HOUGHTON - Hockey coaches have consistently used one word to describe incoming Michigan Tech hockey freshman defenseman Chris Leibinger: warrior.
And at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, the Saginaw, Mich., native needs that warrior mentality to succeed in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
"I'm not big enough to not compete. I have to compete for everything I get," said Leibinger, who along with Shane Hanna, will be the new additions to the Huskies blue line this fall. "I bring offense into the game, but one of my coaches in Muskegon said I'm just a warrior."
His combination of gritty play (search his name on hockeyfights.com), smooth skating and offensive instinct stood out to Tech coaches several years ago, and he's actually been locked up to play in Houghton since November 2011 when he was still playing for the North American Hockey League's Traverse City North Stars.
"People say Chris plays a lot bigger than his size. That's one of the first things you notice about him. He's a warrior," Tech coach Mel Pearson said. "He plays hard and plays tough. At times I wish he'd back off a little bit because he's not 6-3 and trying to run these guys, but you can't tell him that. He's going to be as tough a competitor as any player we have on our team."
In addition to his relatively small size, at just 19 years old - he just turned 19 on June 16 - he'll be one of the youngest players on the Huskies roster. It'll be familiar territory for the defenseman who's been skating since he was 3 years old in the back yard against two older brothers (Adam, now 23, and Joe, 26).
Leibinger actually started with the North Stars when he was just 16 years old - one of the youngest players in the 28-team league, and four years younger than his oldest teammate - after playing two years of hockey (and football) at Saginaw Heritage High School. During two years with the North Stars, he played in 96 games, tallying seven goals and 19 assists, in addition to 107 penalty minutes.
In 2012-13, he started playing regularly for the Muskegon Lumberjacks (alongside soon-to-be Tech teammate Tyler Heinonen and Calumet High School alum Ben Storm) of the United States Hockey League, playing in 32 games with four goals, six assists and 16 penalty minutes. But then a concussion put a kink into an otherwise promising season.
"I came back and they weren't really playing me enough. I talked to (Tech assistant) coach (Damon) Whitten (who first saw Leibinger at Traverse City), and he thought it was best if I get out of there," Leibinger said. "I asked the coach if I could be traded. It was probably the best experience of my life going to Waterloo."
After being traded to the Waterloo Black Hawks just prior to the midnight Feb. 7 trade deadline, Leibinger played in 20 regular season games (0 goals, 7 assists, 26 penalty minutes) and five playoff games (1-3=4, 0 PIM).
"I was top four D there, and I played all the time, huge minutes, sometimes 27-30 minutes a night," said Leibinger, who noted he also learned a key lesson about consistently keeping his feet moving as a defenseman. "At the end of the season in Waterloo I started to correct that big time, and my coach was impressed with the way I handled criticism about it."
Keeping active feet will help him stay well positioned in the defensive zone, but it'll also allow him better opportunities to do what he does best.
"Moving up the puck is my favorite thing to do," Leibinger said. " I just skate well so it's easy for me to jump into the play."
That certainly fits into Tech's style of play, according to Pearson: "We didn't add a lot of size on the blue line this year (Hanna is 5-foot-11). We have some coming down the pipeline, but we added some skill and some hockey IQ. We want to have better puck handlers, get it out of our zone quicker and make good break-out passes and be more of a puck-possession team."
Leibinger, whose father Bob used to be the head coach of Saginaw Valley State University's club hockey team, will fit right in with Tech's playing style, but also Houghton's small-town community.
"I used to go to Michigan Tech for hockey camps growing up and my family has a cabin in Munising," Leibinger said. "I'm in the U.P. all the time, and I like to hunt and fish, so that works, too. I just like being up there."
That's part of the reason he chose Tech, despite receiving interest from Michigan State, Ferris State, Cornell, Air Force, Bemidji State and Harvard.
The 3.6 GPA student plans to major in kinesiology, the same degree program as his brother Adam at SVSU, but he's not clear on a path after graduation - besides hoping hockey works out beyond his time at Tech.
For now, his focus is on preparing to be the best player he can be on the ice this fall.
"The coaches told me to just work your butt off and see what happens," Leibinger said. "Just come in and be a warrior."