BEMIDJI -- Nick Leitner’s first collegiate goal meant more to him than most in the Sanford Center crowd that night probably knew.
With family and friends in the stands, the Bemidji native scored the game-tying goal in his first game as a Bemidji State Beaver, a 2-2 tie against St. Cloud State on Oct. 12. That date already held special significance to Leitner.
“It was my grandma’s birthday and she passed away when I was pretty young, and due to breast cancer, too,” Leitner said. “It was actually a pretty special moment for me to get that goal.”
The Beavers just happened to be wearing pink and white jerseys as part of Pink the Rink weekend. They were auctioned off to benefit the Edith Sanford Breast Center in Bemidji and help provide mammograms for women who cannot afford them.
“I told the guys that puck was blessed,” Leitner said. “Blessed from grandma.”
Scoring on such a meaningful night was something the freshman defenseman had discussed beforehand with his mother Melissa.
“She told me to score a goal for her that night,” Leitner said. “It’s pretty cool that I ended up getting one. And it being the tying one, too, is definitely special.”
Leitner is no stranger to lighting the lamp for Bemidji teams. In his junior and senior years at Bemidji High School, he guided the Lumberjacks to consecutive state tournament appearances in 2014-15 and 2015-16. He ended his high school career with 21 goals over three seasons.
“It means a lot to me, especially being able to do it for Bemidji, scoring for Bemidji again,” Leitner said of his hometown heroics against SCSU.
The 6-foot, 194-pound blue-liner spent three seasons away from Bemidji playing in the USHL for the Des Moines Buccaneers and Green Bay Gamblers, whom he captained last season.
“I remember while growing up I just dreamed about playing Division I hockey, not necessarily for Bemidji State,” Leitner said. “But as I got older and I got into juniors playing away from home, I was kind of itching to come back and play for Bemidji.”
He didn’t have to think twice when BSU offered him a spot on the team.
“Nick’s got some grit to his game,” head coach Tom Serratore said. “He’s a right-shot defenseman, and we don’t have a lot of right-shot D. They’re hard to come by. I look at Nick as one of those guys that he’s never going to let you down because you’re always going to get an honest effort out of Nick Leitner. He has a very good shot, and he just plays a strong defensive game.”
Leitner remembers watching Serratore behind the bench when he was a kid, and also the on-ice exploits of assistant coach Travis Winter, who captained Bemidji State to the 2009 Frozen Four.
“That was pretty special for Bemidji,” Leitner said. “Just growing up and always seeing them around the rinks and stuff, it was good to just kind of have that basic knowledge of each other beforehand.”
Leitner is the latest in a long line of homegrown Bemidjians to play for the Beavers. Serratore makes it clear that he doesn’t play favorites when it comes to recruiting local players.
“First off, they’ve got to be good enough to play,” Serratore said. “There’s no charity here. We’re not bringing in a Bemidji kid to bring in a Bemidji kid. … There’s no guarantee that a Bemidji kid is going to come here. It just worked out that way. We’re very fortunate that all those guys have been world-class people and we’re happy to have Nick wearing our uniform right now.”
Leitner is one of four freshmen defensemen the Beavers brought in this season to line up for a young defensive corps. Playing time isn’t a given for rookies like Leitner, but he’s already proven he can score when he’s needed most.
“I think we’ve got a really good group at the back end there,” Leitner said. “So I’m just going to keep putting my head down and keep working and keep working for a spot in the lineup every night.”