Most hockey fans remember Michael Leighton as the goaltender who gave up Patrick Kane's Stanley Cup-winning goal in 2010. Now he's one shutout away from a much more favorable place in history.
Leighton is on the verge of breaking the all-time American Hockey League shutout record that Hockey Hall of Famer Johnny Bower has held since 1957. The Rockford (Illinois) IceHogs goalie can pick up his 46th AHL shutout as soon as Friday, which would break one of the oldest records on the books.
Like Kevin Costner's Crash Davis in "Bull Durham," Leighton has been near the pinnacle of his sport in the show and done well enough in the minors to challenge a record. But the Crash Davis of hockey knows Bower's background from his grandfather's stories and his own research and appreciates this achievement, which is even more significant now than it was back in the 1950s when goalies played every game.
"I want to be the best in whatever league I play in," Leighton said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "I think this is the 80th year of the AHL: That's a long road of hockey. To be at the top in any category is definitely an honor."
It's even more of an honor because it's Bower's mark. After a stellar AHL career, Bower won three Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs, two Vezina Trophies as the NHL's best goaltender and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976.
Perhaps Leighton should thank Bower's wife, Nancy, for this chance to break the shutout record. When the Maple Leafs picked him up in 1958, Bower didn't want to leave his AHL haunts in Cleveland and relented only when Nancy told him to go.
"She told me: 'Really, John, when you thought of it when you were a child, you always had the ambition to have your name engraved in the Stanley Cup. Maybe you should go,'" the 91-year-old Bower said in a phone interview. "They only wanted me for one year, but I stayed for 13."
Leighton is a journeyman who has played for the Chicago Blackhawks, Nashville Predators, Philadelphia Flyers and Carolina Hurricanes and spent time in eight different organizations plus Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. He came two victories away from the Cup with Philadelphia but has played only two NHL games since.
The 34-year-old Leighton reached 45 shutouts in 428 games to Bower's 592. At 91, Bower doesn't have an acute awareness of Leighton's career, but his daughter Cynthia told her father about the record and relayed a good luck message from him on the AHL's Facebook page.
"That is a big honor for the young man," Cynthia Sudeyko said in a phone interview with the AP. "My dad was quite thrilled to know" his record was tied.
The record means a lot to Leighton, who has become a mentor to the young players in the Blackhawks' organization playing in Rockford. His goal is to get back to the NHL as a backup, but he doesn't know if that'll ever happen and wants to serve as an example as long as he can.
"It's just to show these young guys that, yeah I'm 34 years old and I'm still working as hard as anyone on the ice and I'm doing my job," Leighton said. "Hopefully these young guys see that and take what they see from me and put it in their own agenda and their own game plan and say, 'If I want to be like him or I want to make it to the NHL, I need to work as hard as him and have the same attitude as him that he wants to get better and he's still 34 years old.'"