Walter and Dottie Sweatt saw only potential.
The parents of Canucks prospects and brothers Bill and Lee Sweatt wanted a place their boys could develop into well-rounded athletes and with both showing an early interest in hockey, a monster basement was at the top of their wish list when the family moved from suburban Chicago to Elburn, Illinois.
Lee, the eldest of the boys, was eight-years-old and baby brother Bill was five when they were let loose in a concrete wonderland complete with a net, roller blades, weights and a punching bag.
Walter, a former linebacker at Wofford College, the smallest Division I team to field a football team in the U.S., knew that while an unfinished basement gave his boys a sanctuary to play in, it could also serve as training grounds.
“My dad basically trained both of us,” explained Bill, who turned 22 earlier this week. “I didn’t get to do much training on hitting because I was the forward and I was always supposed to score out there, but he would create regiments for us and we’d have to follow them. After a while we started to see that it was working so we took it on ourselves.”
You name it, the Sweatt brothers worked on it. Again and again and again.
“You walked down the stairs to an unfinished basement and it was pretty huge, even when I was 12 and Lee was 15 and we were both on rollerblades it was still big,” said Bill. “Basically it was divided into two halves with concrete support poles lining it and we had an 80-pound punching bag hung over the foundation and that’s what Lee and I would hit. Once we started getting older we used to crack the bag right to the roof.”
From toddlers to teens, Lee and Bill spent countless hours in the basement between practices and games and the dream of someday making it to the NHL remained the same.
Hard work wasn’t the only lesson engrained in the brothers, their parents also stressed education and following that path is what has Lee and Bill at training camp with the Canucks right now.
After a year with the USHL’s Chicago Steel, Lee, now 25, went to Colorado College for four years where he developed into the aggressive, hard-hitting workhorse he is today, while earning a degree in economics.
Bill followed suit after two years with the U.S. National Under-18 Team by going to Colorado College for four years and developing into a well-rounded, scrappy player with exceptional speed, while getting a mathematical economics degree.
For the 2006-07 season, the brothers were reunited with Lee on defence and Bill up front for the Tigers.
It was just like being back in the basement.
“I’m excited to be able to have the opportunity to play with him again,” said Lee. “The last time we played with each other was in college for his freshman year and my senior year and it was kind of amazing, I assisted on his first college goal and he assisted on my first senior year goal.”
Lee joined the Canucks on May 31, while Bill, the 38th overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, was signed on August 19.
The Sweatts didn’t get a chance to display their kinship in Penticton, where the Canucks held the first three days of 2010 training camp, because they were in different groups, but Vancouver’s pre-season home opener was a different tale.
Both Lee and Bill were in the line-up when the Canucks dropped a 3-1 decision to the Calgary Flames Tuesday night and both made a good impression. Lee played a team-high 24:10 on 26 shifts on the power play, penalty kill and at even strength; he had three shots and three hits.
Bill was one of Vancouver’s top forwards skating on a line with Brendan Morrison and Guillaume Desbiens; he had one shot on goal in 17:19 of ice time.
“It was pretty special,” said Lee. “It was pretty cool to be able to pass the puck to him on the far wing a couple times and then watch him break up the ice. It was definitely a lot of fun.”
"It would have been a lot better if we capped it off with a win," Bill Sweatt told The Province after the game. "It was a dream come true. We never thought we'd play professional hockey together. Maybe college, but never this. It was a surreal experience but hopefully it doesn't stop here."
It isn’t likely to be a one and done affair for the Sweatts with the Canucks playing only their third of eight pre-season games Wednesday night at Rogers Arena.
There’s still plenty of time for Lee and Bill to bust out a few of the plays they perfected in the old unfinished basement.