Well, that was odd.
On July 7, 2010, former Red Wing defenseman Brett Lebda was signed by the Toronto Maple Leafs to a two-year deal worth an astronomical $2.9M (or, if you prefer, 45% of an Ericsson annually). Almost immediately, and by fans not in Toronto, the deal was panned as one of the worst in recent memory. It brought about Jeff Finger-level LOLs. It wasn’t Brett Lebda’s fault — he took what was offered, just like you and I would.
Just a few days shy of a year later, having already fallen out of favor in Toronto and essentially becoming their expensive version of Jakub Kindl, he was traded to Nashville with Robert Slaney, a guy that split last season between the AHL and ECHL, for very useful former Predator Cory Franson and the concussed Matthew Lombardi. Again, not Brett Lebda’s fault — he was relied upon to be something that he wasn’t capable of being and couldn’t live up to extraordinary expectations.
39 days later, and without even having a jersey number assigned to him in Music City, he was bought out and was again in search of employment. Per the CBA, the Predators will pay him 2/3 of his remaining salary over the next two years. Which means he’ll get nearly a million dollars NOT to play in Nashville, no matter what kind of contract he signs with another team — or, even, another league. That’s not Brett Lebda’s fault, either — he wasn’t even given a chance to redeem himself or prove his detractors wrong.
It may be chic to make fun of Brett Lebda, and point out all of the boneheaded things he’s done in six NHL seasons. Such as:
:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda went -3 in a game that his team won 9-3?
:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda got in his only NHL fight… and was given a misconduct for not having his jersey tied down?
:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda got lit up and interviewed a sportscaster whose name he couldn’t remember?
:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda scored his only goal of the season, and that’s all that was needed to yank Alex Auld?
:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda gathered his bestest bros and ate Lucky Charms…like a boss?
:: ‘Memba when Brett Lebda was a speedy 5-foot-9 Midwesterner born in 1982 who played collegiate hockey, went undrafted and was forced to look to other industries for employment? Oh wait, sorry.
And maybe that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for Brett Lebda. For me, personally, he was “one of us” that made it. His hard work and hockey skill allowed him to beat the odds and avoid becoming a shoe salesman. Or an accountant.
Or a casting director.
The fact is, he’s accomplished more in 400+ NHL games than 99% of us could ever dream. And all he needed was a chance.
Like so many of us, he toiled in a suburban Michigan high school and made sacrifices so that he could spend as much time as possible on the ice. He stayed semi-local, and chose to play hockey and go to school in Indiana, at the venerable Notre Dame, despite only a handful of NHLers coming from the program. He played all four seasons for the Irish after not having been drafted in 2000. Or 2001. Or ever.
It wasn’t until after graduation in 2004 that the Detroit Red Wings offered him a shot as a free agent. The rest, as they say, is history.
He earned a contract, turned pro and joined the Griffins (since the lockout wouldn’t allow him to hop directly to the Red Wings). When NHL hockey resumed in 2005-06, guess who found himself on the opening night roster for his once-hometown Detroit Red Wings? Brett Lebda, that’s who.
Guess who scored a goal in his first NHL game — the first NHL game in over a year. Brett Lebda did.
Guess who helped pick up the slack following a terrifying incident with fellow blueliner Jiri Fischer. Brett Lebda did.
Guess who was trusted enough to play in all of the post-season games in his rookie year? Brett Lebda was.
Guess who had the chance to be mentored by childhood hero Chris Chelios? Brett Lebda.
Guess who has more Stanley Cup rings on his hand than Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perrault, Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, Pat LaFontaine, and Mike Gartner combined? Brett Lebda, that’s who.
While that last one might be a tad unfair because Brett Lebda is by no means a better hockey player than those fine gentlemen, it’s important to remember he’s not nearly as bad as it’s become trendy to pretend he is. Was he overpaid when he jumped north of the border? Yeah, probably. But imagine being Brett Lebda… or me… or any of us who had an eerily similar upbringing. Would you jump at the chance to play for another Original Six team and get a hefty paycheck for the privilege? You bet your ass you would.
So here’s hoping Mr. Lebda lands on his feet, if for no other reason than to continue to give us speedy 5-foot-9 Midwesterners a little bit of hope as we stare at the walls of our cubicles or offices or audition rooms daydreaming we’re at morning skate. The closest I ever got to beginning a list of accolades like his was an invitation to attend Toronto St. Michael’s Majors camp in 1997 when they came back from quasi-extinction (an invitation I didn’t take because I was terrified) and a modest (at best) collegiate stat line that features more penalty minutes than goals scored. Brett Lebda is one of us that made good and plugged away until it happened and that, friends, deserves our respect.