Ryan Leonard got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when he was 12 years old.
In 2014, the Pittsburgh Jr. Penguins, Leonard’s youth team, traveled to Canada to compete in the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament, one of the largest minor league tournaments in the world.
Leonard’s team ranked among the top 20 teams in the country, and that was enough to earn them a bid for the tournament. For one week, they played a bracket of 32 AAA teams from around the world, and they were even given new equipment paid for by former Pittsburgh Penguin Mark Recchi, the father of one of Leonard’s teammates.
Leonard was a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday, but he wasn’t afraid to play games 750 miles from home against teams from as far away as Europe.
The attendance for his first game was unbelievable. He was skating in the Galeries de la Capitale, one of the largest malls in Canada. A crowd of 2,000 fans was in attendance, and their cheers were occasionally interrupted by a roller coaster that screamed overhead. It was one of the largest, craziest atmospheres Leonard has ever played in front of.
‘They didn’t really care who scored they just want to cheer,” Leonard said.
Quebec City hasn’t had a major league hockey team since the Nordiques relocated to Colorado in 1995. This one week in February has filled the void for many Quebecers, who have made the tournament a city-wide event. Annual revenue for the community is estimated to be around $17 million, according to a Global News report.
To offset the cost of room-and-board, Leonard stayed with a billet family, who volunteered to host him for the length of the tournament. Leonard’s billet family, the Martels, made him feel like a son, and he still follows the five-member family on Instagram to keep in touch.
The Penguins didn’t make it far in the bracket, however, and dropped out in the second round to the New Jersey Devils junior team.
That didn’t matter for the players, though. They loved every second of it. Especially Leonard, who took advantage of the free time.
Leonard remembered one instance where he made friends with several international players. Before the tournament started, teams were given pins of their logos to give to their players as souvenirs, and kids traded their pins around to other players to collect memorabilia.
“They’re pretty valuable to me,” Leonard said. “I traded with kids from Cole Harbour, L.A., the Czech Republic and Switzerland. I still have them in my room.”
Leonard said that week in Quebec changed the way he looked at hockey. Now at Ohio, he wants to be a force for good on the team. He hasn’t seen much action for the Bobcats, but he’s been biding his time working out, building his speed, and keeping his teammates positive.
“I want to contribute as much as I can,” Leonard said. “Even if I play or not, I want to keep my spirits high and make sure the team is doing well.”
Maybe the next time Leonard’s team will be hundreds of miles from home, it will be at the ACHA National Championships in Texas.