ST. CLOUD – After the accident, coach Bob Motzko immediately began pondering how to give Drew LeBlanc the emotional support he would require. The St. Cloud State redshirt senior had suffered a gruesome compound fracture of his lower left leg — both bones broken, protruding through his skin — and was facing seven months of rehabilitation.
LeBlanc had surgery following that game against Wisconsin on Nov. 5, 2011, and his coach expected he would want to take time off from school. Two days later, Motzko arrived at practice to find LeBlanc at the rink in a wheelchair.
“When a player gets injured and is done for a while, you have to support him,’’ Motzko said. “But he supported us. He never left our side. I remember watching him do that and thinking, ‘That’s not normal.’ ’’
That thought has reoccured to Motzko at times since. By going above and beyond the norm, Le-Blanc has helped steer St. Cloud State to its first appearance in the Frozen Four, beginning Thursday in Pittsburgh with a semifinal game against top-ranked Quinnipiac.
The Hermantown, Minn., native chose to return to the Huskies for a fifth season rather than turn pro. He welcomed a pair of freshmen as linemates, guiding them toward breakout seasons. A winner of multiple academic awards, LeBlanc also has been student-teaching at two schools while being named a top-three finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and WCHA player of the year.
Rather than lamenting his fate, LeBlanc spent last season dispensing advice and encouragement to his teammates while rehabilitating. LeBlanc said he instantly knew he wanted to return, and he is delighted to be co-captain of a team that has secured a 25-15-1 record as well as the first WCHA regular-season championship — shared with the Gophers — and first NCAA regional title in program history.
A much better finish
“No athlete wants to go out like that, playing 10 games and then watching the rest of the year,’’ said LeBlanc, who leads the nation with 37 assists and is seventh in scoring with 50 points. “It was a hard year for me, but I remained optimistic through the whole thing.
“The way this year has turned out, breaking my leg last year was almost a blessing in disguise. It’s been a great ride.’’
Even before the injury, Motzko could see LeBlanc’s uncommon devotion to St. Cloud State and to discovering his potential as a player. This year, the coach’s appreciation deepened as LeBlanc mentored rookie linemates Jonny Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila and reached career highs in several statistical categories, including plus-minus (plus-14) and goals (13).
“We wouldn’t be [in the Frozen Four] today if he wouldn’t have come back,’’ Motzko said. “He could have signed [a pro contract] after his junior year. And taking his senior year away, that ripped his heart out. By coming back, he sacrificed for our university and our team, and that’s something you don’t see today. I couldn’t be happier for him.’’
LeBlanc grew up in the shadow of Minnesota Duluth, where his mother, Paula, worked in the athletic department. Though LeBlanc considered becoming a Bulldog, Motzko sold him on a Huskies program with big aspirations.
During his junior season, LeBlanc scored 39 points in 38 games, which got him invited to the Chicago Blackhawks’ NHL development camp and fueled expectations for a grand senior year. The injury happened in the 10th game while he was chasing a puck. Though several weeks passed before he could even ride an exercise bike, he came to the locker room every day and spent practices on the bench.
A history maker
The second player in program history to become a top-three finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in Division I college hockey, LeBlanc has set a Huskies career record with 169 games played and is second in career assists (105) and sixth in career points (147). He has had Brodzinski, Kossila or both on his line most of this season. With the help of his passes and his guidance, Brodzinski has scored a team-high 22 goals, Kossila 15.
“Sometimes, I’ll just be at the net, and the puck will somehow find my stick,’’ Brodzinski said. “I don’t know how he does it. He made us comfortable and got us into the flow of things right away.’’
That ability serves LeBlanc well in his off-ice pursuits, too. The first person to win both the WCHA’s player of the year and student-athlete of the year awards, he teaches algebra at St. Cloud Apollo High School every weekday he is not on the road with the Huskies. LeBlanc’s father, Guy, is a math instructor at Hermantown High School, and Todd Theisen — who teaches three of LeBlanc’s classes at Apollo — said his gifts as a student teacher have outshined his stardom among the students.
LeBlanc plans to teach math and coach when his playing days have ended. But this weekend, he is intent on making history.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to bring this program to new heights,’’ he said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far. But we’re not satisfied yet.’’