POTSDAM, N.Y. (07/09/2013)(readMedia)– Chris Lee excelled for the SUNY Potsdam men’s ice hockey team in the early 2000’s. The Bears’ All-American has since gone on to have a long and successful professional career that has taken him throughout North America and Europe.
As a junior hockey player, Lee sparked lots of interest from college coaches. It was just a matter of when and where he fit into their rosters. Fortunately, the answers to those questions were immediately and SUNY Potsdam.
Lee was playing in a showcase around Christmas 1999, when former Bears assistant (later head) coach Aaron Saul spotted him.
“It was a tough decision,” Lee said. “I could have waited an extra year and tried to go either Division I or to Middlebury. Middlebury wanted me to wait and try early acceptance the following season, but I didn’t want to wait. I had already played an extra year in junior hockey and I was just ready to take on the college experience. Aaron was pretty adamant about wanting me to come. I came for a recruiting visit and everything was great. I was ready to go. It made my decision pretty easy.”
Lee was excited about the hockey experience, but liked what he saw of the College when he came to Potsdam on a recruiting visit.
“I think being a smaller campus was important in terms of the education,” said Lee. “Having smaller classes helped. It was just a good environment. The guys I met on recruiting trips helped persuade me and told me it’s the greatest place on Earth. They said it’d be a lot of fun when I came and a great experience. I took their word for it and it paid off.”
Lee arrived at Potsdam in the fall of 2000 as the Bears were preparing for what would become one of the program’s most successful seasons. The 2000-01 campaign was Potsdam Hall of Fame Coach Ed Seney’s last year with the program.
“My freshman year we had 14 seniors so we had a pretty competitive team,” Lee said. “Coach Seney implemented a style that played three defenseman and two forwards. It was effective. We had the right people to play that system. He was a great coach, a great teacher and just a great person. I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing for him.”
The Bears hit the ice red hot, going undefeated in their first seven games. They finished the regular season with a 15-6-1 record and 8-3-3 mark in the SUNYAC. Potsdam swept Cortland in the conference quarterfinals in Maxcy Ice Arena to run its home record to 9-1-1. Next the Bears headed to Oswego, where they took two straight from the Lakers to advance to the finals against familiar foe Plattsburgh. The Cardinals had won four straight SUNYAC Championships since Potsdam upset them for the title in 1996. The series, a rematch of the 2000 finals, went the full three games.
“We didn’t win the championship, but we were very close,” said Lee. ‘We split the first two games and lost in the third game and Plattsburgh went on to win the national championship. We had a great team that year.”
The Bears finished the season ranked seventh in the nation with a program-best 20-8-3 mark. Lee totaled two goals and six assists for eight points in 28 games.
The following year, Elmira College great and North Country native Glen Thomaris became the fourth head coach in Potsdam history.
“He had a bit of a tough situation because we had so many seniors the year before,” Lee said. “We had a pretty fresh class coming in. There were some learning curves and some bumps in the road we had to tackle, but it was a good situation and it was fun. We had a good time and I enjoyed playing for him as well.”
Lee changed to his now famous number four during the 2001-02 season, partly in honor of his aunt’s brother, Bobby Orr. That season he started his ascent up the Bears’ scoring ranks as a sophomore, lighting the lamp eight times and tallying 14 helpers for 22 points in 27 games. The effort earned him his first of three straight All-SUNYAC selections. However, Potsdam’s youth showed as the squad finished the season 12-15.
In his third season, the forward scored 14 goals and assisted on 22 others for 36 points to return to the All-SUNYAC squad. Lee helped the Bears to a 14-13-2 mark and first round playoff sweep of Geneseo. In the clincher against the Ice Knights, the junior recorded a hat trick and two assists for an impressive five-point performance.
The 2003-04 season was Lee’s finest in a Bears jersey. He scored 17 goals, including 10 on the power play, and recorded 32 assists for 49 points. The total placed him fifth in the nation in points-per-game (1.81) and second in assists-per-game (1.19) that season. He currently ranks 10th on the program’s all-time scoring list with 115 points (41g-74a). Lee’s play didn’t go unnoticed as he returned to the All-SUNYAC team and was selected the SUNYAC Player of the Year and the fifth All-American in Potsdam hockey history.
“That was a great honor,” said Lee. “Just looking back, I played with a lot of great guys. They made my job a lot easier and I hope I made their jobs easier as well. I earned it and it’s something that I’m very proud of to this day.”
As he moved toward graduation, Lee was a bit surprised to receive offers to play professional hockey.
“There was some interest after my senior year was over,” Lee said. “There was interest for me to go and play a few games with Elmira (Jackals) and a couple East Coast (Hockey League) teams. Before that interest came about, I really didn’t think the opportunity would be there, especially as a Division III athlete. Once I got the interest and the phone calls it really opened my eyes and I thought ‘Wow, can I really try to do this?'”
Instead of accepting an offer right after his senior season had ended, Lee focused on finishing his degree. That summer more offers came in and Lee ended up signing with the Florida Everblades of the ECHL. The offer came through Potsdam teammate Joel Jennings, whose father worked for the team.
“He opened the door for me and I got the opportunity,” said Lee. “They signed me and it was a big step for sure. Most of the guys played Division I or played juniors and were drafted by the NHL. It was a big step that I tried to prepare for and Coach Thomaris tried to prepare me for, but until you’re actually there in that moment, it’s really hard to know what you’re getting yourself into.”
Lee spent his first two pro seasons entirely with the Everblades, registering 15 goals and 49 assists for 64 points in 120 games. The next year, he earned a tryout with the Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League and earned a roster spot out of camp. However, he was back down to Florida after three games. After posting more solid numbers with the Everblades, Lee returned to the AHL with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers for a single game. He then closed out the season with the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights for the year’s final 32 contests.
Over the next three seasons, Lee played with the Iowa Stars, Bridgeport Sound and the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Penquins. His point total continued to rise each year.
In February 2009, during his second tour with Bridgeport Sound, Lee married Eileen LaBonte. LaBonte is also a member of SUNY Potsdam’s Class of 2004.
His good luck continued nine months later when in November he was called up to Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League.
“I was called up to the NHL, but I didn’t actually play in the game,” said Lee. “I was in the warm up and was a late scratch about five minutes before the game. So I spent a couple days in the NHL, but no games. So when you get that taste in your mouth it’s tough.”
Being so close to the top and just missing it was difficult for Lee, but he continued to seek opportunities to play hockey at a high level. Shortly after, he and Eileen crossed the Atlantic to spend the 2010-11 season with the Cologne Sharks of Germany’s Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL).
“Cologne is a big city with a lot of tourism,” Lee said. “In the city and the shopping areas pretty much everyone speaks English. So it was a much easier transition then if I had gone to another country. It was a beautiful city and a great experience. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to go for my first year in Europe.”
The following year, Lee played with the DEL’s Mannheim Eagles before moving to the Swedish Elite League’s Färjestad Bollklubb in Karlstad last season.
Lee’s son Carter was born last October, while he and Eileen were in Sweden. Carter was just weeks old when his dad was offered the opportunity to play for Team Canada in the Deutschland Cup.
“When they called me I don’t think even blinked an eye before I said yes,” said Lee. “To have a chance to represent your country on an international level, it’s really hard to say no. We had actually just had the baby while we were in Sweden. I said yes immediately and then I was like ‘I should have asked my wife.” She said I was crazy if I said no to Team Canada. It was a great experience. Just to wear your country’s jersey is a special honor and it’s something that I’m very proud of.”
After the season, Metallurg Magnitogorsk of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) bought his rights. He’ll be heading to training camp this month. The KHL is second only to the NHL in the world in prestige and talent. Many NHL all-stars played in the KHL during the NHL’s recent lockout. Lee is excited about the opportunity, but a little nervous about the new experience.
“I know that the language barrier is much greater than the other countries,” Lee said. “I’m not 100% sure of what I’m getting myself into now, but I’ve talked to guys that have played there before, so I’ve kind of got a bit of insight on it. I know the language barrier is going to be huge, but we just hired an ex-NHL coach who is a Canadian. That’s going to make the transition much easier and I’m going to be able to understand what’s going on fully and not need a translator for hockey stuff. I’m excited to go because of the level of hockey and it’s going to be a big step.”
Though Lee hasn’t given much thought to hanging up his skates anytime soon, he has considered coaching a possibility in the future. He reports to training camp in Russia July 11.