There can be only one. In 1986, that tagline was made famous by a small film about immortal warriors, a film that went from being relatively unknown upon its initial release into full-blown cult status today. In 1999, a young kid from Binscarth, Manitoba, began his own journey from the unknown to the cult-like. With his gap-toothed grin, ginger hair, and propensity for battle, the Avalanche forward truly embodies the Highlander moniker. After all, there can be only one Cody McLeod.
McLeod was drafted in the fourth round of the 1999 WHL Bantam Draft by the Portland Winterhawks. After spending 2000-2001 in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, he began playing with the Winterhawks for the 2001-2002 season. In 47 games, he put up a modest 13 points (10g, 3a). His penalty minutes were also modest - well, modest for McLeod anyway - coming in at only 86 . The following season, he fully embraced his role as a willing combatant and team protector, nearly doubling his minutes to 153 in the process. He also upped his scoring, registering 15 goals and 18 assists in those 71 games.
In 2003-2004, Cody continued on his scoring pace with 31 points; his PIMs, however, skyrocketed to 227. You would think that would be a team-leading figure. You'd be wrong. The winger actually came in second. The following season, however, marked the first - but not the last - time the Highlander would lead his team in time spent in the sin bin (195). That wasn't the only area of his game in which he led that season, his final one with Portland. McLeod was also first in goals (31) and second in points (60). Going out with flair is so like him.
Although McLeod went undrafted, he was able to land a tryout with the Boston Bruins in 2005. Unfortunately, he was reassigned to their AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins, on September 17 and subsequently let go without signing a contract. True to character, this did not deter him in the least. He went on to sign with the Lowell Lock Monsters (Colorado's AHL affiliate) for the 2005-2006 season and split his time between the AHL team and their ECHL affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. In the combined 49 games, he earned 135 penalty minutes and scored 8 goals and 10 assists, as well as adding 3 pts (2g, 1a) in the Gulls' playoff run.
On July 6, 2006, the Avalanche signed McLeod to a 2-year contract. He attended the Avs' training camp that year, but he was assigned to the team's new affiliate, the Albany River Rats, for 2006-2007. He played 73 games with the Rats, during which time he amassed 180 penalty minutes and 19 points (11g, 8a). By now, McLeod had established himself as a gritty bottom six forward who wasn't afraid of physical play or hard work. These things garnered him a new contract, this time a one-year deal.
The following year (2007-2008) - while he was playing for yet another Avalanche AHL team, the Lake Erie Monsters - Cody won over the big club's brass. After 27 games, 101 PIMs, and 13 points (6g, 7a) in Lake Erie, Cody got the call up every player wants. He donned an Avalanche sweater for his NHL debut on December 19, 2007, and has not worn another team's colors since. Just over a week after his debut, he scored his first NHL point, a goal against Detroit's Dominik Hašek. Keeping with his character, McLeod became one of the main enforcers for Colorado, receiving 12 fighting majors in his 49 games with the team. He was also the first rookie in team history to log over 100 penalty minutes. What he lacked in offensive output (4g, 5a) he made up for in personality, quickly becoming a fan favorite. One of his most endearing moments came on February 22, 2008. The Phoenix Coyotes took the Avalanche to overtime and then the shoot out. In what would become the longest shoot out in Avs history, McLeod won the game for the boys in the 12th round.
Cody went on to play in all 10 of Colorado's playoff games in 2008. Before Game 2 of the second round, a fan in Joe Louis arena threw the traditional octopus on the ice in homage to the home team, the Red Wings. In quintessential Highlander fashion, McLeod picked up the octopus and tossed it back into the stands. That gesture immediately solidified his place in the hearts of Avs fans everywhere. In Game 3 of that series, he scored his first NHL playoff goal.
Riding on the success of the season, McLeod signed another one year deal with the Avs. The 2008-2009 season was not a pretty one for the Avalanche, but Cody shined during the roughest times of that year. His 15 goals put him third in scoring; with the addition of his 162 penalty minutes, he became one of four players in the NHL that season - and only the second player in team history - to score at least 15 goals and record at least 150 PIMs. He also led the team in hits (194) and was tied for the most game-winning-goals (3).
On June 19, 2009, McLeod signed a three-year, $3.10 million contract with the Avs. That season was riddled with small injuries, limiting him to 74 games. Still, he managed to lead the team in hits, penalty minutes, and fighting majors. He also stayed the course in scoring, netting 7 goals and helping out on 11 others.
2010-2011 was the worst in Avalanche history. It was also the worst in Cody's career. With only 8 points (5g, 3a) to his name and too many of his team-leading 189 penalty minutes due to actual penalties, not fighting, people began to question his value to the team. He missed 11 games due to a groin injury, but, interestingly enough, he still led the forwards (2nd on the team) in hits with 147. He scored his first career power play goal on October 15, 2010, just prior to receiving a game misconduct.
Coming into the 2011-2012 season, the last of his contract, it seemed Cody's place on the team was in jeopardy. With up and coming gritty, blue collar players like Patrick Bordeleau and Brad Malone, there was uncertainty with McLeod's future. Although it's still not set as he has yet to sign a new contract, his quality of play thus far in 2011-2012 is giving him an advantage. In 6 games, he's limited his minor penalties to one and has had one fighting major. He's playing smart hockey, and his line is bringing the kind of energy that made him the kind of player the Avs wanted when they first signed him.
The Highlander will remain a favorite of Avalanche fans for the grit, the grind, and certainly, the grin. Mostly, though, it's his character that resonates with the community. His quickness to defend a teammate or take one for his boys speaks volumes of who he is at heart, as does his tendency to give back by donating his time and money.
"Just a few years ago, I was in the minors, just trying to scratch and claw to get up to the NHL. And then you play one game, and you want ten. Then you play ten and want 100. And when you get like that, you've got to keep fighting, keep working hard and play as long as you can...You play every shift like it's your last."
"In Juniors, I scored a few goals here and there, and in the minors, I'd always get around 10 to 15 goals. All my goals are in front of the net. They're not going to be Milan Hejduk or Paul Stastny dangling the D or something. Just work hard in front of the net, and whether it goes in off my leg or my butt, whatever, you know? I'll take whatever I can get."
"It's just kind of in my nature to go out and play hard and finish checks and get in the odd scrap here and there...I think that's my job."