Commentary

Lee's untraditional chase of NHL dream

Updated: June 28, 2009, 11:41 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

[+] EnlargeMichael Lee
Claus Andersen/Getty ImagesMichael Lee was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes with the 91st overall pick in the 2009 draft.

MONTREAL -- It's not uncommon for a young hockey player's pursuit of a dream to take him far from home. It is less common for a young player's pursuit of such a dream to mean leaving a place where hockey is king.

But so it was for goaltender Mike Lee, the first American-born netminder taken in this year's NHL draft.

Standing in front of the Phoenix Coyotes' banner, being interviewed by reporters, there is more than a little irony in that Lee, taken with the 91st overall pick, had to leave Minnesota, a place where the game is everything, to get to this moment.

The home he left

Go to Minnesota and head straight north. If you hit Manitoba, turn around and go back about 10 miles, and you'll be in Roseau.

Not Roseville. Or Rosseau. Roseau, pronounced Ro-Zo, if we have it right.

In this town of about 2,800, there is hockey and then, well, there is hockey.

There are three indoor rinks. On any given night at the rinks, there is open hockey and dozens of kids scrambling about the ice playing in any number of different games.

"You just play and play and play," Lee told ESPN.com this week. "It's just crazy, but it's something special."

Roseau is home to Neal Broten, a member of the legendary 1980 "Miracle on Ice" U.S. Olympic gold-medal team. His brother Aaron, also a former NHLer, remains in Roseau and is now an assistant coach with the local high school powerhouse, the Rams.

It's not just hockey itself that's king in Roseau, but high school hockey. The Rams have won seven state titles, regularly knocking off schools with far larger enrollments. Lee was part of that kingdom. He joined the high school team as a sophomore and proceeded to win his first 42 games.

"I didn't lose a game until my last two. Both were in the state tournament. Oh, we were good," Lee said with a laugh.

Then he walked away …

Imagine Dan Marino leaving Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh. Imagine Michael Jordan turning his back on Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington.

"It takes a lot of guts to leave a town where hockey means so much," Dean Blais said. "His parents were outcasts in the community."

It was Blais, a successful head coach with the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux and former assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who helped Lee make what would be a life-changing decision in leaving Roseau for the United States Hockey League before his senior year of high school.

"No one's every really done that before," Lee said of the decision to play with the USHL expansion Fargo (N.D.) Force. "It was definitely rough in the beginning."

Blais knew how deeply high school hockey roots run in Roseau, having coached the high school team to a state championship in 1990. He also knew if Lee was going to realize his significant potential -- not to mention help out his team in Fargo -- the goalie needed to play a lot more hockey than the 25 or so games the high school schedule provided.

It wasn't just leaving his childhood friends and the hockey team for which he'd played such a critical role, Lee was also leaving the school's football (he played quarterback) and baseball (shortstop) teams.

The All-American kid was leaving behind the All-American senior year to live with his mother's cousin in Fargo and play in a brand-new league with brand-new teammates.

"I kind of knew that was what was going to happen," Lee said. "I knew it was going to be bitter at the beginning. [The Roseau folks] weren't angry; I think they were just disappointed. It smoothed over fast."

Although they were supportive, parents Terry, an engineer and lifelong Roseau resident, and Cindy, a school teacher, left the final call up to their son.

"It was a great move for Mike. Dean Blais is a great coach," Terry said.

"He was where he was supposed to be," Cindy added.

Among those who helped Lee make his decision to leave Roseau was the man who had coached Lee in Roseau -- Scott Oliver.

Want a sense of how good the hockey is there? While Oliver, a former Canadian Football League player with Winnipeg and Toronto, was talking on the phone about Lee on Saturday morning, his own son, Nick Oliver, was drafted by the Nashville Predators with the 110th pick.

That makes three players from that Roseau high school class to be drafted in the past two years, as defenseman Aaron Ness was selected by the New York Islanders 40th overall in 2008. All three are close friends.

Oliver has been coaching for 25 years and has high praise for Lee.

"Mike is the best athlete I've ever coached," he said. "If it wasn't for hockey, he'd be playing college football, Division I."

Although Oliver understands the powerful emotion that a small town like Roseau attaches to its high school hockey team and its players, he also understands Lee's move to Fargo was crucial to the goalie's development and his dream of being an NHL player.

"Had he not left, I don't think he gets drafted where he gets drafted," Oliver said. "Had he not left, he might not have got drafted at all."

Life in Fargo

The first couple of months in Fargo weren't all that easy, on or off the ice.

The team struggled, and Lee admitted being homesick even though his parents and younger sister were making the three-hour trip for most home games and some away games. Lee was solid, but there was the occasional soft goal through the first half of the season.

"After Christmas, though, there were no more soft goals," Blais said.

Lee was 26-15-4 with a 2.40 goals-against average and .918 save percentage for the Force.

When the USHL playoffs began, Lee was sensational and the Force won their first seven games as they swept opponents 3-0 in the first two rounds before dropping three straight in the final against Indianapolis. Lee was named goaltender of the year in the USHL and was a unanimous choice as team MVP.

"Mike Lee's got it all," Blais said. "He's got it. I don't care where he's from."

Always the first one at the rink, Lee was finally told to take a break once a week, doing some off-ice workouts rather than being on the ice. "He doesn't need 100 shots on a Wednesday," Blais explained.

Even then, Lee would come to the weight room and work out, but he made sure he was still the last to leave after his teammates finished practice so they wouldn't get jealous.

After playing 25 or so high school games a year, Lee played in 60 games. He made back-to-back starts and, by the end of the season, was playing full weekend slates: Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

"I loved it. It helped me get into a groove," Lee said. "You're mindset's kind of hockey, hockey, hockey."

What now?

A top student, Lee entertains the idea of a career in medicine -- well after his career in hockey is over, though.

In the meantime, Lee will attend St. Cloud State University in Minnesota on scholarship. He will also have a strong advocate to be the starting goalie with the U.S. squad at the World Junior Championship in Canada in December and January, as Blais will be the head coach of that team.

When the local paper called Blais to ask him about Lee and how he might fit in at St. Cloud State, Blais said he thinks Lee might be the guy to lead the university to its first national championship. "And I really believe that," Blais said.

Blais worked in player development and as an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2004-07 and saw the personality and character of top young goaltenders like Pascal Leclaire and newly minted NHL Rookie of the Year Steve Mason.

"Mike is in that category," Blais said.

From Lee's perspective, nothing is a given no matter the praise.

"The real work is going to be done after the draft," Lee said.

That said, Lee has made it clear he has one vision for himself and that includes wearing an NHL jersey, and not just on the stage here in Montreal.

"You've got to think about it. Or at least dream about it," he said.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.