brett Lebda, the transition went much quicker.
A regular on the Irish blue line since his first practice in Oct. of 2000, Lebda has played in 51 consecutive games at Notre Dame and has made his mark on the Central Collegiate Hockey Association in a little more than one season.
The fleet-footed defender was selected to the CCHA all-rookie team after leading all CCHA freshmen defenders with 26 points (7g, 19a) while finishing fifth in scoring among all league blue liners.
Not bad for a player who wasn’t sure how he would play after missing most of his final season with the USA Under-18 Developmental team due to a broken ankle.
“I was a little surprised with the success I had last year coming off the injury. I sat out the second half of the season (1999-2000) and didn’t know if I was going to be in top form or not,” says Lebda.
“I started slow in the beginning of the season and then had the game at Omaha. After that, things opened up a little bit. I started letting the game come to me instead of trying to force things.”
That game in Omaha was Lebda’s coming out party. He became the first Notre Dame player to score five points (a goal and four assists) in a game since 1994 as he led the Irish to a 7-3 win versus Nebraska-Omaha.
From there, the native of Buffalo Grove, Ill., saw his game take off. He finished the season ranked third on the team in shots on goal (112), added two power play goals, two shorthanded goals and a game-winner while showing a feisty side by setting a Notre Dame record with 109 penalty minutes.
While offense has always been the name of Lebda’s game, he realizes that his first job is to play defense.
“I’m a player who likes to start the offense from the blue line, but I know I can’t neglect my defensive play because that’s an important part of my game,” explained Lebda.
“I’ve worked hard to improve defensively. Mick (assistant coach John Micheletto) has been a great help there. I think he’s done a great job with the four sophomores, taking us under his wing, working to make us into a top defensive group.”
Micheletto, Notre Dame’s third-year assistant who works with the defensemen, is quick to give Lebda all of the credit for the improvements in his game.
“Brett has really expanded his game in the year that he has been here,” says Micheletto.
“When he first started here, he was only an offensive threat when he had the puck. Now he’s really figured out how to help the team when he doesn’t have the puck. He gets himself into position for a pass. He knows when to stay back and when to jump into the play. He’s really worked hard to become a better all-around player.”
Lebda’s development hasn’t gone unnoticed. This past summer, he was invited to USA Hockey’s Junior Evaluation Camp, which featured all the top players in the United States under the age of 20. From there, he was selected to participate in USA Hockey’s Summer Hockey Challenge and is a leading candidate to be selected to the U.S. Junior National Team for the 2002 World Junior Championships.
“I went into the evaluation camp just trying to pick up where I left off last season. I was happy to get the invitation after not getting one last year because of my injury. It’s always a great honor to play for your country and since I did it for two years, I’d like to do it again. I just did my best and we’ll see what happens,” says Lebda.
So far this season, the hard working defenseman has picked up where he finished last season. Through 12 games he has three goals and two assists for five points while leading the team with 45 shots on goal. Most importantly, he is always a threat when he has the puck.
“Skating has always been the strength of my game,” says Lebda.
“When I was younger, I played for a coach who stressed skating and puck handling. He ran a hockey school that I went to for as long as I can remember.”
The talented defenseman gave Irish fans a clinic on skating and stick handling in Notre Dame’s 3-3 tie with Ferris State on Nov. 10.
With the score tied 1-1 in the second period, Lebda went on one of his mad dashes. He corralled a loose puck in his zone and skated up the left wing boards before cutting across the middle at the Ferris State blue line. From there, he shifted into overdrive down the right wing boards, before cutting in front to score on Bulldogs’ goaltender John DeCaro.
“That was definitely one of the top goals that I remember scoring,” says a smiling Lebda.
“Derek (Smith) threw the puck across the ice off the boards, and I picked it up and just started skating across the ice. I came down the right side, got around the defenseman, saw an opening to cut in front of the goalie and popped it in the far side,” recalled Lebda.
“I like to come down the right side a lot, that’s my strong side and play the guy one-on-one. Usually I’ll end up shooting the puck, but for some reason I saw a chance to do something different and it worked.”
Maturing on the job is something Lebda and his teammates did a lot of last year and the second-year defenseman thinks that is benefiting them this season.
“Last year was difficult at times, but that’s one of the reasons that I came here, to get thrown in to the mix right away and get that experience. You can’t replace experience,” says Lebda.
Micheletto recognizes Lebda’s growth in little more that a season-and-a-third. “Brett’s done a nice job of bringing the black shirts (the jerseys the defensemen wear in practice) together. He knows how important it is for the group to work together. It really shows how much he’s matured in the short time that he’s been here,” says Micheletto.