International Ice Hockey Federation

The Roman spring of Chris Lee

The Roman spring of Chris Lee

Senior defenceman gets better with age

Published 02.02.2018 02:34 GMT+10 | Author Andrew Podnieks
The Roman spring of Chris Lee
Nine months after his first World Championship, Chris Lee will also play his first Olympics for Team Canada. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
If you’re going to judge a player just by his age, Chris Lee would have no business competing for a spot on Canada’s Olympic team.

But the truth is that the last 12 months of his career, at age 37, have been the best six months. And all because of Tyson Barrie. Barrie was in Paris with Canada’s World Championship team last May when he sustained an injury in a freak accident. Hockey Canada needed a defenceman as soon as possible, so Lee, who had been playing in the KHL, was nearby and available.

“It was a nice surprise to get that call from Scott Salmond, and what an opportunity that was,” Lee enthused. “It was completely unexpected. I was the only non-NHL guy who made that roster, and it was just a great experience. And even though I wasn’t an NHL player, the guys made me completely comfortable and part of the team. Team Canada has treated me so well, at the Deutschland Cup and World Championship, and now to get the chance to dress again in this sweater is pretty special.”

Lee got into a game, looked good, then played more and more, got some power-play time on the point, and continued to look strong. “Playing in my first game was amazing,” he continued. “I was nervous, even though I’m an experienced guy. I’ve played a lot of games, but that one made me nervous. And then what a great run we had to the finals, and a great game against Sweden in the gold medal. I wish either team had won in overtime, but it’s a memory I’ll cherish forever.”

Despite being around for close to two decades at a high level, Lee didn’t step right in full of confidence. “I was unsure,” he conceded. “I’ve been away for seven years [since his last game in North America], so it had been a long time. Everyone said I could, so I had that belief down deep, but you never know until you get out there. I thought I did an okay job for the situation I was in. It was nice to get out there and realize I can skate with those guys and play at that level.”

Lee was a teenager in the mid-1990s when exactly zero NHL teams were looking for small, quick defencemen. As a result, he played provincial junior hockey in Ontario for four years, not a good sign for a Canadian with NHL aspirations. From there he went to SUNY-Potsdam, an NCAA school not exactly known for producing draft-quality pro players.

No matter. Lee started at the very bottom, skating for the Florida Everblades in the ECHL for three years. He worked his way up to the AHL but then got bounced around from team to team, the NHL still a long phone call away. From there he headed to the DEL in Germany, on to Sweden for a year, and landed in the KHL in 2013. He played four years with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, which won the championship twice (2014, 2016) with Lee anchoring the blue line.

His impressive play in Paris and Cologne gave him hope for another shot at the NHL. Less than three months ago he left the KHL to sign a PTO (professional tryout contract) with the Los Angeles Kings, but he was released by L.A. shortly before the start of the new NHL season, ending his dreams, again.

“There was a Plan A and a Plan A for me this year,” Lee explained. “I tried to make the NHL again, so it was either make the NHL, or the next Plan A was to make the Olympic team. The first Plan A didn’t work out, so now I’m on to this Plan A. Hopefully I can play well enough to earn a spot on the team.”

Things are looking good so far, even though, because of his NHL Plan A, his first real games of the new season have been with the Canadian team at the Karjala Tournament before joining his previous KHL team Metallurg afterwards for a fifth season. Lee wore the “C” in the team’s first game, against Switzerland, a good sign, to be sure.

“I don’t know,” Lee smiled. “Some of the guys told me I got it because I was the oldest guy, but it was still a special feeling. It means they have trust in me as a player and as a leader. But we have so many leaders anyone could have worn the “C.”

Still, Lee’s endurance, perseverance, and late-career success are inspirational.

“It’s been a weird run,” he continued. “I seem to be putting up better numbers as I get older. It doesn’t always work that way, but I’ve tried to stay healthy and stay in good shape, keep my legs going. I think as long as you can skate, you can play as long as you want. Age is just a number. I’ve been fortunate enough not to have any serious injuries, which is a bit part of it.”

Now Lee will be joining defencemen such as Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, and Scott Niedermayer as players who can boast to have represented Canada at the Olympics.

 

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