As Heat defenseman Zac Leslie is in the midst of a career year on the ice, his most important assist could be one that won’t fall on any score sheet.
Zac’s is a familiar story, a player whose tenure in the sport dates back to long nights after school in the backyard rink, skating alongside another eventual pro. For Leslie, his shifts from 4 until dark behind his boyhood Ottawa home followed that plot – an eventual AHL defenseman competing with a professional forward on a rink their dad built.
On the other end of the tape-to-tape feeds, cone races and shooting drills on the ODR – Zac’s sister, Rebecca.
Two years younger than Zac, Rebecca enjoyed a distinguished collegiate career at Boston University where she was named captain for her senior season before turning pro for the 2018-19 season and skating her way to a Clarkson Cup championship with the CWHL’s Calgary Inferno. Shortly thereafter, the floor came out from under her.
“We were getting welcomed at the Flames games and all across the city,” she said about the championship celebration. “We were excited to get to share the Clarkson Cup with the community. One week were celebrating what was the best year for the CWHL in terms of viewership and in my opinion the caliber of hockey, then we got told (the league would cease operations). It was a shock, for sure.”
The pair trained together over the summer, just as they always have, going through skating drills and picking each other’s brains for the minutia that can make decent seasons good, or good seasons great.
For Zac, the opportunity to work with Rebecca, who hopes to earn a spot on the Canadian national team, is invaluable.
“We spend a lot of time together with the skating coach,” he says. “Just pushing my buttons – she knows how to get under my skin more than anybody else. The lines of communication we have are great, we’re able to pick apart the little details and help each other. She’s at the point now where it’s not just me giving her pointers, it’s her giving me pointers. She’s able to pick up on things I’m doing on the ice, see something in my stride or in my shot and give me new ways to do some things.”
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Even apart, the siblings jump at the opportunity to watch each other play. He watched her play on CWHL streams. She tunes in to AHLTV from Calgary. Always in communication, it’s like having a personal video coach.
The exposure to the CWHL – and more broadly, the women’s game –deepened Zac’s appreciation for not just Rebecca’s play, but all of the athletes on the ice.
“With her playing in Calgary and going all the way to the Clarkson Cup, it was cool to see,” he said. “The games were great. The pace was high. The skill level was very high. The girls compete – they’re hitting each other. It’s very close to the same way that the men play. Once everyone sees these games for the first time, they’re going to realize that.”
An active participant in the PWPHA, Rebecca is optimistic about the future of women’s hockey and the potential for a sustainable league. Increased exposure of the sport, including involvement at the NHL’s All-Star festivities, only helps the situation.
The extra ingredient is what Zac, and so many others, are able to bring.
“Having the men’s players’ support is going to be huge for us moving forward,” said Rebecca. “There are a few players who have siblings who play, and Zac is in a little bit of a different situation than the guys who don’t have sisters or friends who have played. Zac has seen what it took for me to get to this level, seen me dedicate my life to hockey. He has that appreciation level where he sees my work ethic and what I do to prepare. Some guys may not have been around the women’s game in their lives. The best thing they can do is come out and support us.”
Back to the days on the outdoor rink, long hours on the homemade sheet, the siblings both dreamed about where the sport would take them. For the brother, it was playing in the pros, lifting the Stanley Cup. For the sister, it was donning the red and white of the Canadian national team and bringing home Olympic gold.
Lofty goals, but separate goals. If Zac is able to pitch in to deliver one more helper by adding to the growing wave of support for the women’s game, that won’t always have to be the case.
“We had different goals, just natural with where the game was when we were growing up,” Rebecca said. “But it would be awesome for us to one day hopefully have a league where girls can look up and say it’s their dream to win it all in the women’s league.”
There’s no telling what’s in store for the future of the women’s game. For now, Rebecca’s attention is on the national team and Zac’s is on helping the Heat continue their strong season, looking to capture the team’s first division crown and second playoff berth in the club’s short history.
Even on their separate paths, the pair are forever bonded from the start on that little rink in Ottawa, still competing and doing their part to help each other to become the best they can be.
“What can’t go overstated is the time we spent when we were younger,” said Zac. “I don’t think I am where I am if we didn’t spend the hours we did together on the outdoor rink. I can’t look past that in my development.
“I’m not where I am without her.”