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Anders Lee made most of freshman season

by Staff Writer / New York Islanders
"Highly recruited" doesn't mean the same for Anders Lee as it does for most scholar-athletes.  Sure, he committed to play hockey at the University of Notre Dame before the 2010-11 season began.  But Lee was also recruited to play college football.  He was also recruited to play college baseball.  No, that's not a typo.  Those are in fact two different sentences.

Anders Lee, Notre Dame's leading goal-scorer in 2010-11, once rushed for 32 touchdowns and 1,104 yards and threw for 1,982 yards and 5 TDs at Edina High School.  Lee was also a finalist for Minnesota's "Mr. Hockey" award and Minnesota's "Mr. Baseball" award, graduating with a 3.97 GPA.  Lee also set the Minnesota state record for average total yards per game (319) and the North American record for long-track speed skating.  Unfortunately there's no "Mr. Speedskater" award out there, but 32 rushing TDs in 10 games – is that even possible?

Guess who else ran for 32 touchdowns in his senior year of high school?  Adrian Peterson.  Don't believe it?  Well, it's true – go ahead and Google it.

At this point in his career, Lee's sporting resume would make "The World's Most Interesting Man" drop his Dos Equis and say, "I'll have what he's having."  But how did Lee decide to pursue a professional hockey career?  That's kind of a silly question, says Lee.

"I was recruited by a few football programs, but I couldn't see myself giving up hockey to pursue anything else.  I pretty much knew the whole time that I wanted to play hockey, and I was always focused on getting to the next level.  When I came here to Notre Dame I knew this was where I wanted to be for the next four years."

So that answers that.  Maybe this is a better question: at what point did Anders Lee decide the United States Hockey League would be the best way for him to get to the next level?

"I was drafted in the USHL Futures Draft," Lee explains, "and when I visited Notre Dame they recommended that I take a year to play junior hockey and develop my game a little bit.  I was all for that, and we ended up winning it all in Green Bay.  It was a great experience and I'll never regret my decision."

What does Lee mean when he says, "We won it all?"  Well, during his first year in the USHL, the Green Bay Gamblers pretty much took home the entire trophy case.  After capturing their second consecutive Anderson Cup, rounding out the regular season at 45-10-5, the Gamblers won the USHL Clark Cup in front of a record-shattering crowd of 8,487 in the decisive Game Five at the Resch Center in Green Bay.

"We were down two games to none against Fargo in the Clark Cup Final and we came back and won it," Lee says. "We never gave up, and I'll never forget that.  Game Three went to triple overtime, and Game Five was a sold-out crowd, on their feet for the last five minutes of the game cheering us on.  It was a special moment and their support was extremely appreciated."

Having led the League in playoff scoring with 22 points (10 goals, 12 assists) including three points (1 goal, 2 assists) in the final game, Anders Lee was named MVP of the Clark Cup Playoffs.  When asked how it felt to be named the most valuable player on the ice, Lee gave a quick salute to his teammates.

"My success was really a reflection of everyone's hard work.  I was getting the bounces for the last twelve to fifteen games or so.  It was nice to win that award, but when Pat McCadden (2008-10) lifted up the Clark Cup a few minutes later, it was much more thrilling."

During Lee's time in Green Bay, the cowbell industry was booming, and Anders Lee was becoming a household name.

"We had great fans," Lee remembers.  "They'd show up every night, we sold out our Clark Cup games and a lot of games during the season, and that was really important for our team last year.  After the Packers, it's the Gamblers in Green Bay – you'd see fans from Lambeau Field kind of trickle over to the hockey arena.  So it was cool – you are recognized around town and it's really fun to be a part of."

When the party in Green Bay finally wound down (assuming it ever did) Lee brought his talents to South Bend and joined the Fighting Irish.  And if there were any questions remaining – "How well will this USHL All-Star adapt to the college game?" – those doubts were quickly reversed.  Lee collected 44 points in 44 games (24 goals, 20 assists), second only to another former USHL'er, T.J. Tynan, who was recently named National College Hockey Rookie of the Year (Des Moines Buccaneers 2009-10).

"Coming in, I kind of started hot, and I benefited right away from having great teammates like T.J. Tynan and a lot of other guys from the USHL," Lee says.

"A lot of guys" is actually a serious understatement.  Lee and Tynan were two of 18 USHL alumni on Notre Dame's 27-man roster.  That's worth repeating.  Of the 27 Irish in that locker room, 18 were former USHL'ers – including 10 freshmen.  And according to Lee, that made those first few days a whole lot easier.

"It was cool because we knew everyone from around the League, and it was fun to get together and become teammates here at Notre Dame.  I played with David Gerths and Steven Summerhays in Green Bay.  We had guys all over the board – T.J. Tynan and Mike Voran (Sioux Falls 2009-10) were right up there in League scoring last year.  And Jeff Costello (Cedar Rapids 2008-10) had the ability to score – you always knew when he was on the ice.  We went back and forth a few times.  I got the better of him once or twice, but he's a really good guy and I'm glad we're on the same team now."

Lee says crowding the locker room with USHL vets was also vital to the success of the Irish as a whole.

"It just brought us together.  When you know what everyone excels at, you can accommodate everyone and that's what makes a good team.  Everyone found their role and knew what we needed to do to win."

Although they lost to Miami University in the CCHA Championship Semifinal, the Irish earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.  "They're a young team," the skeptics said.  "They won't go far."

Oh, really?

In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the Irish overcame a two-goal deficit in the second period as supposed Tournament "newbie" Anders Lee netted two goals, including the overtime game-winner.

"The USHL really prepared me for the college level game," Lee says.  "The thing about the USHL is any team can win, and you learn that way as a player.  I played in big games last year (with Green Bay), and in the USHL you play 60-80 games with playoffs included, so when big games came this year it wasn't anything new.  I knew how to handle it – play my own game and play with poise."

"Without playing in Green Bay I wouldn't have had the success I had this year, that's for sure."

After another clutch performance against the University of New Hampshire in round two, Notre Dame punched its ticket to the 2011 Frozen Four.  Unfortunately they came short in the semifinal game, falling to another USHL alumni-driven machine in the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs.

Lee's response to the loss?  "It was a successful season," he says without hesitation. "We're looking forward to getting back next year."

The freshman sensation can also afford to spend time looking forward to his shot at the National Hockey League.  In 2009, Lee was selected in the 6th round, 152nd overall by the New York Islanders – home of USHL alums Kyle Okposo and Matt Donovan.  But for now, Lee eagerly awaits the next batch of USHL recruits, who will soon fill the locker room with stories and clutter their dorm room shelves with USHL hardware.

"All of our guys will be here so it'll be good bonding time to get to know everyone and the incoming freshmen," Lee says.  "We have a lot of guys coming back who know what it takes to get there, so we'll be excited to do it again."

Feature by James D'Amanda, Correspondent
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