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Hawks' Leddy growing up fast

Caption
The Blackhawks’ Nick Leddy (right), vying for the puck against Toronto’s Fredrik Sjostrom on Saturday, has become a reliable defenseman for the Hawks. He turns 20 on March 20. (AP photo)

CHICAGO – The first time Nick Leddy put on ice skates, he started to cry.

“We had to bribe him with candy,” his mom, Vicki Leddy, said with a laugh.

It didn’t take long for a teary-eyed 3-year-old to realize that skating was fun. And it didn’t take much longer for peers, coaches and hockey scouts to realize that Leddy was skilled.

Now, Hawks fans are starting to see those skills for themselves.

Leddy, who was sitting in classes at Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School less than two years ago, has zoomed to the NHL and partnered with reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith on the Hawks’ top defensive line. The Hawks have surged with Leddy on the ice, winning eight consecutive games to bolster their chances of reaching the playoffs for another run at a Stanley Cup title.

Leddy has two goals and a plus-3 rating in his first 30 games. He is expected to play alongside Keith again Tuesday when the Hawks visit the Florida Panthers.

Not bad for a player who will not turn 20 until March 20.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Leddy said.

Quick transition

As last summer approached, Leddy thought he was heading back to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore year.

The Hawks had acquired the rights to Leddy and Kim Johnsson from the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Cam Barker on Feb. 12, 2010. Leddy, who was his hometown Wild’s first-round pick (16th overall) in 2009, was expected to play for the Golden Gophers for at least one more season before making the transition to professional hockey.

Then came the whirlwind.

Leddy performed well at the Hawks’ rookie mini-camp and again during training camp. Then a preseason knee injury to Brian Campbell opened a spot on the Hawks’ active roster.

Five days later, Leddy was pulling a Hawks sweater over his head for the team’s season opener Oct. 7 against the Colorado Avalanche. He became the youngest defenseman (19 years, 199 days) to start a season opener for the Hawks since Steve McCarthy in 1999.

Reality check

Job opportunities are limited for most teenagers with one year of college experience.

Maybe they earn some money waiting tables. Maybe they get lucky and land an internship.

Leddy’s job opportunity was far greater, but it required massive and sudden changes in his life. No longer could he drive 20 minutes to Eden Prairie on weekends to grab a meal, clean his laundry, spend time with his mom or hang out with his younger brother.

Leddy said his family fully supported him when the Hawks extended their offer.

“They just wanted me to make the best decision for me,” Leddy said. “If I thought I was ready to move on, they were OK with it. They were behind me 100 percent.”

It wasn’t easy for Vicki Leddy to see her son leave so soon.

“But then I look at him, and this is what he’s wanted to do his whole life,” she said by phone from her home in Minnesota. “So if he didn’t do it, would he regret not doing it?”

Now the family watches all of Leddy’s games on TV. Tyler, 16, inherited his older brother’s Ford Escape. And Leddy calls whenever he can, trading text messages with his family on days when his schedule makes it difficult to call.

“We miss him terribly,” Vicki Leddy said. “I probably do moreso just having him around. But we’re lucky that Chicago is close.”

Fitting in

Hawks coach Joel Quenneville earned a reputation as a reliable defenseman during a 13-season NHL career that spanned 803 games.

When Quenneville watches Leddy, he sees the makings of another long career.

“He’s really progressed from early on in the season to now all of a sudden playing with ‘Dunc’ and getting quality minutes and getting to see top lines,” Quenneville said. “His poise and patience with the puck and his recognition of plays is high-end. … I think he’s really going to progress and be a real nice defenseman for the organization for a long time.”

For Leddy, improving on a game-by-game basis is more important than forecasting where his career might lead. When he plays beside Keith, it’s hard not to improve.

“It’s awesome,” Leddy said. “He’s such a good player. He’s so good with the puck and without the puck that he just makes everybody else better.”

When life settles down for Leddy, he might enroll in online classes to pursue the college degree that he put on hold by joining the Hawks.

For now, Quenneville is Leddy’s professor. Keith is his lab partner. The rink is his classroom.

“I’m just going to take it day by day,” Leddy said, “and keep learning.”

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