Chris Lee at the World Championships. Image by: Getty Images
Undersized defenceman Chris Lee is very much on Canada's radar for the NHL-less Olympic team. But his prefered option is to make his NHL debut at 37.
It’s actually kind of ironic when you think about it. When Hockey Canada was putting together its roster for the World Championship last spring, it included a 36-year-old defenseman by the name of Chris Lee. The rationale was that if NHL players were not going to be playing in the 2018 Olympics, it would be good to have a player on the team with some exposure to high-level international competition.
But instead, Lee played pretty well for the silver medal-winning Canadian team, so well that he hopes to use the experience to be a springboard to an NHL contract, the very thing that would make him ineligible to play in the Olympics.
Lee is an undersized defenseman who was never drafted by an NHL team and played Division III college hockey. But at the age of 36, he’s looking for a one-way NHL deal after scoring 65 points in the KHL last season and helping to lead Metallurg Magnitogorsk to the Gagarin Cup championship. If he were to start in the NHL next season, he would do so shortly after his 37th birthday, which would make him the third-oldest player to make his NHL debut after Connie Madigan, Helmut Balderis and Jim Anderson, and the oldest in a quarter of a century to play in his first NHL game.
Lee is currently not on the Canadian roster for either the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov or the Sochi Hockey Open, the two August tournaments where Hockey Canada will get a first look at the Olympic hopefuls. But that’s because he doesn’t have a team yet for next season. Lee’s agent Peter Cooney said his client is still holding out for a one-way NHL deal.
“We feel a one-way NHL deal is where the market should be for him,” Cooney said. “We’ve had five or six teams kicking the tires, but we still haven’t found the right contract for him.”
Hockey Canada was impressed with Lee and his performance in the World Championship. Lee played seven of Canada’s 10 games and continued to keep a place in the lineup even after NHL reinforcements came to play in the tournament. He had been relegated to the seventh defenseman by the medal round, but proved he was able to hang with NHL-calibre players.
“He’s a great skater. He’s a real power-play specialist,” said Olympic team GM Sean Burke, who was the assistant GM of the Canadian team at the World Championship. “I don’t say that in a negative way because sometimes that can conjure up an image of a guy who can’t play in his own end. Chris has found his game later. He never had an NHL career. He came over to Europe and came into his own. He’s smart and he can handle the puck. On the big ice, when you’ve got those skills and you’ve got the head for the game, it’s a nice combination.”
Should the NHL dream not materialize, Lee would be happy to play for his country in Pyeonchang. But he’ll also have some stiff competition for a spot. Some of the defensemen on Canada’s radar include former NHLers Kevin Klein, Cam Barker and Carlo Colaiacovo, who are all playing in Europe next season.
“I wouldn’t call the opportunity to play in the Olympics a fall back, but he has that opportunity,” Cooney said. “And he would be honored to do it. He would certainly embrace that opportunity.”
Lee’s contract with Magnitogorsk expired after last season. Cooney said that if a one-way NHL deal does not materialize, Lee will go back to Europe to play rather than skate on a two-way deal or an AHL contract because the money is much better in Europe. “But it’s not about the money,” Cooney said. “It’s about the opportunity to play in the NHL. He came very close before going overseas and it’s something he believes he can do.”
THE LATEST HOCKEY NEWS PODCAST: