La Mirada Native Chase De Leo Living The Dream Playing For Hometown Anaheim Ducks

 

LA MIRADA NATIVE Chase De Leo (right) is being defended by Mikael Granlund of the Nashville Predators in a Jan. 16 game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. It was the first game De Leo played for the Anaheim Ducks this past season. 

 

BY LOREN KOPFF • @LORENKOPFF ON TWITTER • May 13, 2020

Young athletes, regardless of age, always dream of the professional team or teams they want to play for. It’s a bonus when you get to play for the team you grew up idolizing and had season tickets for as long as you could remember.

Chase De Leo has been living that dream for the past two seasons as a member of the Anaheim Ducks organization. The La Mirada native has been playing hockey for over 10 years and has played for two National Hockey League teams since the 2015-1016 season-the Winnipeg Jets and the Ducks.

De Leo’s parents, John and Janie, own a wholesale plumbing supply company in La Mirada that has been around for 63 years and had no hockey background when their son was a kid. However, through the company, the De Leo’s had season tickets to the Ducks, the Anaheim Angels (as they were called at the time) and the Los Angeles Rams, when they were playing at Anaheim Stadium. On top of that, one of De Leo’s neighbors, who was friends with his parents, was playing ice hockey and told the aspiring player that maybe he should try the sport. That same friend, who recommended that De Leo play hockey, was good friends with Bob Hartley, the head coach of the Colorado Avalanche from 1998-2002. 

De Leo went to a Los Angeles Kings game one day when it was hosting the Avalanche and got to go to the Colorado locker room where he met former star players Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy, all of whom are in the NHL Hall of Fame, among others. From that point on, De Leo was convinced that this was something he wanted to do.

“That pretty much, I think, sealed the deal for me, getting to go to the game and seeing all those guys; the greats,” De Leo said.  “I actually have this VHS tape, I remember…it was a behind the scenes video of the Colorado Avalanche team that won those [Stanley Cup championships] with the guys that I mentioned.”

De Leo played roller hockey for the Orange County Blades, then slowly transitioned to ice hockey where he began his young career playing for the Norwalk Knights as a goalie at the now defunct Norwalk Ice Arena before switching positions. He remembered he wanted to be a goalie so bad and would ask his parents for goalie gloves and blockers for his birthdays and every Christmas. 

“I think we were super excited about it because he played roller hockey since he was probably about four and a half or five years old,” recalled Janie De Leo. “He would have these tournaments and it would be all day long outside in the hot sun, down in Irvine. So, it was nice; the fact of going to play ice hockey in the controlled cold environment was nice. We were excited that he wanted to try it. A bunch of his buddies played, so it just seemed like that would be the next thing for him to do.”

 

La Mirada native Chase De Leo began playing hockey in the early 2000s for the Norwalk Knights as a goalie.

 

“I remembered always racing home from school, trying to get my homework done as fast as possible, then going to my practice,” De Leo said of his early playing days. “I remembered having three private lessons. Then I would race out of there, shower, and then go straight to the Honda Center. I didn’t miss many Ducks games growing up. Obviously, that team with [Teemu] Selanne and Paul Kariya and Jiggy, Jean-Sebastien Giguere…I remembered standing on the glass at warm-ups trying to get sticks or pucks from guys. That was pretty special, to be able to put on that Ducks jersey [later on] for the first time and be a part of that organization obviously after being such a big fan.”

After beginning his hockey career in the late 2000s with the Knights, De Leo played for the Los Angeles Junior Kings before moving on to the Los Angeles Hockey Club, which was later called the Los Angeles Selects, where he won three national championships. The team would be around for seven or eight years, he recalls, and the reason for the success was that everyone put in a ton of work and sacrificed a lot.

De Leo went to Scott Avenue Elementary, then Granada Middle School, which is right by his parent’s house, and finally La Serna High. While at Granada, he played a little T-ball, but admitted he got bored with that and moved to hockey. He didn’t spend too much time at Granada because his mom would always sign him out so he could go to the tournaments and games. He still had to run the mile around the entire field in the back of Granada once a week in physical education, which he’ll never forget about. He had P.E. for first period and since he’s always been competitive, he would be sweaty the remainder of the day to the point where his mom would be ‘so disgusted’ with how sweaty he was when she picked him up from school. His favorite teacher was Mini Bajwa, who still teaches math there and other memories of going to Granada included rollerblading on the basketball courts, because the gates were often left open, and being nervous to go there and not being able to find his classes.

“It was not easy for sure,” De Leo said. “I think as you get older, you realize how much your parents sacrificed for you. Even back then, the teachers as well, having to get all the schoolwork ready for you. You’re going on a trip and I pretty much had to do all the schoolwork on my own on the weekends when I was at those tournaments.

“The weird part for me was school was always number one for me,” he later said. “My mom was always very hard on me when it came to school. I always had very good grades. I [always did] homework; I was always good on tests. Obviously, I missed a lot of school; I was able to take schoolwork with me.”

De Leo said he was always planning on going to college because it was what his parents wanted him to do. But at the same time, his parents didn’t have a hockey background and didn’t want to put too much pressure on their son one way or another. He knew he would have the support of his parents no matter what decision he made.

At the age of 15, De Leo was selected in the ninth round, the 192nd pick overall, by the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League Draft, He recalls that he and his parents really didn’t know what the WHL was.

“But we just knew that the team that just drafted me was Portland, it was in the United States and it wasn’t too far from California,” he said. “You can fly from Long Beach on Jet Blue and be there in two hours.”

“I was very unhappy because I wanted him to go to college and everybody had told us that was his quickest way to become a professional player…to go through the WHL,” Janie De Leo said. “It was a little bit of a battle, and I was winning for the most part.

“It’s funny because I even look back now and I see all his artwork from kindergarten, first grade, second grade and it was always all about ice hockey and all about that he was going to be in the NHL,” she continued. “It’s like he lived and breathed hockey from the time he started.”

Seeing Portland teammates Ryan Johansen, who currently plays for the Nashville Predators and was De Leo’s roommate at the time, Nino Niederreiter, who currently plays for the Carolina Hurricanes, and other soon-to-be NHL stars brought a huge smile to De Leo’s face.

At the same time, De Leo was doing the Top 40 camp for the National Development Team program for Team USA in Michigan. He had to make the big choice to do that or go to Denver University with best friend Eric Comrie who also played for the L.A. Hockey Club/Selects. De Leo had been offered a full scholarship to Denver University and was leaning towards that route. Comrie would end up getting drafted by Portland’s top rival in the WHL, the Tri-City Americans.

“I decided that I love Portland,” De Leo said. “I figured if I was going to try to make it to the NHL, I wanted to put all my eggs in one basket and just have no regrets. I just felt like playing the 82-game season with all those top NHL prospects was going to get me there the fastest. That’s what I decided to do with my family and obviously I’m thankful for my family just being there and being supportive.

“Looking back at it now, we’re all pretty fortunate and blessed with our families because being from Southern California, there wasn’t a ton of hockey here,” he later said. “So, we had to travel. Pretty much every single weekend, we were flying to different states and we were going to 

Canada, playing all these tournaments; all these teams, and then return home to California. Our parents definitely sacrificed a lot for us.”

Following his freshman year at La Serna, when he was playing for Portland, school was a big part of the organization and every day at the rink, De Leo would show up at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. There would be a tutor and he was able to do his high school work online. He had to do that for three hours every morning before working out and practicing with the team.

De Leo didn’t graduate from La Serna because his mother recalls getting letters from the school saying they would consider her son being truant from all the times she had to excuse him for the tournaments and games.

“That’s when I just went [to La Serna] and turned all his books in and signed him out and that was the end of it,” she said. “That was the first semester of his sophomore year. I had to make sure when I pulled him out of La Serna and put him in an online school, it had be an NCAA Division I school. His high school diploma was actually from National University.”

“Even when I graduated high school, it’s kind of funny looking back now,” De Leo said. “My high school graduation was me walking into the locker room and my teammates gave me the diploma and my cap.”

De Leo was drafted by the Jets in the June 2014 NHL Entry Draft, something that he called ‘a special time’.  He and his family went to the draft at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Other Portland teammates drafted that year were Keegan Iverson, Alex Schoenborn and Dominic Turgeon. The year before, Comrie was also selected by the Jets as well as Portland teammates Oliver Bjorkstrand, Brendan Burke, Seth Jones and Nic Petan, another of his best friends.

“It was definitely pretty special because the chances of that are pretty slim,” De Leo said of his friends being selected by the same team. “There are 31 teams and the chances of that were not in my favor. But the other thing that my parents were hoping for…they wanted me to be drafted by the Anaheim Ducks or the L.A. Kings just because they wanted me to be able to be close to home. But obviously, my parents were just so happy for me; that they sacrificed everything for me to get to that point.”

De Leo said he learned a lot in Winnipeg, especially driving in the snow for the first time and shoveling driveways. He added that hockey there was ‘eye-opening’, and people would recognize him and his roommates while just going to the store whereas that would be less likely in Southern California. He said you almost felt like a celebrity or a star as little kids would come up to you and ask for a picture or an autograph and added that the fan base there is the biggest thing they have. He even remembers when he would be at a restaurant with his family or teammates, people would offer to pay for his meal. 

Every late December and early January, De Leo would always watch the World Junior Championships and remembered wishing and praying he could play for Team USA someday. He got that opportunity but was drafted with the 1996 birth year because there was a cutoff and his birthday is in October. He went to the camp in Lake Placid in the summer and was roommates with Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres and John Hayden of the New Jersey Devils. That team also included Austin Matthews, the star player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. De Leo said he knew it was going to be tough to make the team, but also knew from day one that was a goal. 

“The hockey world is such a small world,” De Leo said. “We travelled so much, we played in so many tournaments and I did so many USA festivals in the summer where you meet so many guys that are older than you. I always had a late birthday, so I was always one of the younger guys on my teams.”

As if things couldn’t get better for De Leo, then came the wee hours of the morning of Mar. 20, 2016 when he was called up to the Jets. De Leo had just played the third of three straight games in as many nights for the top American Hockey League team of the Jets, the Manitoba Moose, which was flying back from Texas on a Saturday night with a layover in Minneapolis. The team would then be flying back to Winnipeg early the next morning. 

“I decided it would be a good idea to just stay awake after the game on Saturday rather than sleep for two hours,” De Leo said.  “I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat anything after the game. I would just eat something at the airport and sleep on the plane ride home because we had that Sunday off.”

The Moose landed in Minneapolis around 5:00 a.m. and inside the terminal, De Leo was approached by head coach Keith McCambridge, who shook De Leo’s hand, smiled, and congratulated him on being called up by the Jets. Then he told De Leo that the Jets would be playing the Ducks.

“It’s my dream come true,” De Leo said. “Then I asked him, ‘when is the game’? He said it was at 2:00 today in Winnipeg and there was going to be somebody picking me up at the airport as soon as we land and take me straight to the game.”

De Leo immediately called his parents and his grandmother to tell them the news. They didn’t have enough time to get on the plane and fly to Winnipeg. De Leo remembers shaking a lot and not sleeping on the flight to Winnipeg with tons of adrenaline pumping. He was picked up by the Jets assistant of player development, Mike Keane and his wife, and they went straight to the Bell MTS Place and then the locker room. De Leo, who had missed the pregame meeting, remembers having just a protein bar and a Gatorade before putting his gear on, which was still soaking wet from playing the night before.

“Paul Maurice, the head coach, came up to me and said, ‘you earned it, enjoy it, have fun’,” De Leo recalls. “My adrenaline just starting pumping. I pretty much played off adrenaline and the next thing you know, I’m out there playing against [Ryan] Getzlaf and all these guys that I grew up watching. It was definitely a dream come true.”

“It’s indescribable; it was an unbelievable feeling,” Janie De Leo said. “For him to get that chance was just so exciting and so emotional. We were so disappointed when he got called up the first time because we couldn’t get the game on t.v. I don’t know what the reason was at the time. We were so frustrated.”

De Leo, a center, played 13 shifts for a total of 10:03 against the Ducks and played two days later against the Vancouver Canucks, in British Columbia where his parents flew up to see him. In that game, he played 12 shifts for a total of 6:47. Shortly after that, he was sent back down to Manitoba. Those would be the only two games he played for the Jets.

“When you’re up in the NHL, it’s honestly the best thing in the world,” De Leo said. “You get treated like royalty, you stay in the nicest hotels, you get the nicest meals. And obviously, being in the NHL is my dream and my main goal and focus. That’s the best place to be and I’m the happiest for sure.”

De Leo spent three seasons with the Moose, playing in 211 regular season games with 45 goals and 62 assists. He also scored twice and assisted on six other goals in nine playoff games in 2018. But his story would continue to get better in the offseason.

It was a Saturday morning and De Leo was sitting on the couch at his parent’s house in La Mirada. The De Leo family was just hanging out when he got a call from the general manager of the Jets. De Leo said he thought it was odd that he would be calling at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday in the middle of the summer. The GM wanted to thank De Leo for everything and let him know that he had been traded. At first, he didn’t say where he was going. But after a few seconds, the words Anaheim Ducks rang out of his mouth and De Leo began shaking. 

“My mom saw that I was shaking, and my face turned red,” De Leo said. “I just said ‘thank you very much for everything’ to the GM of Winnipeg and he just wished me best of luck. Then I hung up the phone and told my parents I got traded to Anaheim and I’m pretty sure my mom and sister started crying.”

“We were so happy,” Janie De Leo remembers. “It was like the best day of our life. You would have thought that when he got drafted by Winnipeg, that would have been the best day of our life. There was no comparison. We were so happy to have him back home on the West Coast and playing for the team that he grew up [being a fan of]. Our roof could have blown off our house and we would have been so excited.”

De Leo said that it’s pretty special to be able to play in Southern California where it all started for him and where he calls home. Soon after he got the call from the GM, David McNab, the Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations for the Ducks, called him, followed by the equipment manager. He says it’s a very fast process where many people on the outside don’t quite understand how it works.

“I’ve never been traded before, so I didn’t really know what to expect going into it,” De Leo said. “I always thought being traded I would be scared or nervous. But I think being traded…it helped being traded to my hometown team where it made things easier where I could just drive to the arena. I was kind of familiar with a couple of the guys like Ryan Getzlaf and Andrew Cogliano. I would train and skate with them in the summer. That made the transition a little bit easier for me.”

In the fall of 2018, De Leo was with the San Diego Gulls, the top minor league team of the Ducks, and had a different role there than what he was used to. Dallas Eakins, the coach of the Gulls at the time who is now the head coach of the Ducks, sat him down one day and asked if he could embrace the role of the third line and be a solid penalty kill guy. He encouraged De Leo that if he could embrace those roles, it would be the ticket to being called up to the Ducks.

He immediately went to work and never complained about ice time or anything else.

“Whatever I got, I took and ran with it and tried to do the most with it,” De Leo said. “Obviously, he had a lot of NHL experience, so I knew if he told me that was always going to work for me, I was going to just shut up and do it.”

On Oct. 16 of that year, De Leo would find himself in a similar situation than what he experienced when he was called up to the Jets. The Gulls had a game in San Diego on a Saturday night and De Leo would get called up after the game to play for the Ducks. De Leo had to take a car service, which the Gulls had waiting for him, and go to the Ontario Airport as there were no more flights out of San Diego that night. He stayed at the Doubletree Hotel near the Ontario Airport for two hours, woke up at 3:00 Sunday morning and then fly from Ontario to Edmonton.

“We landed in Edmonton and I remember going to Tim Hortons, had two chicken snack wraps and called myself an Uber,” De Leo remembered. “It was a pretty far drive from the airport to Rogers Place in Edmonton. It was about an hour drive.”

Two days later, De Leo was sent back to San Diego, though he would be called back up on Nov. 6 and sent back down the next day. De Leo’s performance with the Gulls was what any NHL team wanted to see from any of their young players. He played in 66 of the 68 games, led the team in assists (35) and was tied for second on the team in goals (20). His 55 points were second to Sam Carrick’s 61.

De Leo was hoping to build off the success of his first season with the Gulls by earning a spot on the Ducks opening-night roster when the 2019-2020 season began. But he was assigned to San Diego on Oct. 1 with the season beginning three days later. Even with that, he said discouraged isn’t the right word when describing how he felt at the beginning of the season. In fact, De Leo has a tattoo on his arm that reads ‘Against All Odds’. 

In 51 games this season with the Gulls, De Leo scored 10 goals and had 15 assists. Then on Jan. 10 of this year, he was called up to Anaheim and was with the Ducks until Jan. 18. On Jan. 16, he played his first regular season game with the Ducks at the Nashville Predators. He had nearly 15 minutes of ice time and took one shot on goal. De Leo would be called up again on Jan. 26 and sent back down on Jan. 29. 

The Gulls began this season slow, losing their first six games of the season but began to turn it around and was playing its best hockey before the pandemic shut everything down. When the season was stopped, the Gulls were 30-19 with six overtime losses and two shootout losses. They were tied for third place in the Pacific Division with the Stockton Heat. The team was playing the Tucson Roadrunners on the road and had heard rumors about the NBA players getting sick and as De Leo pointed out, the next thing they knew, everything just hit the fan and escalated quickly. 

The team flew back to San Diego and the staff told the team they would keep them in the loop of what the plan was and what was going on. The season was put on hold and the organization told the players that they could return to their summer residences.

“I just wanted to be home and be close to [my family],” De Leo said. “We live on a little farm; we have 30 animals. So, there’s some room here for me where I can shoot pucks in the backyard and I have a little workout area in my garage rather than being in my condo in downtown San Diego where I didn’t really have any facility that I could use.”

After missing out on birthdays or spending time with his grandmother when he was in Portland, De Leo said it’s nice to spend more time with his family and working out every day as the season is on hold. He added that he feels there’s so much time to do nothing where now is the time to improve and get better and push harder and try to get an edge on other players.

“Obviously, my main goal is to be on the Anaheim Ducks full-time and to reach my dream of being in the NHL,” De Leo said. “I want to put the work in and do whatever it takes to be there full time. It’s a business, though. You can’t really be discouraged by anything because once you’re discouraged, it’s pretty much over for you.

“I think that once you’re satisfied with where you’re at, that’s where things go wrong,” he continued. “You should always strive and push for more. I’m never going to stop pushing and trying to get better and make that team full-time, no matter what.”

De Leo, who signed a one-year deal with Anaheim last year is a restricted free agent. He checks in with the Gulls every two days. Each player has been texting the trainer making sure if they have any symptoms or if they’re not feeling well. De Leo, who is big fitness workout person, has been talking a lot to the Gulls strength and conditioning coaches, making sure he has a good program in place so he could be ahead of the game. He says there are so many things that are up in the air right now and because of the coronavirus situation, nobody can really prepare for this or know what’s going to happen.

One of the next goals for De Leo is to play a game at the Honda Center. He says he wants to be able to give back to the hockey community in Orange County where he knows what it takes to be a youth hockey player. Feels he would be a good example with his family being born and raised in Southern California as well as being a season ticket holder growing up.

“We just remain hopeful for him,” Janie De Leo said. “For his sake, he is so determined and he’s going to be the fastest, hard-working guy at the training camp if he gets that opportunity. Hopefully at that time, it will be his time. He certainly deserves it; that’s for sure.”

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