AHLers Leighton, Subban would 'jump' at chance to play Olympic hockey

AHLers Leighton, Subban would 'jump' at chance to play Olympic hockey

Michael Leighton spent part of Tuesday afternoon reflecting on a 16-year career in professional hockey with four NHL teams and nine others in the American league, where the Canadian goalie has made history and continues to ply his trade.

He also spoke about the disappointment of not having the chance to represent Canada as a 19-year-old at the 2001 world junior championship in Russia.

"There was a pretty big lineup for goalies my age to be in the world juniors," Leighton said over the phone from Charlotte, N.C. "For me, to put that Canada sweater on would mean everything."

Leighton, who turns 36 in May, could still realize that dream should the NHL stick by Monday's decision to not participate in the PyeongChang Olympics next February and Hockey Canada approaches him about an "unbelievable" opportunity to play for his country.

As a pending free agent, the Carolina Hurricanes netminder could choose to re-sign with the Charlotte Checkers or another American Hockey League team if NHL owners make their players unavailable for the Olympic tournament in South Korea and Hockey Canada pursues minor leaguers along with European-based pros and prospects from the Canadian junior ranks.

"It's still kind of surreal," said Leighton, who became the AHL's all-time shutout leader with 46 on March 5, 2016. "I still don't believe [the NHL will not play in the Olympics. "I thought we [the NHL and NHL Players' Association] still had lots of time to make that decision.

"I was questioning to play last year … but things have still been going well for me and now when I hear [of a potential Olympic opportunity] it makes me want to for sure play next year. Playing in the Olympics could definitely be a nice end to the career."

While Leighton admitted it's time to think about how the lives of his wife and three children are being affected by his hockey career, he also understands the leadership and experience he could offer a squad of non-NHLers at the Olympics.

"I've played in a lot of different scenarios," he said, pointing to long overtime games, the 2010 Stanley Cup final with Philadelphia, 16 NHL playoff appearances and 27 more in the AHL. "I can bring that old-age leadership to a team.

"I've played on the big ice in [Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in 2013-14] and had some success" with a 1.74 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 42 contests. "I really felt comfortable on the [Olympic-size] ice in the European game."

Leighton was playing in the Ukraine during the 2014 Sochi Olympics and compared each of Canada's starts to an all-star game, including its 3-0 gold-medal victory over Sweden.

"All four lines could score, grind, work hard and in international hockey that's what you want," he said. "Putting on the [Canadian] jersey means a lot but you have to produce."

Olympics among childhood dreams

Leighton's 2.17 GAA this season ranks sixth among goalies with at least 23 appearances and he's tied for fifth in all-time AHL wins with 232.

Leighton, who hails from Petrolia, Ont., has a 37-43-14 record in 111 NHL regular-season outings for Chicago, Nashville, Philadelphia and Carolina with a 2.98 GAA and four shutouts.

Meanwhile, Vancouver Canucks prospect Jordan Subban was playing junior for the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League in 2014 and recalled the excitement of watching his older brother and fellow defenceman P.K. compete for Canada in Sochi.

Growing up in Rexdale, Ont., near Toronto, the younger Subban said he dreamed of three things: Playing in the NHL, winning a Stanley Cup and playing at the Olympics.

"I think you just want to see the best players [at the Olympics]. It'll be a lot different watching it next year knowing the NHL guys won't be there," he said.

The closest the 22-year-old Subban has come to experiencing the feel of an Olympics was playing for Team Ontario at the 2011 Canada Winter Games in Halifax, where he scored four goals in six games.

"The athletes stayed in a village [like at an Olympics] and we supported our province, watching [athletes in] different events," said Subban, who represented Canada by winning gold at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial (under-18) Tournament.

"It's a lot of pressure [playing for Canada]. It's not often that you get the feeling of owing it to millions of people to do your job and be the best you can be, but it's very satisfying."

Subban said he "would jump at the opportunity" to play for Canada in Pyeongchang under a Plan B scenario that Hockey Canada president and CEO Tom Renney said in a statement on Monday the organization has developed should NHL players not compete.

Subban is 15th in scoring among AHL defencemen this season with 35 points, including 16 goals, for a Utica Comets outfit battling for a playoff berth.

Drafted by the Canucks in the fourth round in 2013, he was promoted to the NHL for eight days this past January, experiencing the team's culture but didn't see any game action. Subban did learn how hard NHL players work at their craft and has continued to take that approach since his return to the AHL.

"I've worked hard the last two seasons to become a more well-rounded player," he said. "I'm using my stick better now, working harder in [the defensive zone] and working more efficiently. I'm more focused and have started building better habits at practice."