By Joshua Boyd / USPHLNCDC.com
After the celebrations of a Dineen Cup Championship were over, P.A.L. Jr. Islanders forward Luca Leighton had to clear his stuff one last time from the Jr. Islanders locker room. It’s a door he’ll pass very frequently, however, as his NCAA Division I future will keep him at the Northwell Health Ice Center in Eisenhower Park with Long Island University beyond 2024.
“I spoke to Coach [Brett] Riley a couple times throughout the season, so I always knew they had interest. Then at the end of the year the talks got more serious and he told me that they wanted to offer me,” said Leighton, an ‘03 from Old Brookville, about a 13-mile drive to Northwell. “One of the things that really stuck out about LIU was their schedule. They play one of the best schedules in college hockey. The campus was great. It’s a small campus which is exactly what I wanted. Once I visited and realized how nice the school was, it made my decision very easy.”
LIU has improved year to year in their first three seasons – in fact, their 13 wins are equal to their first two seasons. After playing one more season for the NCDC’s Jr. Islanders, Leighton will report to start his career at LIU in 2024-25.
Long Island University will be able to hold up Leighton – the NCDC’s 2022-23 Defensive Forward Of The Year – with pride as a truly homegrown player – his Old Brookville home to LIU’s Brookville campus is 2.5 miles distance. Leighton came up through the prestigious Long Island Gulls youth organization before joining the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders’ 18U program in 2020-21. He made the jump directly to the NCDC team the next year, and had great success right away with 45 points in 47 games. This year, his 63 points in 45 games matched with a +29, the second best rating for an NCDC forward, helped clinch his individual postseason honor.
But no honor was bigger than joining his teammates in lifting the P.A.L.’s first-ever Dineen Cup.
“It’s a really big accomplishment for us. Especially being the first team in P.A.L. history to win. P.A.L. is a great organization. The coaching staff throughout the organization has so much hockey experience. Most of the coaches have experience playing Division I and pro hockey,” said Leighton.
When P.A.L. selected him in the former NCDC Futures Draft (now the NCDC Entry Draft) in 2019, he was excited for what the future could hold – and that he could continue to develop without heavy travel or any billeting.
“When P.A.L. drafted me, I was very excited. My cousin was one of the goalies on P.A.L. that year, so I would go to most of the games. I then came to realize that I didn’t have to go anywhere to play high level junior hockey,” Leighton added. “The P.A.L. player development model is great. My first year at P.A.L., I wasn’t ready for NCDC so I played 18U. That year I gained a lot of confidence and developed my game to get ready for the next level.”
When he jumped in with the NCDC, he found himself developing under a fellow Long Islander – and a former P.A.L. player – in Head Coach Mike Marcou, a former NCAA Division I player (with the University of Massachusetts) who went on to a pro hockey career of more than 300 games. He certainly was in the right place to push his game to the next level. His teammates this year saw the drive to push the team to a Dineen Cup Championship and to make it to an NCAA Division I institution and gave him the Captain’s “C” for this year as well. He responded with a career-best season and also set the Jr. Islanders’ best-ever points per game average of 1.16, with 108 points in 93 games. He is third overall in all-time points, as well, and his 44 goals are second all-time.
“The NCDC does a great job attracting college attention. At their showcases, a bunch of schools come to watch to recruit,” said Leighton. “After every game, kids are talking to schools one-on-one in person. Playing against and practicing with high level players will play a big part in helping me prepare for Division I hockey.”
He certainly has become a complete player in the NCDC, but any time you’re moving from one level to another, improvement is necessary to adapt to the next level up.
“This off-season I’m going to focus most on getting faster,” Leighton said. “Going from juniors to college is a big jump and I feel if I get faster I will be able to adjust to the college pace quicker.”
The USPHL congratulates Luca Leighton, his family, the P.A.L. Jr. Islanders and Long Island University for his commitment.