Anders Lee at Isles rookie camp.
The Islanders drafted two "Anders"(es) last summer: One from Sweden, home to so many Anders(es), and one from Minnesota, home to so many Americans whose roots go back to Sweden (and who have created a legacy of proud Minnesotans and fantastic hockey players, incidentally).
To learn a little about the second "Anders" the Isles picked, I spoke with Anders Lee about his decision to play for the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers this year before taking a scholarship at Notre Dame next season. Lee, you might recall, was taken in the 6th round last summer -- his second year of eligibility -- in part because scouts knew he was being recruited ... for college football. (A two-sport star in high school, he was named 2008 Star Tribune Metro Football Player of the Year as he racked up passing and rushing yards from the quarterback position.)
But from the get-go, Lee has had a clear goal: In 10 years, he says he wants "to be playing hockey with a college degree. Whether that be the NHL or Europe, I want to still be playing."
By all accounts, the 6'2", 216-pound power forward who patterns himself after Johan Franzen has, to use the parlance of fathers everywhere, his head screwed on straight. Which is great for the Isles: To fetch an NHL player in the 6th round is a bonus; if Lee becomes that plus a true NHL power forward, it's not just a bonus -- it's a steal. One that would have other clubs kicking themselves for worrying about that other sport.
For Lee, that other sport was never a question.
"Not at all," he said. "I love football, but I can't imagine ever not playing hockey." (Note: It seems the Lees have the genes for this sports thing. There's Anders' hockey and football exploits, and then there's his father, who is a world champion velodrome cyclist.)
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'No matter what, hockey is going to end at some point'
What follows is the rest of the Lighthouse Hockey Q&A with Lee. Tomorrow I should have another Q&A with a different prospect.
LH: How was your holiday break?
Lee: It was great. Great to get a week off, just to get away a little bit. You know, playing 30 games already is fun, but it's busy. The last two games before break, it did start to grind.
So you have a scholarship with Notre Dame. How did you decide to take a year before college to play juniors in the USHL?
Mostly, it was part of my commitment process with Notre Dame. They wanted me to take that year to develop more, and I was happy to do it.
And the USHL has been good for you?
Oh, it's been great. The competition is a level not a lot of kids my age get to play at, so it's a great challenge.
Is it tough playing away from home?
Not really. My billet family is terrific. They're very supportive. And my parents come up about once a month; we talk a lot, every other day or so, so no issues with homesickness or anything like that.
What about adjusting from quality of high school hockey to the USHL?
The competition is obviously better. But I mean, every time you step up a level, you have to make adjustments. Here it's been the speed. Also, high school teams usually have one or two really good lines, but here everyone is good. Every team has good players on all four lines.
[Editor's Note: The Gamblers are currently first in the East Division by 12 points. Lee leads Green Bay in scoring and is 14th in the league, with 15 goals, 17 assists, 32 points and +17 in 32 games. For his profile, this quote from November comes to mind: "The only true power center in the league. No center in the USHL matches Lee's 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame (although some are taller) and absolutely none own the boards like Lee."]
Are you surprised at how well you've adjusted? Or what did you expect?
I didn't know how it would go, honestly. I thought I'd just sort of take what comes. But I've had great linemates, and our coaching is great, so the transition hasn't been hard.
Have the Islanders been keeping in touch with you?
Oh yeah. They've made it up here for a couple of weekends of games, and we stay in touch. I send them an update about once a month on how things are going, how my health is, everything like that.
Do the Islanders get involved with your physical training?
Not really, but at rookie camp last summer they gave us a lot of things that I took back with me and try to apply here. Otherwise they let the team handle it; every USHL team has its own program.
The word about you is that you take academics very seriously. You're going the college route, [receiving offers from] Ivy League even, but first playing a year in the USHL. I guess this is a life question, but: How do you balance those two?
The way I look at that is: No matter what, hockey is going to end at some point. Whenever that is, I will need some sort of fall-back, and I want that to be as good as possible. So Notre Dame is a good school, and we'll go from there.
[Editor's Note: I'm sure you wanted me to, but I didn't ask him when he might be prepared to, ahem, leave Notre Dame early if the Islanders wish -- be patient, he's not even in college yet. Honestly, I don't like to ask young players questions for which the answer could upset mom. Save that for when they're pros.
But I get the impression Lee is very focused on becoming as good of a hockey player as he can be. And obviously he has a great perspective on the choices ahead of him.]
Did you get to watch the World Junior Championships?
We don't have the NHL Network where I'm living, but I watched some highlights on the Web. It was really cool. Growing up in Minnesota, I've played with several of those guys [on Team USA], so it was great to see them win the gold.
You're 19 and playing USHL hockey in Green Bay. Is it weird to know that New York Islanders fans are keeping an eye on you and speculating about where you might be a few years from now?
It's fun. I think it goes to show how good Islanders fans are, and how much support the organization has. If fans are so into it that they're looking at guys like me and thinking about years down the line, that's great, it means we have great fans. I applaud it.
Did you have a favorite NHL team growing up?
The Wild didn't arrive until I was 10, so before that I just followed the league in general. But then I guess I followed the Wild. And during the playoffs, you always pick your favorites.
No, I wasn't. Actually, I had Mike Modano's rookie card from his North Star days, so I was a fan. When they made their run and won the Cup against Buffalo, I had to root for them.
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Thanks to Anders for taking the time to talk, and to USHL communications staff for facilitating. There are more questions I want to ask, but I wanted to talk background without keeping him on the phone forever. Hopefully we'll do this again a little further down the road.
In journalism, you're not supposed to root for the subject. In PR, you're supposed to do nothing but root for the subject. Ah, but when you have no master, then you can do whatever you want -- even be human! -- and as long as you're up front about it, content is wide open. So I don't mind saying this, because life always supersedes hockey (barely): No matter what happens, I can't help but wish Anders Lee well. He sounds like a smart young man with some great opportunities ahead. Of course I hope he ends up as a bruising Islanders power forward, but somehow I get the sense no matter where his road takes him, he's going to handle it like a pro.