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Jordan Leopold, an NTDP Pioneer, Returns Home to Minnesota

By Dan Scifo - Special to USAHockey.com, 03/09/15, 4:15PM EDT

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Leopold played on the first NTDP team in 1997-98 and for various national teams

Minnesota is home for Jordan Leopold.

It always has been for the Golden Valley, Minnesota, native, even through nine stints on eight different NHL teams.

Following a March 2 deadline deal, Leopold was traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets to his hometown Minnesota Wild, an emotional experience for the 34-year-old defenseman.

“This is pretty special,” Leopold said. “I’m at the tail end of my career, and you always dream of going home. I’ve always dreamt of it, I knew it was maybe a possibility, but the fact that it’s a reality is something special.”

The rest of the country shared the experience with Leopold and his family, who remained in Minnesota while he played in Columbus, thanks to a heartfelt letter written by his 11-year-old daughter that gained national attention. Leopold’s daughter Jordyn drafted a letter to the Wild in January, months before the deadline, asking the team to trade for his father so he could be closer to his family.

“The letter was written by my daughter in January, and anybody who has kids knows they take things upon themselves sometimes,” said Leopold, who has three daughters and a son. “The letter never got sent to anyone. It’s kind of a cute story, and it’s something our family shared. She was writing persuasively at school and thought it was a good idea to write a persuasive letter.

“I didn’t think the letter would go viral, but it did.”

Leopold’s wife Jamie shared the letter on social media, where it was viewed by friends, family and fellow hockey wives who shared similar sentiments living away from their husbands. The media also picked up on the story.

“I woke up and Carson Daly was reading the letter on the Today show,” Leopold said. “We’ve been contacted by everybody to have my daughter on TV, but we’re quite humble people. The fame, whatever you want to call it, we’re not going to let it get to our heads.

“It’s a good story, and I think the hockey community sees it that way as well. I’m happy the media spun it the right way. In the end, this business is hard on families, it really is.”

USA Hockey has played a key role throughout Leopold’s career. Leopold was a pioneer of the U.S. National Team Development Program, started in 1996 by USA Hockey as a way to identify elite high school-age ice hockey players and centralize their training. Later he played for Team USA in the World Junior Championships, World Championships, World Cup of Hockey and the Torino 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

“For me, it was a platform to showcase skill and get an opportunity,” Leopold said. “It gave me a lot of exposure, just an American-born kid who’s proud to be wearing the red, white and blue. I take tremendous pride in it. Always have, always will.”

For Leopold, that journey through the elite ranks began in earnest when he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to join the first NTDP class for the 1997–98 season. But that was a move he almost didn’t make. Coming from Minnesota, with its rich tradition for high school hockey, Leopold never imagined playing anywhere else. However, he changed his mind after playing in a USA Hockey tournament.

“I did not intend to go to the [NTDP],” Leopold said. “There was an open offer to anybody at the tournament to start [the NTDP]. Going into that tournament, even at the end, it was an absolute no.”

But Leopold soon changed his mind.

“I came back to high school hockey in Minnesota, played one game and felt out of place after playing against the competition I was up against,” Leopold said. “It was an eye-opener for me and kind of let me know that this was for real and maybe I could take the next step.”

Leopold’s dream was to play at the University of Minnesota and get a degree. He did that and more, winning the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey and helping his hometown Golden Gophers capture a NCAA national championship in 2002.

“My whole lifestyle could be different if it wasn’t for that one opportunity,” Leopold said of the NTDP, where he scored 11 goals and had 12 assists in 60 games.

Since 1996, there have been 246 NTDP players drafted, including 51 first-round picks. Leopold was the third-ever NTDP draft pick, selected 44th overall in the second round of the 1999 NHL Entry Draft.

“For me, USA Hockey gave me the opportunity and opened a door for me to basically be sitting here today with a professional career,” Leopold said. “For 40-something guys to take a leap of faith and try an experimental program and live with billets was really unheard of at the time.

“We didn’t know if it was going to work or backfire, but at the end of the day the program definitely validated its purpose. Now, there are a lot of guys that are getting drafted, a lot of guys that can have college careers, get degrees and play professionally. We set the template and it has been successful ever since.”

His group also helped grow the international game in the U.S.

The U.S., with a team comprised largely of NTDP players, captured its first gold medal at the World Junior Championship in 2004, in addition to titles in 2010 and 2013. The U.S. won gold with NTDP players at the World Men’s Under-18 Championships in 2002, ’05, ’06, ’09, ’10, ’11, ’12, and ’14.

“I think you look at the medals that have been won,” Leopold said. “The expectation is top four. That speaks volumes to where USA Hockey has come.”

The high point for Leopold came in 2006, when he represented the United States in the Olympic Winter Games. Team USA finished sixth overall, but Leopold played alongside legends like Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk among others.

“It was kind of their last go-around,” Leopold said. “When I run into those guys and say ‘hi,’ I’m humbled they remember who I am.

“I met so many people through USA Hockey. It was a great experience. People that wear the red, white and blue, there’s an instant bond when you know the guys who have been through the same battles.”

Leopold still remembers the billet family he lived with in Ann Arbor during his NTDP days and regularly visits when he’s near. He also stops by the NTDP facilities, sometimes unannounced.

“It was a special time and there were some influential people in Ann Arbor that really supported me,” Leopold said. “I’ve been surrounded by good people, and they definitely helped me along the way. There are good memories.”

Leopold has plenty in the NHL and through international play. USA Hockey and the NTDP played an important role throughout his decade-long-plus career.

“In the end, I have no regrets,” Leopold said. “I’m still here living a dream, I have a smile on my face and I’m happy for an opportunity. I’m definitely humbled, I’m honored and it has been a great run. It has always been a dream and I definitely give credit to USA Hockey, for sure.”

Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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