It was against Skyline in the Jilek championship game earlier this season that Michael Leighton Jr. proved the longtime hockey saying that a hot goalie can make all the difference in the world. The Eagles were flying all night and fired 35 shots at the Pioneer senior goalie, who stood tall and knocked all but one of them away in an impressive 2-1 overtime victory over Skyline.
After the win, Pioneer Coach Frank Garcia sang the praises of his senior goaltender. “Michael Leighton is as good as any goalie in the league and he should be an All-State goalie this year,” Garcia said.
It’s good to have a strong goalie in the net, but it’s also advantageous to have a talented, hungry and experienced team in front of him – and that’s where we will start because for Leighton it’s all about the team. And this Pioneer team appears headed for big things.
“Fun and eager,” says Leighton when describing the personality of this year’s Pioneer varsity hockey team. “Everyone gets along with each other and we all make sure to have fun above everything. Everyone, however, is super hungry. We got a taste of winning and all we want is more. No one is satisfied with what we’ve done so far. We are proud, but not satisfied.”
Most teams set goals before the season and before January even ended, the Pioneers had already checked two off the list. The defeated Saline on Thanksgiving eve and then defeated Skyline to win the Jilek. “Those were goals ever since summer league started,” said Leighton.
Remaining goals include finishing the season with 20 wins, winning the Metro and SEC, along with a deep playoff run.
“We’ve been trying to meet these goals by just working as hard as we can every day to get better and not being satisfied,” says Leighton. “We know what we’re capable of and we don’t want to leave anything on the table. Right now we control our own destiny and we want to keep it that way.
“Jack Martin has been a phenomenal leader for this group. He makes sure everyone knows to listen and work hard. Right now, we’re all on the same page and firing on all cylinders.”
For Leighton and the Pioneers, it all starts at the top. And the talented netminder has plenty of high praise for his high school hockey coach.
“Getting Coach Garcia his first Jilek championship by beating Skyline in overtime was amazing,” Leighton said. “I remember skating over to him while celebrating and he said to me ‘never again,’ referring to when I told him four years ago that I was never going lose to Skyline again. Hearing him say that felt good. He has worked as hard as any coach I’ve seen the past four seasons and the long overdue win was very well deserved.”
Leighton joined the Pioneer hockey team in his freshman year as the third-string goalie behind “two extremely talented” upperclassmen. He said he learned a lot during his rookie year with the Pioneers. And when he got his chance, he performed well.
After the Pioneers lost to Skyline in the playoffs, Leighton skated over to his coach and said, “we are never going to lose to those guys (Skyline) again.”
The Eagles never got the chance to beat Leighton the following season. He spent his sophomore year playing AAA for Victory Honda. He spent the first half of his junior year practicing with several different teams before rejoining Pioneer and helping lead the Pioneers to the Metro League title.
“I was in net towards the end of that season, but Robby Haviland really was the true backbone of that team,” Leighton said. “He helped more than I did to win that championship.”
Pioneer lost to Trenton 2-1 in the first round of the playoffs last year.
Before this season started, Leighton took a life-altering trip up north. “Going up north with a few hockey buddies over the summer was a big highlight for me. The trip was incredible and really gave me a new way of thinking when it comes to hockey. It showed me I can get more from hockey than just memories on the ice.”
Leighton has always been a goalie, first stopping shots from his sister who would fire balled up socks at him in the living room.
“The thing that really pushed me over to being a goalie was watching Steve Shields fight Garth Snow on Youtube,” he says. “My grandpa gave me a small poster of Steve from his Michigan days and I remember thinking Steve was like a superhero to me. Standing in net in a Maize and Blue jersey made him the coolest person I’d ever known to exist at that time so I researched who he was. Along the way I saw the video of him getting in fights and fell in love with the position, wanting to be exactly like him.”
Shields, who played 10 years in the NHL, set the all-time win record for NCAA hockey. “He’s still an inspiration to me,” says Leighton, who currently trains with Chad Catt, a former Michigan goalie. “He’s helped send my skill level through the roof. I skated with him once or twice a week almost all summer and now occasionally on weekends.”
As you would expect, Leighton, the son of Susanna Leighton and Michael Leighton, Sr., hopes to take hockey to the furthest and highest level he can.
“Next year I hope to make a junior team and eventually either play college hockey or in the OHL,” he says. “The end goal is to go as far as possible with hockey. The dream is to play professional. I think I can, it’s just about convincing the right people that I can.”