The road to Dallas began for Jackson Leef as soon as he was upright, and almost surely before he could properly diagram a breakout, unless it was on the wall with crayons.
Forget the National Hockey League. Youre nobody till youre 2 years old and putting up big numbers in the National Hallway League.
Yeah, says Leef with a chuckle. As soon as I knew how to walk I was on roller skates around the house with the hockey stick. Pretty funny.
Now hes 18 years old and down in Dallas – or rather, Frisco, a Dallas suburb – and you laugh at him at your peril. Hes a first-year forward for the Texas Tornado of the North American Hockey League, one of the top two juniors circuits in the U.S., and hes well, sort of taking to it.
Assuming 11 goals and 23 points in his first 24 games constitutes taking to it.
Im really liking it, says Leef, a 6-foot, 186-pound Fort Wayne native who went to Northrop. When I first got here the speed change was kind of hard to get used to, but its been getting a lot easier. Its starting to slow down. But its definitely a big step up from last year.
Last year was Cleveland for Leef, where he played for the Barons, a triple-A midget club. Before that, it was the usual progression for a kid who ties his fortunes to a pair of skates and chunk of lumber: mites, peewees, all the way back to the treacherous hallways of home.
Hockeys been the sport for me for my whole life, Leef says. Ive never looked back. Ive played other sports, but hockey has always been the one.
It is, after all, in his blood. His dad, Ron, was a star for the Komets in the 1980s, a nifty forward with a nose for the net. Not everything Jackson knows about the game came from him, but an awful lot of it did.
My dad was always there, Leef recalls. He knew the game, and hed always push me to go to the next level. He knows the game more than anybody I know. Hes kind of the guy to look up to.
And so, yes, Ron took his son to his share of Komets games growing up, and now his path is Jacksons path. Eventually, Jackson says, hed like to play in college, then turn pro. Where he is now, therefore, is exactly where he wanted to be at this point.
Its a good place to be at the moment.
Last weekend, the Tornado dropped a pair to Topeka, and it was something of a landmark event. Before that, theyd won 15 games in a row and hadnt lost in regulation in two months.
It was a good run, says Leef, the third-leading scorer on the team. The vibe in the locker room has just been unbelievable here. All the guys here are pretty good guys, and that makes it easy, pretty much.
The main thing is everybody just hates losing, so even if were behind in a game, we just go out there on the ice and make it happen.
And him personally?
I like to think Im a playmaker, says Leef, sounding very much like the kind of player his dad was. I can put the puck in the net, and my hockey sense is pretty good in the offensive zone. I always seem to find guys in the front of the net.
Ive had some success here. But its pretty much coaching and stuff. Weve got a great coach here (Tony Curtale), and hes teaching me the game and stuff and making the game so much easier.
And the road, so much smoother.