For Michael Leighton, journey through hockey is 'hardest thing I've ever done'

Michael Leighton is toiling away in the Blackhawks minor-league system. AP Photo/Paul Beaty

ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Nine-year-old Ella Leighton is healthy, wide awake and full of cheer as she eats a bowl of cereal on the couch in the living room at 7:30 on a recent Friday morning.

The rest of the Leighton family isn't in such great shape. Theodore, who turned 2 the day before, spent part of his birthday at the doctor's office dealing with an ongoing cough. Even that can't stop him from enjoying his biggest birthday gift: a motorized toy car, which he is happily driving around the house. Annalise, 5, also has a cough and will be kept home from school because of it.

Their parents, Mike and Jen Leighton, are turning to the magic of coffee to get them going. They spent most of the night crisscrossing between Theodore's and Annalise's bedrooms, trying to comfort their sick children. Jen rested at one point, but she doesn't think she ever fell asleep. And she has a nonstop day of taking care of Theodore and Annalise ahead.

Mike, 34, is dragging and will soon face his own physical hurdles. He is the No. 1 goaltender for the Rockford IceHogs, the Chicago Blackhawks' American Hockey League affiliate, and has a morning skate and then a game on the day's docket.

The Leighton family story isn't dissimilar to those of many other families. They have to deal with the falling leaves outside of their rented home in Rockford, Illinois. The kids have to get to school. World's Finest Chocolate bars have to be sold for a school fundraiser. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners have to be made. They pass the flu and colds around to each other. Mike and Jen like to say their lives are boring.

What makes their family story different is Mike's journeyman hockey career, which has meant the Leightons have been a journeyman family.

"It's not easy," Jen said. "I can't glamorize anything about it. There's always some perks that come with hockey, but it's the hardest thing I've ever done. It's never gotten any easier. I struggle every year. But in all honesty, I have no other choice. I have to do it. This is what we do.

"This is his career. We go where he goes."

Michael Leighton begins counting on his fingers how many different addresses he has had throughout his 15-year professional career. When finished, he's nearly through three hands.

His first three addresses were in Norfolk, Virginia, where he started his professional career. Then came stints in Chicago; Rochester, New York; Portland, Maine; Albany, New York; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Philadelphia. He had two different homes in Glen Falls, New York, then a stop in Donetsk, Ukraine, and now it's Rockford, where he has lived in two different spots during his time with the IceHogs. And that's not counting plenty of hotels during brief call-ups.

"Yeah, that's 14 different places," Mike said. "Never lived in the same house twice, other than in Carolina, when I finished one year and started the next."

Mike and Jen took a stab at stability by buying a house in North Carolina when he signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes before the 2008-09 season. They sold it after he was placed on waivers and picked up by the Philadelphia Flyers in December 2009. They have owned offseason homes in Windsor, Ontario, and nearby LaSalle, Ontario, but haven't bought another in-season home. They've learned their lesson.

The Leightons' newest rented house is in an upper-class neighborhood in Rockford. It is only a few minutes from BMO Harris Bank Center, where the IceHogs play, and close to shopping areas and restaurants -- most notably Portillo's, the family favorite.

The Leightons have lived in the house only for a few weeks, but it's beginning to feel like home. Mike and Jen, who met at high school in Windsor and have been together for 16 years, are especially mindful of how they decorate the house. Between stockpiling old furniture and knickknacks from past houses and acquiring new pieces at each stop, they try to give their temporary place a permanent feel.

"We have to make it home," Mike said. "We have another sign there [on the mantle] that says, 'Wherever we are together, that's home.' My wife picked that up, and that was perfect; because wherever we are, this is home. We go back home, it almost doesn't feel like we're back in Canada, because we're there for a short period of time."

It is unlikely Mike will be traded this season. It was a possibility last season, when the Blackhawks had four capable NHL goaltenders, but he is currently No. 3 on the depth chart. However, if a trade does happen, Jen is ready to jump into action. She is a seasoned pro when it comes to relocating.

"I get criticized sometimes because I prepare for the worst and just hope for the best, and then everything just falls into place," Jen said. "Because it's easier for me to prep that way, how to handle things for the family with moving, packing up the house, schooling, having everything lined up instead of panicking at the last minute when a trade happens or he gets sent down. That's how I handle everything."

With some Starbucks Pike Place Roast Coffee in his system, Mike places Theodore in his car seat. Ella jumps into the backseat of their SUV, and they're off to Ella's school.

Mike knows how much responsibility falls on Jen's shoulders when he is on the road. He tries to carry his share when he's home. Driving the kids to school is one way he contributes.

There's guilt that accompanies Mike's career. He struggles with missing events in his children's lives. He also understands his career won't last forever and he needs to make as much money as he can while he is still able to play.

Mike has regrets. None is bigger than missing the birth of Theodore because he was playing in the KHL for Donbass HC during the 2013-14 season. The team had just landed in Kazan, Russia, when he received a text that Jen's water had broken. He saw the birth over FaceTime. He wasn't able to see his child in person until a few weeks later.

"Obviously, something I regret for the rest of my life," Mike said.

Jen didn't expect Mike's absence would be as difficult as it was. Playing overseas made sense at the time, with the NHL lockout and how much money he was being offered. When Jen reflects on that time now, she doesn't sugarcoat anything. It didn't help that Theodore was diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus and was hospitalized for nearly a week.

"Probably the worst year of my life," Jen said. "I say that just because it brought so much uncertainty and I had to push myself through stuff I didn't know I could handle. It didn't hit me until after I was done how hard that year really was and how it was the worst decision, career-wise, for him, our family. It was the hardest thing. I'm never doing it again. I'll never go through it again.

"We did it because we had to do it, but it was hard. We all struggled. We got through it, but it doesn't mean it was easy by any means."

The Leighton family nearly repeated that survival mode. After posting a 1.74 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in the KHL, Mike was offered an even greater salary to return to HC Donbass, and he agreed to it.

Before leaving for Russia, the family decided to go on vacation in Disney World. During the trip, Mike didn't feel right. He had a devastating headache that wouldn't go away. He had never been one to complain about illness or injury, but it became too much. He went to see a doctor, underwent a spinal tap and was diagnosed with viral meningitis.

The illness, which is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, is more common and normally less severe than bacterial meningitis, but it is still serious. Mike had a pounding headache for three weeks, and his energy was depleted for a month. He spent a lot of time sleeping and also dealt with memory loss for a period.

"That was pretty scary," Mike said.

As painful as all that was, Mike and Jen are now glad it happened. HC Donbass couldn't wait for Mike to get better, and his KHL contract was voided. The family wouldn't have to be split up again, and it kept Mike from returning to a violent area in the Ukraine. He signed with the Blackhawks in August 2014.

"When he decided to go back, when he asked me what I thought, I never said what I thought, because it's not my choice, it's not my career," Jen said. "I was never going to be that one to say, 'No, you're not doing it.' It had to be his choice. I can't say I was happy about it. I can't say I didn't ignore him for a few days after that. I was upset about it. I tried to prepare myself for how we were going to handle it and how we would do it.

"It was a godsend for him to get sick. I know that sounds terrible because he suffered. He was sick. He wasn't just a little sick," she continued. "I've never seen him like that before. That was scary in itself. But yeah, everything happens for a reason. Luckily, it worked out for him. Thank God it did."

After dropping off Ella at school, Mike returns home briefly before heading off to the morning skate. Mike's hockey routine hasn't changed much over 15 years. He has breakfast at the rink, watches video, stretches (well, that does take longer than it used to), dresses and gets on the ice.

Mike is proud this morning to see a quote of his written on the dry-erase board in the IceHogs' training room: "It does not matter who you are today, what truly matters is who you will be tomorrow."

Mike takes every step of his routine seriously. There's pride for him being a pro's pro and staying competitive regardless of what level he's played at. The reality is, he might never be called up to the NHL again. He has played in 105 NHL regular-season games and 16 playoff games, including the 2010 Stanley Cup finals for the Flyers. He would like at least one more NHL shot.

Mike signed with the Blackhawks last season with the belief he would be behind Corey Crawford and Antti Raanta on the depth chart. Scott Darling made an early-season impression and leapfrogged Mike. Crawford, Darling and Raanta appeared in NHL games and all received Stanley Cup rings at the end of the season. Mike never left the AHL and didn't get a ring.

"I was the backup's backup backup," Mike explained.

Mike signed another one-year deal with the Blackhawks before this season, because he was slotted to be the No. 3 goaltender after Raanta was traded. He also thought highly of the organization and liked that his family could return to Rockford.

Mike is aware his family might have to move again next season. The Blackhawks appear set with Crawford and Darling as their Nos. 1 and 2 goaltenders for the near future. Time is no longer on Mike's side. If another team offers him a better NHL opportunity next season, he will have to seize it.

"A lot of people look at NHL players and say, 'Oh, they got the life. You know, they're set. They make millions of dollars, this and that,'" Mike said. "But it's not like that for everyone. Realistically, if I knew I wasn't going to play in the NHL ever again, I would love to sign a four-year contract here, buy a house, settle in. That's the perfect picture if I know I'm not going to be in the NHL. But if I have a chance, then you can't buy a house, you can't sign a four-year deal, because say if I have an amazing year or had an opportunity to go somewhere else in the second year, but I'm stuck here for four years.

"How many more years do I want to play? I want to play this year, next year and see after that. A lot of it has to do with how I feel."

Mike feels just fine after the morning skate, despite the night he and Jen had. He's confident he will feel even better after his upcoming two-hour nap, something Jen doesn't have the luxury of getting.

Mike's rest comes in handy in the evening. His teammates don't make it easy on him, as they allow the Chicago Wolves nine power plays.

The IceHogs hold a 3-1 lead in the third period, but the Wolves answer with two goals in a 63-second stretch late in the period. They are goals Mike will replay in his mind on his trip home that night. Ultimately, the game goes into a shootout. Mike allows a 5-hole goal on the first attempt but makes saves in the same location on the next two tries, and the IceHogs win 4-3. He is awarded the game's third star.

After removing his gear, Mike returns from the locker room and meets his guests for the game. Mike and Jen started a charitable organization called Leighton's Minions last season. For inspirational people in the Rockford community, they offer a VIP game experience and a meet-and-greet with players.

"Nominations are quite amazing, touching, sad," Jen said. "They're amazing people, what they're dealing with."

The VIP group for the game is Force One, a church ministry group that volunteers wherever help is needed, and Mike signs autographs and takes photos with the adults and children. He showers afterward, puts on his suit, grabs a to-go dinner and departs for home.

Mike enters the house through the garage and is met by Ella in the kitchen. It's past 11 p.m., but Ella is still going. Jen is normally awake when Mike returns from games, but her day caught up with her. She fell asleep watching "America's Funniest Home Videos" with Ella.

Mike grabs a Samuel Adams beer from the fridge, takes a seat at the kitchen counter and starts into his dinner. Ella sits beside him and recounts the rest of the family's day. She picks up his phone, scrolls through the photos and they share laughs about different family pictures.

It is these types of moments that Mike savors. He knows he and his family will have more of them soon enough. There will be a day when he will no longer be a journeyman goaltender and the Leighton family will settle into one city and one home.

"When I'm done, it'll be good and I'll be able to really enjoy my family," Mike said. "It's tough being away for that many road trips and that amount of time and stuff. It'll be nice to relax and just sit around and do nothing. Obviously, I want to do something after, but at least six months to a year, I'd like to relax and enjoy my family again."

Tomorrow isn't a school day, so Mike is OK with Ella being up late. After 15 minutes, though, he tells her it's probably a good idea to get to bed. He knows all too well Annalise and Theodore will be awake again soon enough, and the whole family will be up and on the move again.