By Angela Busch
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Seven years ago, Chris Lee was thinking about hanging up his skates for good. He had played the game since he was 3, but he wasn’t sure it held a future for him anymore.
So he prepared to enroll at a college in Ontario and focus on his studies. He figured it was time to move on.
Then, before he had made up his mind for good, Lee was offered a hockey scholarship to SUNY-Potsdam (N.Y.). He took it.
Potsdam is NCAA Division III hockey, and Lee never expected a professional career to come of it.
Fast forward to 2007. Lee, who spent half the season in the American Hockey League, is back with the Florida Everblades to help out on their playoff run. His AHL team was eliminated last Saturday night, and Blades coach Gerry Fleming had strategically placed Lee on the playoff roster. Good thing, since the Blades were down a couple defensemen due to injuries.
Now, Lee, who’s always up for more hockey, is back. He’ll be on the ice again Friday night with the Everblades as they try to clinch the seven-game South Division finals series against the Texas Wildcatters. Faceoff is at 7:30 at Germain Arena, and the Blades lead the series 3-2.
There’s no question Fleming and the rest of the Blades are glad to have Lee back.
“There’s no doubt about that,” Fleming said after practice on Thursday. “He’s a good player, and he’s good off the ice, too. He still has a lot of friends here.”
Blades President/GM Craig Brush said Lee is a good example of a “diamond in the rough” player, who didn’t have much of a reputation when he was younger but has worked his way up the ranks.
Lee himself says that he has taken the long way.
After two years at Potsdam, Lee still didn’t think he’d ever be paid to play hockey. He was getting ice time, sure, but his numbers weren’t all that impressive. And it takes impressive numbers to be noticed at a Division III school.
In his junior and senior year, Lee took his play to another level: scoring 36 points his junior year and 49 his senior year. In those days, he played forward.
Those numbers got Lee some attention from professional leagues, though not the NHL, AHL or much in the ECHL. It was Lee’s friend, Joel Jennings, who got him his first season with the Blades, in 2004. Jennings and Lee had met while playing in the same league during college hockey.
Joel’s dad, John, was then the equipment manager for the Blades and told Brush and Fleming he had a prospect for them. Then, John told Joel that the Blades needed another player — Joel passed the word to Lee, and Lee jumped at the chance to come to Florida. Brush and Fleming had seen Lee play in the past, and they were impressed.
“I had a contract the next day,” Lee said.
His development continued with the Blades, and Lee even switched from forward to defenseman under Fleming and assistant coach Jason Nobili’s tutelage. In fact, he improved so much in his first two seasons with the Blades that he was getting attention from AHL teams. At the Albany (N.Y.) River Rats’ training camp, Lee impressed so much that he was asked to stay for the beginning of the season. He played three games and got an assist, then was sent back down to Florida after the River Rats, the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, received several more defensemen from the Canes.
Lee was with the Everblades for 37 games during this regular season and scored 25 points (six goals, 19 assists). AHL teams took notice, including the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the Omaha Knights. Lee played just one game with Bridgeport but was asked to play with Omaha for almost the entire second half of the season. He also played with the Knights throughout their playoff run.
Lee scored three goals in just six playoff games for Omaha, and he said his postseason talks with the Knights went well. He’s hoping to sign an AHL contract next season.
“Chris has dominated at every level he’s played at,” Fleming said.
For now, the Blades are just hoping Lee will dominate in the ECHL playoffs. Lee seems happy to be back — his main home base is still Fort Myers, and he left most of his things in a rented garage in Florida while he spent months in Omaha.
“I had most of my clothes in Omaha, but that was about it,” he said, smiling and shaking his head.
He said he wasn’t surprised to get Fleming’s call after Omaha was eliminated from the playoffs.
“I had been keeping tabs on their games,” Lee said, adding that he and several Blades players stayed in touch over the phone throughout the season. “There’s that comfort of being back here.”
Surely, Lee never imagined being so comfortable in Southwest Florida — thousands of miles from home in Ontario. But hockey has provided him with a chance, and a long, but rewarding road to follow.
“I’ll be thrilled if Chris is able to continue up the ladder,” Brush said.
For now Lee, and the Blades, will just try to continue up the road — to the Kelly Cup.