If his personality had been any different, Anders Lee might be wearing a different set of pads these days.
Growing up, he was a standout multi-sport athlete, regarded as one of the best in the state of Minnesota. A prolific high school quarterback. A league-leading scorer on the ice.
Lee had options.
But like so many little kids who are born and raised in Minnesota, Lee’s real passion was hockey.
Coupled with that was his love of Notre Dame and, when the two collided, it helped set up a path that would eventually lead to Lee becoming an NHL standout.
“Being at Notre Dame (from 2010-13) was probably the best time of my life,” noted Lee, now a forward with the New York Islanders. “I met my wife Grace there. I have some wonderful, wonderful friends, and not just with the (hockey) team, although with them, as well. The coaches, the teachers … Notre Dame was such an integral part of my life that I cherish my time there all the time.”
When Lee was just a toddler his parents already had him in skates, but football somehow was the more natural sport for the budding star. He had to work harder at hockey, which he didn’t mind at all. When it came time to start considering college, Lee received interest for both his football and hockey skills. But when Lee and his family visited the campus, it quickly became clear that Notre Dame was head and shoulders above the rest.
“The recruiting process was similar back then but we as a family didn’t really know how to do it,” Lee explained. “I had some options but not ones that were worth taking away from the ones I had with hockey. I had always dreamed of going to Notre Dame, so we put a feeler out to the coaches and the stars kind of aligned from there.
“On my visit I had a wonderful time with the guys. It’s amazing how important those first few interactions are because I was two years away from even coming to school at the time. But they took me to a football game and we had a lot of fun. (Head) coach (Jeff) Jackson and (associate head coaches Andy) Slaggert and (Paul) Pooley were all wonderful on the visit, and we kind of left Notre Dame in a little bit of shock about how amazing it really was. Once I stepped foot on campus, I knew I was going there.”
Still, Lee wasn’t quite finished with football. People had already started discovering how talented he was on the ice, but it was apparent that he had just as much integrity off of it. When Lee became eligible for the 2008 NHL Draft during the summer prior to his final prep year at Edina High School, the Islanders called and asked Lee if he intended to play football as a senior.
“I told them I was,” stated Lee, who was named the 2008 Minnesota Gatorade Football Player of the Year. “I was the captain. I was the quarterback, and there was no way I wasn’t going to play. Getting drafted is such an amazing thing and it’s also such a long road for that to really pan out that I think, in hindsight, that I maybe could’ve fibbed a little bit and said I wasn’t sure.
“But that’s not the right way to do things. It all worked out, though, because I did things the right way. I was honest with them and then they drafted me the next year (in the sixth round as the 152nd overall selection).”
First, Lee headed to South Bend where he spent three seasons with the Irish. He helped the squad reach the 2011 NCAA Frozen Four as a freshman and eventually became a captain, the team’s leading scorer (with 20 goals and 18 assists for 38 points) and a second-team All-American during his final season. When it came time to consider his professional future — with a season of collegiate eligibility remaining — it was a decision that was tough for Lee and one that he didn’t take lightly.
“That was a really hard time for me,” Lee remembered. “I was leaving my friends. I was leaving college and my teammates. I wanted to win a national championship with Notre Dame, but there came a point where the best decision for my career was to sign a pro contract. So it was extremely hard.”
On April 1, 2013, Lee signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Islanders, and made his pro debut the following night during which he scored his first NHL goal. He spent the last month-and-a-half of the season with the team “learning what life was like in the NHL” before starting with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers in the American Hockey League the following season.
Finally, five games into the 2014-15 season, Lee was called up to the Islanders where he has remained ever since. He accounted for 25 goals and 41 points that season, and finished ninth in voting for the Calder Trophy for the NHL’s top rookie.
“The first time I was called up was technically when I signed so I don’t count that because I knew I was going to the NHL out of college,” Lee said. “But the next time … I kind of did expect it. You kind of learn where the team is at and where you’re at and your agent is kind of involved with the general manager.
“Still, you never really know if you’re going to get the call up until it happens. You work for it, and that’s all I went down (to the minors) to do. I learned a lot there, and it was key to my development. But after you do get the call it’s (great).”
As of Dec. 18, Lee was third on the team in scoring with 12 goals and 13 assists. And, just hours before the start of the season, Lee became the 15th captain in the history of the Islanders organization. It’s not unfamiliar territory for Lee who, in addition to serving as captain of his high school football team, also was a captain at Notre Dame.
“It’s always extremely humbling and such an honor (to be named captain),” Lee noted. “It’s kind of a reflection of how everybody believes in you, and to have that faith from all your teammates and coaches … it really inspires you to want to be even better than you were the day before. It’s just a really special thing and it’s hard to describe because everyone looks to you. Sometimes you want to look at them, but you have to stay strong.
“And I don’t really know where that comes from truthfully. I think it’s just part of who I am and the sense that I love when everyone is together and having fun and we’re all on the same page.”
Getting from Edina High School to the New York Islanders has been a diverse journey for Lee, who has had plenty of high moments mixed with periods of discouragement. And whether someone is trying to reach the NHL just like him or working to achieve any kind of goal, Lee has some simple advice.
“I think the biggest thing I would say is continue to have faith in yourself, and don’t just try to be a better hockey player but a better person,” Lee offered. “Whatever it is you want to pursue in life … there’s going to be adversity and times where you think you can’t do it. That’s where the rubber hits the road in a way and when you come out strong. That’s when you really break through and succeed.”
Despite his hectic schedule, Lee keeps track of the Notre Dame hockey and football teams, among others, and returns to campus every year. It’s a place that continues to remain special for Lee.
“There’s a pro camp for a week every fall before we head off to our pro hockey seasons,” Lee said. “We go to the first football game and it’s always nice to get back and support them because Notre Dame gave me every opportunity to allow me to live my dream.”