Photos by Hillary Ehlen and UND Athletics
Brian Lee was a full-blown star before he was old enough to vote. The former Moorhead High School defenseman was Minnesota’s 2005 Mr. Hockey and led the Spuds to two consecutive state tournament championship games. Lee jumped to juniors immediately after his senior season to help Lincoln in the USHL playoffs. Earlier that winter, he became the 13th high school player to make the USA roster for the World Junior Hockey Championships. At the age of 17, he found himself skating on the same ice as future National Hockey League stars like Sydney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Patrice Bergeron at the most prestigious junior hockey tournament in the world.
The exposure and attention hit its apex when in July 2005, Lee was taken ninth overall in the NHL Draft by the Ottawa Senators. He was tabbed as the next star skating out of Moorhead, and mentioned in the same breath as Jason Blake and Matt and Mark Cullen.
Lee’s Bantam coach Dennis Bushy said he was always the standout defenseman growing up through the Moorhead Youth Hockey system. He knew Lee had a future in Division I hockey and the NHL. Although, the attention seemed to never inflate Lee’s head.
“He’s a pretty humble guy,” Bushy said from his office inside the Moorhead Youth Hockey rink where he has a picture of his bantam team with Lee in the back. His blonde hair jumps out of the 15-year-old photo. “He was very gracious and pretty proud of himself along with the program and the coaches and everyone else who helped him along the way. He let those people know about it, too.”
Throughout Lee’s two years at the University of North Dakota and six years in the NHL, he always made his way back to the Moorhead youth rink.
“We would pretty much give all those NHL or Division I players a key to the rink,” remembers
Bushy. “(Lee) always came back and any time I wanted some help from him on the ice with the bantams, if he was around, he would sure help out.”
Lee was one of seven incoming freshmen to the North Dakota hockey team who were selected in the 2005 NHL Draft. The star-studded team went on to win the Broadmoor Trophy for the first time since 2000 during their first year together. Lee left North Dakota after the 2007 season with two trips to the NCAA Frozen Four under his belt. He tallied 53 points in 82 games in a Sioux sweater and played alongside Sioux greats like Ryan Duncan, Jonathan Toews, Travis Zajac, Drew Stafford, Taylor Chorney and T.J. Oshie.
During the summer of 2007, the allure of fulfilling his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL overcame the desire to return to North Dakota. Lee signed with the Ottawa Senators who were coming off an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Lee spent 55 games of the 2007-08 season with AHL affiliate Binghampton. He got his call to the big club later that spring and played the final six games of the regular season and four games in the playoffs.
Lee was up and down with Ottawa and the AHL for the next several seasons. During the 2011-
12 campaign, he was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning for Matt Gilroy. The following season, Lee’s knee gave out.
“I had three surgeries on my knee to try to fix my issue,” Lee said. “It never felt great, but it felt good enough and I thought I could play still. I just couldn’t run, I couldn’t work out to the point that I wanted to but I thought I could still play.”
Lee’s knee issue persisted, but the Nashville Predators brought him to camp in 2014. The team eventually released him when they were able to negotiate a contract with a defender who was holding out for more money.
“The doctor said you better quit hockey while you can walk away before you have to go out in a wheel chair or fake knee.” – Brian Lee
“I played well enough where Philly and LA wanted me to come play for them,” Lee said. “With the way my preseason had gone, they must’ve assumed that I was healthy, but I wasn’t going to sign a deal with them to go there, fake it through a physical and go down hurt on the second day and collect a paycheck for a year. That wouldn’t have been right.”
Lee was battling osteochondritis dissecans and his knee cartilage was deteriorating. After several unsuccessful surgeries, he announced his retirement in December 2014.
“The doctor said you better quit hockey while you can walk away before you have to go out in a wheelchair or fake knee,” Lee said.
The former Moorhead star’s hockey career was over like that. He was 27 years old and had a college degree to complete.
Lee went back to school at North Dakota State in Fargo, to complete his nursing degree and follow in his mother’s footsteps as a nurse anesthetist. He spent a year in the program but after his first rotation in a nursing home, Lee discovered this wasn’t the path for him.
Meanwhile, Lee was staying away from hockey. Coaching opportunities would arise but he couldn’t bring himself back to the ice to coach behind the boards.
“I think I needed some time away from it to kind of start a new life, establish a new identity,” Lee said. “If I would’ve stayed so close, it would’ve been tough to be coaching instead of playing. It still is, but it would have been so fresh.”
Three and a half years ago, Lee was approached by Concordia College head coach Jason Gregoire and was asked to be an assistant. Lee said he never saw himself coaching women’s hockey at the Division III level but the experience has been rewarding. He’s also quick to boast about his defenders and predicts they’ll be the best defensive team in all of Division III next season.
“I think I needed some time away from it to kind of start a new life, establish a new identity.” – Brian Lee
“Hockey is my favorite sport, it’s my first love,” Lee said. “You can say, it’s just DIII hockey but at the end of the day, it’s a game and you want to go out there and compete and win, so it’s fun to coach and see your players work hard and battle to win.”
Lee finished school in the spring of 2017, but before he got his degree, he met former North Dakota hockey players Ryan Hale and Brent Davidson at a Sioux Alumni game. The two helped Lee get a full-time position as a medical sales representative at Arthex in Fargo. Davidson is in the Grand Forks office, but Hale and fellow Sioux alumni, Kevin Spiewak and Zach Jones, have shown Lee the ropes in Fargo. “It’s definitely something I can see myself doing for a while,” said Lee.
The former first-round pick is not only back on the ice with Concordia, he’s helping with the youth teams in Moorhead. On the same sheets of ice where Lee perfected his craft as a young kid with NHL aspirations, he’s helping where he can for Bushy. The two even compete in a triathlon every summer together in Detroit Lakes. Lee does the swimming and biking while Bushy completes the final running leg.
Lee’s hockey career may have ended prematurely after a glowing start, but the proud North Dakota hockey player logged 209 games in the NHL. And what’s important for him, Concordia and Moorhead youth hockey is he’s still hitting the ice, grooming the next batch of Moorhead hockey players.
It’s that mentality of giving back that impresses his old coach. “Oh yeah, we won’t leave him alone,” laughs Bushy. “He’s ours and he’s going to be used as long as we don’t abuse him.”
North Dakota Stats
Two-Time Frozen Four Participant
Games Played: 82
Ninth Overall Draft Pick
Teams: Ottawa Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning
Games Played: 209
Playoff Appearances: 4