|Mike Lee is just one of seven 17-year-olds on the Team USA roster and one of just three players to play high school hockey last season.|
Lee is just one of seven 17-year-olds on the Team USA roster and one of just three players on the invite list to play high school hockey last season. Lee backstopped Roseau (Minn.) High to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the state semifinals last season.
Lee also has very little pedigree with USA Hockey. He never has made a select or festival team, usually annual rites of passage for most players that make up the evaluation-camp roster.
But Lee has a chance to turn some heads this week as one of the five goalies at the camp.
“I don’t see many goalies better than Mike Lee,” says Dean Blais, coach of the expansion Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League, “and I’ve coached three World Junior teams.”
Blais, a former coach at the University of North Dakota, doesn’t easily throw around praise. He sees something special in Lee and has made him the No. 1 goalie with the expansion Force this season. Lee has passed up his senior season at Roseau High to join forces with the Force.
“I have a pretty good feeling about him, that he will be a success at whatever he does,” said Blais. “He’s a very good goalie, fundamentally solid and competitive.”
Lee, already on NHL Central Scouting’s preseason watch list for players eligible for the 2009 Entry Draft, will have to be good to make a mark with the Team USA coaching staff this week.
The camp is loaded with very good goalies, beginning with Jeremy Smith, the starting netminder for the 2008 U.S. squad at the World Junior Championship. Thomas McCollum and Josh Unice are back for their second evaluation camps after solid years in the Ontario Hockey League this past season. All three have been drafted by NHL teams, including McCollum’s first-round selection by Detroit this past June.
Brandon Maxwell, the other goalie in camp, was a key component of the USA Hockey’s National Under-17 Team and was dominant at the World Under-18 Championship last year.
Others beside Blais, though, believe Lee can make a favorable impression this week.
Nick Oliver has played with Lee for years. Last year, both were juniors on a Roseau team that went 26-0 in the regular season. Both were members of Roseau’s state championship team as sophomores, a team that settled on Lee as its goaltender just before going on a late-season run to the title.
“He’s the most fundamentally sound goalie I’ve ever seen,” said Oliver, who will play for Team USA in the upcoming Ivan Hlinka U-18 tournament in the Czech Republic. “He’s really competitive and that is what I like most about him. In practice I’m lucky to score two or three goals on him.”
While those who know Lee best are banging the drum for his candidacy to make the 2009 U-20 team, Lee is not leading the chorus.
“Realistically, I just want to make it through the week and have a good camp,” he said. “Obviously I’m going there to make the team, but I can’t control that. I just want to do the best that I can.”
Lee’s humility is one of his defining characteristics, according to those close to him. Oliver is one of Lee’s closest friends, and he didn’t learn Lee had been invited to Lake Placid until a few days after the invitation was offered. Lee revealed it as an oh-by-the-way aside as the two were golfing.
“You don’t go around parading stuff,” is Lee’s explanation. “In Roseau, you are taught to be humble.”
|“He works real hard and certainly has a lot of talent and great athleticism. We think he’s a goalie that has potential in the future.” - Team USA coach Ron Rolston|
Ron Rolston, who will coach the U-20 team at this year’s World Junior Championship in Ottawa, admits he doesn’t know much about Lee but he has heard the rave reviews from Team USA goalie coach Jeff Blashill, the coach of the USHL’s Indiana Ice.
“He works real hard and certainly has a lot of talent and great athleticism,” Rolston says. “We think he’s a goalie that has potential in the future.”
Jim Johannson, the executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey, also is excited to see more of Lee. USA Hockey has concentrated more on developing goaltending at the U-20 level – including setting up an annual goalie camp for top teenage goalies in Ann Arbor, Mich. – and Lee is one of the first projects of this new initiative.
“They just think there is so much of a base there with Mike,” Johannson says, referencing the goaltending group led by Blashill. “Let’s get him out of his comfort level, let’s get him to the highest level and see what kind of reaction we get out of him.”
Most likely, from the width and breadth of Lee’s resume, the reaction the Team USA coaching staff witnesses will be a favorable one. Regardless, Lee is just grateful for the opportunity this camp provides to start a new hockey season.
“It’s good to get some recognition,” said Lee, who is committed to go to St. Cloud State either next season or the year after. “I’ve been working hard and looking to get a break like this.”