By David Drew, Published: Thursday, January 27, 2011
KALAMAZOO — Mike Leone said “it’s kind of crazy” how everything happened.
For the past few years, Leone has been a bit of a journeyman, spending time in the North American Hockey League and in NCAA Division III in his pursuit of one day playing for a major Division I program.
“It was always my dream to go to a Division I school,” Leone said. “Academically, I could never get the grades to make it.”
With a little studying, some networking and a lot of hard work, Leone’s aspirations were realized this season when he officially joined Western Michigan University’s hockey team.
“It really is a blessing to be here,” Leone said with hints of relief and gratitude in his tone. “I do everything I can to help this program.”
Leone contacted WMU coach Jeff Blashill last year about joining the team, and after Blashill received a strong reference from his friend and Leone’s former coach of the St. Louis Bandits, Jon Cooper, Leone was given the chance he yearned for.
“He basically said, ‘You’re on the team, but you’re going to have to compete. There’s other guys, and you’re going to have to work hard and be in shape,’” Leone recalled of an early conversation with Blashill. “I really tried to train as hard as I could. I came in the best shape possible and it all worked out.”
Struggling through the early days of his academic career to mature into a more responsible player and person built the kind of character that eased Blashill’s decision to bring on the Dearborn Heights native.
“Why I wanted an extra number to an already full roster is because he’d been through a lot already and sometimes you have younger athletes who don’t know how hard you have to work to be successful and that aren’t necessarily self-motivated,” Blashill said. “(In Leone) I saw a person who had matured from a person who, in the past, was self-admittedly a little bit lazy. He had grown up and was hard-working and determined to have success.”
Leone played for Texarkana and St. Louis of the NAHL from 2005-08 and tallied 35 goals and 78 assists.
He then went to Utica College and transferred to Adrian College before heading to St. Louis last spring to another school to focus on his academics before joining the Broncos.
After working so hard to make WMU’s squad, Leone’s nerve was tested again when he was forced to sit out until mid-December due to eligibility issues associated with transferring.
“We found out early he wasn’t going to be eligible right away and it crushed him,” Blashill said. “It was hard for him to hear that. I told him he had to wait four months for something he’ll have for two-and-a-half years and it will be worth it in the long run. He understood that.”
Leone was left with two options: Sulk about not playing, or spend the time training and preparing to help the Broncos when he could play.
He chose the latter.
“There were a lot of away trips to start the season and I trained with our strength and conditioning coach. I took advantage of that,” Leone said.
Western Michigan junior Kyle O’Kane and sophomores Ben Warda and Ben Miller played with Leone on the St. Louis Bandits, and the group won two NAHL championships together.
O’Kane never questioned Leone’s talent and is glad to see his longtime friend join him on WMU’s squad.
“He’s worked hard to get where he is,” O’Kane said. “I know he has the talent. The kid set me up for 40 goals when we played together in juniors. He’s a great playmaker.”
While he might’ve known his talent level, it wasn’t until Leone saw his first Division I goal get past a goaltender last Friday against Lake Superior State that he experienced the feeling he’d been searching for.
“That feeling that I belong here and I contribute is a really good feeling. It was unbelievable,” said Leone, who has a goal and an assist in eight games this season.
“My mom always tells me she can’t believe I’m here,” Leone said. “I’m just taking it in stride and doing everything I can to contribute. Coach (Blashill) gave me a chance. Not many people would do that — bring in someone who sat out. I worked hard to get here and I’m blessed.”
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