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Gorman: Amazing comeback for St. Cloud State player

| Friday, April 12, 2013, 10:23 p.m.
St. Cloud State goalie Ryan Faragher, right, is hugged by Drew LeBlanc (19) after losing 4-1 to Quinnipiac in an NCAA college hockey Frozen Four semifinal game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, April 11, 2013. Quinnipiac faces Yale in the national championship game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Drew LeBlanc forced himself not to watch replays of Louisville's Kevin Ware breaking his leg in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

The St. Cloud State hockey star admits seeing a photograph of Ware's compound fracture gave him a “little tingly” feeling in his own left leg — right where the bone came through his skin.

“I feel sympathy for him,” LeBlanc said of Ware. “I feel really bad knowing what's ahead of him, the hard work and dedication. He'll be back as good as new before he knows it.”

LeBlanc spoke from experience Friday evening at the NCAA Frozen Four at Consol Energy Center, some 17 months after suffering a compound fracture of his own.

In front of him was the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, college hockey's equivalent of the Heisman. Imagine Kevin Ware winning the Naismith next year.

“It's almost a dream come true, really,” LeBlanc said. “A lot of rink-rat hours went into this trophy, that's for sure.”

And after a lot of rehabilitation, as well as some soul searching, LeBlanc completed one of the most remarkable comeback stories in sports. He broke his left leg in two places when he slid into the boards with 29 seconds left in the second period of a game against Wisconsin in November 2011. St. Cloud State fans chanted his name as he was carried off the ice on a stretcher.

It proved, LeBlanc said, to be a blessing in disguise.

The fifth-year senior center became the first player in the 52-year history of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association to be named Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Year and Player of the Year.

LeBlanc compiled 50 points and a nation's-best 37 assists to lead the Huskies on a magical ride to the Frozen Four for the first time in school history.

The strength of character and determination LeBlanc showed in recovering from his injury combined with his off-ice accomplishments made him a sentimental Hobey Baker favorite.

The 23-member selection committee, comprising Division I coaches, NHL scouts and media members, knew it picked the right man when his St. Cloud State teammates packed the carpet runway to congratulate LeBlanc. They continued their celebration by posing for a team photograph.

“There's almost a moment when we knew we found the right guy,” Hobey Baker committee chairman Hans Skulstad said. “To me, that picture represents what's awesome about college hockey. That's what it's all about.”

It was apt that LeBlanc won the award just a few miles from Point State Park. That's where Baker played his final hockey game in a Pittsburgh-Philadelphia all-star exhibition at Winter Garden at Exposition Hall in March 1917, scoring all three goals in a 3-2 overtime victory. A year later, he was killed at age 26 when his plane crashed while piloting a test flight for the U.S. Army in Toul, France, during World War I.

“It's tough to put into words,” LeBlanc said. “It's obviously a tremendous honor, for everything Hobey Baker stands for and what he did, not only for college athletics but the country, as well, and kind of being a figurehead of that time period. To be mentioned with him and what he represents, I'll take tremendous pride in representing him.”

Despite his glowing resume, LeBlanc was something of a dark horse for the Hobey Baker Award.

The favorite was Boston College sophomore forward Johnny Gaudreau, a whirling dervish nicknamed Johnny Hockey who scored 21 goals in back-to-back seasons. Quinnipiac senior goaltender Eric Hartzell made a strong case with his 1.53 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and 30 victories, including a 4-1 win over a scoreless LeBlanc and St. Cloud State in the semifinal.

“Drew LeBlanc is well-deserving of the honor,” Hartzell said. “He's a dynamic player. He's offensively and defensively sound. Anytime he's got the puck on his stick, you've got to make sure of where he is.”

LeBlanc couldn't believe where he was Friday, sitting with the Hobey Baker Award in front of him on the dais at the Frozen Four. He had to laugh to keep from crying, to pinch himself to make sure it was real. This was the culmination of an amazing comeback, even if it ended one game short of his ultimate goal.

“I'd still trade this trophy in to play for that national championship, no disrespect to Hobey himself,” said LeBlanc, stroking the clean-shaven face that was covered by a beard only a day earlier. “I'm sure he would, too.”

To me, that picture is what's awesome about college hockey. That's what it's all about.

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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