Robertson County is not an area known for producing ice hockey players.
None of the high schools have their own team, and the closest rinks are at Centennial Sportsplex on Nashville’s West End.
That has not stopped Jo Byrns freshman Peyton Leonard from trying – and excelling in – the sport.
The Springfield native plays for the Nashville Predators 16U Select team and recently advanced to the finals of the Preds 1-on-1 shootout competition. Leonard was set to compete for the 16U championship during the first intermission of the Predators-Maple Leafs game on Monday at Bridgestone Arena.
“It just happened to go well the day (of the preliminary round),” Leonard said. “I usually roll with the backhand shot (in shootouts). It depends on what the goalie does.”
Leonard learned to skate in the fall of 2014 and signed up for a house league at Ford Ice Center after it opened in Antioch. From there, he improved his skills and landed in the Preds youth hockey circuit.
“I watched a lot of the games on TV and went to some,” Leonard said. “Then I heard about the new rink opening up in Antioch and thought, ‘Why not? Let’s go for it.’”
Hockey players from Robertson County are few and far between. Administrators at Greenbrier, East Robertson, Springfield and White House Heritage said they were not aware of any hockey players that attend their respective schools.
Adams resident Hunter Kitzmiller and White House resident Cody Oberholtzer both play for the Tennessee Outlaws, which houses players from non-hockey schools in Middle Tennessee. The Outlaws compete in the Greater Nashville Area Scholastic Hockey (GNASH) league along with schools from Davidson, Rutherford, Sumner and Williamson counties.
White House resident Logan Primm, a former Heritage student, is a goalie for the Bradford Rattlers, a Canadian team in the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League. Heritage had a GNASH co-op program with Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet, though it was dissolved into the Outlaws after the 2013-14 season.
Leonard is the first Springfield native since Dan Dill, who played for the Outlaws from 2013-17, to take up the sport. He is also the only Jo Byrns student that competes on the ice.
“It’s something new,” Leonard said. “I don’t get tired of hockey. With basketball and baseball, I got tired of it. I always wanted to get on the ice.”
Chad Leonard, Peyton’s father, said hockey requires a ‘family commitment.’ The Leonards spend at least four hours per week commuting to and from practices – not counting ice time and additional travel to weekend tournaments around the Southeast.
“Nobody in our family plays hockey,” Chad Leonard said. “He’s the first one going way back. It’s not cheap at all. But we committed to do it, and as long as he’s having fun, we’re going to keep doing it.”
Peyton Leonard has his sights set on moving up to the Nashville Jr. Predators travel program next year. He also hopes to see more athletes from Robertson County try hockey in the future.
“I think it would be cool to share what I’ve been through since I started playing,” Peyton Leonard said. “It’s a fun sport.”
The Preds are doing their part to drive youth hockey interest. The team offers free instruction and equipment through its Get Out and Learn (G.O.A.L.!) program, designed for boys and girls ages 4-9 with no prior hockey or skating experience. Sessions are held at the Ford Ice Center in Antioch and Bellevue.
Although the sport is rarely played by Robertson County natives, the Leonards aren’t the first hockey converts – and likely won’t be the last – from the area.
“I know there’s a lot of Preds fans in town, they just don’t look into (playing),” Chad Leonard said. “I think it’s just going to get bigger as time goes on, and hopefully they will build a few more rinks in Middle Tennessee.”