Long before Adriana Leon hit the pitch in front of 53,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton this month, she spent many nights schlepping skates and sticks across the Greater Toronto Area in the dead of winters past.
Leon is now one of the best soccer players in the country, a forward with Canada's Women’s National Team currently competing at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. But once upon a time she was a hockey player, a forward with the Vaughan Flames, Willowdale Red Wings, and, finally, the Toronto Aeros. And a good one, at that.
“I first started figure skating,” she says, “and when I was 10 I had to beg my mom to let me play hockey because that’s what I really wanted to do instead. She gave in and I jumped right into it.”
The native of King City, Ont., played seven seasons of minor hockey. The competitive drive that has brought her to soccer’s biggest stage started on ponds north of Toronto with friendly battles waged with two older brothers.
“We lived the Canadian culture growing up,” says Leon. “Whenever there was ice we tried to get on it and play hockey.”
Leon went as far as Bantam AA with Vaughan and Willowdale, then headed to Toronto for Midget AA. It’s been five years since her last competitive hockey game, but memories of weekend tournaments still bring a smile.
“You get to skip Friday school, and on the road you get to hang out with your team in the hotel,” she says. “Just being a part of that hockey culture was so much fun.”
It was also successful. During her Midget AA years alone she was given the Future Star award following the 2008 Toronto Aeros Tournament, was named tournament MVP at the 2008 Can Am Challenge Cup Showcase and received the same honour during the 2008 Stoney Creek Midget AA Showcase. The Aeros won that tournament against teams from across Canada and the United States, with Leon getting the winner off a one-timer, a memory that still stands out today.
Her last season on the ice, with the Junior Aeros in 2009-10, ended on a high. That year Toronto won both the Provincial Women’s Hockey League title and a gold medal at the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association provincial championships. Two of her teammates that year have since gone on to play for Canada’s National Women’s Team – hockey edition: Jillian Saulnier and Erin Ambrose.
“I remember playing with [Leon] and being, ‘wow, she’s so fast. I can’t keep up,’” says Saulnier, laughing. “She was a spitfire out there. She was the fastest one on the ice and just tenacious all the time.”
“’She was very creative – you never saw the same move more than once,” says Ken Dufton, who coached Leon her last two seasons. “What made her very dangerous is [being] what I like to call a spontaneous type of player. When she attacks I don’t think even she was quite sure what she was going to do.”
“I had a bit of flair,” says Leon.
Before practices and games it’s common for hockey players to get their feet moving by playing a little “keep up” – kicking a soccer ball around, without letting it touch the ground.
“We would joke, ‘OK, you against the rest of the team,’ because she was so good,” says Saulnier. “She always had a soccer ball in her hand, even when she was at the hockey rink.”
Leon was constantly running from soccer practice to hockey practice and jumping from game to game. Being active in a variety of sports – she also played competitive rugby growing up – made her a better all-around athlete. And not just physically speaking.
“There are so many similarities between all sports – a lot has to do with your drive, your willingness, your preparation, your work ethic,” she says. “Seeing that across all sports is pretty important, just to know you need that in every game you play.”
Every one of Leon’s teammates from her Junior Aeros season went on to play post-secondary hockey. Leon could’ve made it a clean sweep. Cornell University offered her the opportunity to play both hockey and soccer, but having already made major strides within the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA), she committed to the University of Notre Dame. She made her debut with the CSA youth program in 2009, and would go on to play in the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s Under-20 Championship and 2012 FIFA U20 World Cup.
“Still to this day it’s a pretty tough decision – I miss hockey a lot,” says Leon. “I wish I were still playing, but I had to make a decision.”
In January 2013 she made her debut with the Women’s National Team – scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over China at the Four Nations Cup.
Leon’s former coach isn’t surprised by her success. Dufton won two gold medals as an assistant coach with Canada’s National Women’s Team, and the attributes he recognized in those athletes – the drive, the demeanour, the decision making – he saw in Leon.
“Her passion for the sport was so high, and then you combine that with a great attitude – there’s no guarantees but you’re giving yourself the best chance to be successful.”
Leon follows the success that her former hockey teammates are now enjoying, and they’re equally as proud of her.
“She’s achieving on so many levels,” says Ambrose, “and I’m really happy that I got to know her as a person, as a hockey player and now I get to see her succeed as a soccer player.”