Conné Lategan / Cranbrook Bucks

Bucks forward Noah Leibl saw expansion team as an opportunity

 

The distinction of being the Cranbrook Bucks first-ever player will always belong to a product of San Diego, California. 2002-born forward Noah Leibl was introduced as the franchise’s first player back on January 27 of last year.

A few months later, I wrote an article profiling his career to that point. More recently, while in quarantine ahead of his regular season BCHL debut, Leibl joined me on a Zoom call.

Together, we looked back over his career, and at the crazy season he has had in Cranbrook. This time, however, I let Leibl tell his story.

Growing up a San Diego Jr. Gull

I started our conversation by going as far back as I could in his hockey career, when his San Diego Jr. Gulls team attended the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament.

”I still see that as probably my favourite hockey experience,” he told me with a huge smile on his face.

“Two years before, the first San Diego team (went) and it was my older brother’s team. I was able to go just as a spectator, and even without playing, I still talk about it, I had a blast.”

”When I (went) two years later I was so excited. We (made) it all the way to the finals, we played every single game in the Coliseum. (It’s) something I honestly still constantly think about, it pops into my head all the time, so (it) was unbelievable to be able to go there for sure.”

Not only did he help his team make the final game of the tournament, Leibl had a fantastic showing himself. He recorded five goals and 13 points in six games, which ranked him among the tournament leaders.

Being among the leaders in offensive production was a common theme for Leibl while playing in San Diego. However, he refuses to take all the credit.

”Generally I was up there on the team (in) points and was the captain growing up. My birth year (group) ended up actually being really good, so I got really lucky in the sense (that) I was one of the better players, but I had tons of help around me.”

Chasing a career in hockey and an education

When it was time for Leibl to take the next step in his career, he followed in the footsteps of his older brother Tyler. In 2017, the younger Leibl brother enrolled at Shawnigan Lake School, where Tyler was the year before.

“A huge thing for my parents was not going to just a place for hockey. (But) of course, hockey is a priority. We love hockey (and) we are a hockey family.”

(Noah Leibl / Twitter)

“It’s huge academically, they force you to be (well) rounded, so my mom was totally on-board even though she was sending her kids away at a pretty young age.”

“Obviously, (the) rink on campus, good teams, I love the league we played in, I think it’s becoming one of the best leagues in Canada. But honestly, what really made it happen was just the all-around (experience)  from the school.”

Last season, Leibl enjoyed the best campaign of his career. He put up 31 goals and 62 points in 36 games with Shawnigan Lake’s U18 Prep team.

Leibl points to his role on the team and great linemates as the reason for his sensational season.

“Just the responsibilities I was given from (the) coach, being a captain on the team, (and) having the younger guys to look after just like the older guys did to me. It totally helped with my confidence and I loved the responsibility. I love the leadership aspect.”

”I had two great linemates (in) Ethan Anstey and Seiya Tanaka-Campbell, they were unreal. (They) helped me so much. I just think it was a perfect storm in that sense, I came in with confidence, and I had great help around me.”

Halfway through the season the Bucks hunted him down, making him the first player signed in franchise history.

An opportunity too good to pass up

Leibl smiles when he thinks about what it means to be the first-ever Cranbrook Bucks player. “Well, to me, I saw it as an opportunity.”

He spoke very highly of the treatment he received from team president and majority owner Nathan Lieuwen during the recruiting process.

“They reached out and I did (my) research. I saw who was involved with Nathan and Scott Niedermayer and the ownership. I signed before I even knew who the coach was.”

“I just had a feeling, I talked to Nathan and he was awesome, great with my family, great with me, travelled out to Shawnigan to watch games. So from that point, I just knew it was the place for me, it (was) a great opportunity.”

Glowing with joy while he reminisced about the process, Leibl recalled the day that Lieuwen met up with him, and he signed with the Bucks.

“He flew out to Shawnigan and watched two games and then he came upstairs with Niedermayer actually, because we had played OHA and Scott was a coach on that team.”

”They were both there when I signed and that was a huge moment for me, just being with Scott and Nathan and being able to be the first-ever player, it was just awesome.”

Leibl credited Lieuwen for his consistency and persistence during the recruiting process.

“He would call me after games and check in. His consistency was another thing that really drew me in. He really seemed to care not just about the hockey aspect, but who I was as a person, and how I was doing in the other facets of my life.”

The first Buck in Cranbrook

Knowing the team came together slowly and players arrived at different times, Leibl has actually been in Cranbrook for quite a while. ”I’ve been here since August 22,” he said with a laugh.

”I was the first guy here, just because coming from the US, my dad was a bit more cautious, (he) really wanted me to make sure I got in. I actually drove with my brother all the way to Calgary, quarantined there, and then came right here (to Cranbrook).”

“I skated with Adam Cracknell, one of our owners, and worked out with him. (There were) early mornings, he put me through the wringer, (but) we became pretty close from that. That was probably my first week.”

”Then, I want to say six other guys came and we ran the kids’ camp for a week, and I love that stuff. I volunteer to help out with kids all the time, so that was my second week.”

(Conné Lategan / Cranbrook Bucks)

”Then, everyone else got to leave because they live in Canada, so I was still in Cranbrook, and just skated with the local guys. Before I knew they’d be on my team, I was skating with Cam Reid and Quaid Anderson. Our local skates were really good.”

Leibl explains the process of having everyone come together for the first time was seamless.

”We always talk about this because I feel like all of us are very similar. We had maybe three 20-year-olds and maybe four guys who played a full season of junior A hockey.”

“It didn’t feel like anything different than a normal team. I had so much in common with most of these guys, within the first week everyone’s hanging out, everyone’s buddies, it was super easy.”

Finally hitting the ice as a team

It was a long time coming for the expansion Bucks to finally get on the ice for a game. That first game night was one that Leibl will remember for a long time.

“I just remember the first game, even though it didn’t end up as we wanted, I honestly don’t think we played bad, we came out with tons of energy.”

“I had a pretty good game myself, I think I finished with two assists. I was really happy, I was part of the first-ever goal (with) the primary assist so I was pumped.”

He noticed right away the difference between playing prep hockey in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League and the BCHL.

”It was definitely an adjustment period, just with the speed and the time you have to make plays. In that sense, there was an adjustment period, and it was hard, more physical, big guys, way better players, the goalies are great.”

After playing nine games in the BCHL’s exhibition season, the regular season was about to start — until it didn’t. ”Initially it was kind of like, ‘We don’t really know what’s going on, we’re expecting to play in the next couple of weeks.’ Similar to how it has been recently, (we thought) just one more week, one more week.”

(Conné Lategan / Cranbrook Bucks)

After a few weeks of waiting for the season to begin, it became evident that it may not start for a while.

“It kind of hit a point where as a team we came together and just said ‘Listen, we’re all in this, let’s make a decision and we’re going to do everything we can.’”

“We were coming in early for workouts. I’ve got a workout group I come in early with every morning, then we have another workout after. We’re doing two-a-days, and I think you could really tell the team bought in.”

Players began to leave the BCHL during the shutdown

Something that all BCHL teams dealt with while they weren’t playing was players leaving for other places. Some of them went to the United States, some of them left for school.

For the Bucks, they lost key players including captain Briggs Gammill and starting goalie Jacob Zacharewicz.

”Well, losing your captain and starting goalie of course will change morale. Personally, Briggs and Jake were two of my best friends on the team, I hung out with Briggs all the time. At the time, it wasn’t really looking like we were playing games, (so) we were happy for them.”

”Briggs is going to Yale next year, (and) I wanted him to go play games. In that aspect, we were telling them, if you need to go get games, just do that.”

As an American-born player, for sure Leibl considered leaving with some of the other guys to find somewhere to play, right? Actually, wrong.

”I can honestly say it didn’t cross my mind (even) one time. As long as I’ve been here, being the first player signed, I love the team and what we were doing.”

”First thing I said was ‘I’m not going anywhere, I’ll be here for as long as I can.’ Being American, people would ask, teams reached out, but not for one second did I think I was leaving Cranbrook.”

Staying sharp in quarantine

After basically a four-month training camp, this two-week quarantine could represent a bit of a break before the season, but Leibl isn’t taking it easy right now.

“Not at all, we do hard workouts every single day, just cardio and body weight stuff, it is hard. There is a bit of fear that pushes you too. Like, ‘I’m going to sit in quarantine for two weeks?’ We all get on the Zoom call and workout together and hold each other accountable.”

“We have a 9:30 meeting every morning, no sleeping in, you’re on with (our) coach, and we have team workouts. We’re definitely keeping busy, and for sure keeping in shape.”

When it comes to games starting for real, Leibl isn’t setting any specific goals, he just wants to play well and feel good.

”Everyone wants to do well and put up points, but I haven’t really thought of like a specific number or anything. Whatever position I’m put in, I just want to be at my best and feel like I put in my best. It’s good to set goals, but for me, I’m just hoping this hard work pays off.”

 

As for his long-term goals, without hesitation, he is after an NCAA Division I commitment.

”My goal is to play Division I college hockey, and you’d like to play pro, but for now (getting to the NCAA is) what I’m focused on.”

A happy, humble young man

The one thing I couldn’t help but notice during my conversation with Leibl was how much he smiled. Before and after answering every question I asked him, and often in between, he just paused and smiled.

I felt like he was thrilled to hang out and chat for a bit. Although I didn’t want to take much of his time, we talked for nearly an hour.

He’s just happy to be in Cranbrook, happy to be a member of the Bucks, and happy to be playing hockey.

Leibl seems truly grateful for every opportunity he has received on his journey, and there’s no doubt he earned every single one of them.