Leon brings depth, skill to hockey

By James Cantagallo

When Nick Leon was cut from the Robert Morris University hockey team last season, he wanted to keep playing. That is when NIU came into the picture.

“When I got cut from Robert Morris I wanted a better education to jump into,” Leon said. “That was a big draw, for sure, and I just wanted to play with some of my buddies, and I knew a couple of other kids on the team. Plus with [coach] Chuck [Rinaldo] and [head scout David Goldsmith] last year they were really accepting, saying ‘Come out and practice with us.’ They made it feel like home from day one.”

While Leon was unable to play right away and had to sit out the fall semester, he began practicing with the team to get used to the players.

“He fit in well with us right away,” said team captain Nick Remley. “That was nice. He definitely gave us a lot more depth.”

Rinaldo felt the midseason addition of Leon last year was big because it gave NIU another offensive weapon. In only 14 games with the team, he scored 10 goals and dished out four assists.

Heading into this season, Leon, now a senior forward for NIU, can feel the difference of having a full offseason and preseason with the Huskies.

“Last year I started out kind of slow,” Leon said. “Everyone was in shape and in game shape and I had to sit out the first semester. This year I can definitely feel the difference having been with everyone through tryouts and training camp.”

That difference has led to a fast start for Leon, who has piled up nine goals through 12 games this season.

“Nick is having a great year,” Rinaldo said. “He’s a great hockey player and he is a type of guy that we depend on him for his offensive ability. He is a vocal guy that makes a big impact on the team. We wouldn’t have the success we are having without him. We just need him to keep pushing forward and keep putting pucks in the net.”

Remley believes the addition of Leon on the team’s top line makes it one of the best in the league. Leon would attribute being on that top line as a reason for his success this season.

“Playing with Justin [Rucinski] helps a lot,” Leon said. “He draws the other team to him, so he opens up space on the ice when he moves. Plus, coach giving me power play chances helps. We have a pretty solid team this year, and [when] playing with good players good things are bound to happen.”

While that may be the reason Leon feels he is successful, Remley believes there are other reasons.

“He is really talented,” Remley said. “He works hard. People who are talented and work hard, that combination, they’re going to be a good hockey player. Not only that, he is not afraid to do the little things, like taking a hit to get the puck out of the zone. He’s looking to do that, which goes a long way.”

Moving forward Leon will continue to be a vital piece for the Huskies.

“He is very important,” Rinaldo said. “We depend on him a lot and he knows it. He just has to keep working hard and show people how to put pucks in the net and hopefully guys will follow and do the same.”

Many players set personal statistical goals for themselves, but Leon is different. While he said it may be cool to lead the team in points, goals or assists, his personal goals revolve around the team’s success.

“It is definitely tough to set personal goals,” Leon said. “When obviously the only thing on your mind is trying to get to regionals, win regionals and win the [Mid-Atlantic College Hockey Association]. My personal goals are more team-oriented than anything. I played for Robert Morris and we played for nationals two years in a row, it would be really cool to go play in another national tournament. That would be nice and something that is real fun.”