was barely in his teens when he began to get used to a big-time hockey environment.
There is Indiana basketball, Friday night football in Texas, Iowa wrestling and then there is Minnesota high school hockey.
“It was unbelievable,” Lee said, who played for the Moorhead High Spuds. “We went to the state tournament three times and made the finals my last two. The Xcel Center was jam packed for every single game in the tournament. It was like playing in Game 7 of a Cup final.”
Lee, one of the newest Lightning defensemen, built quite a resume of achievements as a teenager. He was named Mr. Hockey in Minnesota as the top high school player, dressed for the United States in three straight World Juniors, scored 53 points in two seasons at North Dakota and was picked ninth in the 2005 NHL entry draft by the Ottawa Senators.
A few weeks from his 25th birthday, the Lightning are banking on Lee becoming a steady two-way force on the blue line after acquiring him from the Senators Feb. 27 for Matt Gilroy.
“The guys here have been real great to me,” Lee said. “They welcomed me right away. That helps make you more comfortable. I’m really looking forward to getting an opportunity and a fresh start.”
Lee had both assists against the New York Rangers, including a nifty pass to Steven Stamkos
, giving him 10 points on the season.
But even more noticeable was the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Lee stepping up to level Montreal’s Aaron Palushaj with check in his debut, one of his 80 hits.
“He’s got a big body and he’s been physical for us,” Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. “He also made two terrific plays [against the Rangers] that helped us win a game.”
Lee, a right-handed shot, put up numbers offensively when he was younger. The offensive instincts still remain, but he has been more of a shut-down defenseman in the AHL and NHL.
In 170 NHL games, Lee has five goals and 25 assists.
“I like to play a strong two-way game,” Lee said. “Obviously, you’ve got to keep the puck out of the net to win games. I just want to work on all my skill sets, make sure I compete every night and be ready to battle.”
Moorhead is the largest city in Northwest Minnesota, with a population of over 38,000. Moorhead borders Fargo, N.D. on the West and is more than 200 miles from St. Paul.
Lee was noticed early and drew plenty of eyes, scoring more than a point per game. His senior season he named the top player in the state.
“It was quite an honor,” Lee said. “There were a lot of good players that year, but I would have traded it for a state championship.”
Lee has made an impact on the Lightning after being acquired from the Senators in February
He also was allowed to play for Lincoln (Neb.) of the United States Hockey League his senior year and was selected to the U.S. team for the World Juniors.
When Lee was away, his brother John took his place for Moorhead. But they never had a chance to play together on the high school team. John Lee is now a senior at the University of Denver and a draft pick of the Florida Panthers. The Lee brothers could be playing in the Sunshine State long term.
“That would be okay with me,” Lee said.
Lee played his first World Junior Championship in North Dakota and took home a bronze medal at the 2007 event in Sweden. Lee played with Phil Kessel, Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, Ryan Callahan and Ryan Suter among others.
Two years at the University of North Dakota were an education as well.
“Hockey is like a religion there,” Lee said. “It was good to get used to that pressure-cooker environment and work on getting bigger and stronger.”
Lee spent most of the 2007-08 season with the Binghamton Senators of the AHL. He played 53 for Ottawa the next year and put up a career-high 13 points.
It takes time for defensemen to develop, perhaps longer than any other position. Lee said the expectations of being picked No. 9 overall did not affect his progress the first five years as a pro.
“I haven’t really worried about it,” Lee said. “That’s other people’s jobs to access how I stack up. I just try to work hard, play hockey and have fun.”