Notre Dame hockey: Lee fighting to get to NHL

Steve Lowe
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND -- Of all the adjustments Anders Lee had to make in his transition from college to professional hockey, one of the biggest has been with confrontation.

Fighting is not permitted in college hockey, but occasionally dropping the gloves is simply a fact of life in the pros. Lee, who left Notre Dame with a year of eligibility on the table to sign with the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him, says he didn't see much action at first this year, but over the past 20 games or so with the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers, he's had at least four fights.

Part of that is due to his size. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, he's a big target on the left wing. But it also has to do with his play. At the AHL All-Star break, Lee leads Bridgeport with 18 goals and is second with 35 points. That ability to score in his rookie season has earned him some extra attention of late.

"Any time you have someone who's an offensive threat, they're going to key on you," said Lee, who took advantage of the All-Star break to come back to Notre Dame for a visit on Wednesday. "Guys at that level don't like to take young guys lightly and they make sure that I know who they are."

With a few dustups under his belt, Lee is the first to admit that he's not exactly a great pugilist just yet.

"They're more wrestling matches when it comes to me and fighting, but as long as you're willing to take off the gloves once in a while, you'll earn some respect," he said.

His coach at Notre Dame, Jeff Jackson, knew that developing that particular part of his game would be important for the affable Lee.

"I think one of the areas he had to get better at... was to find a little bit of that nastiness, a little bit of a mean streak in him." Jackson said. "He's a big man and he's going to draw attention the way that he plays."

The way he plays is also one of the traits this year's Irish have been searching for -- a consistent net presence. A guy who get to the net and score on a regular basis. Basically, they're missing Anders Lee.

Scoring goals is what Lee has always done, all the way through his amateur career, and now as a pro. As a freshman in South Bend he led the team with 24 goals. After scoring a team-high 20 goals last year, Lee signed with the Islanders just two days after the Irish were ousted from the NCAA tournament by St. Cloud State.

One day after signing, Lee played in his first NHL game against Winnipeg, and did what he does. Lee scored his first NHL goal on his first NHL shot, a sneaky wrister from the left wing boards.

"It was so wild," Lee said. "Those 48 hours were so ridiculous, and then to be out there and have my first shot go in that I didn't even really try to put in, it was pretty wild."

Lee has spent all season with Bridgeport, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him called up to the Islanders at some point before this season is done, especially if he continues to put the puck in the net.

"One thing I told the Islanders is, nothing is going to hold Anders back from getting to the National Hockey League, because he'll outwork people," Jackson said. "He gets to where he wants to go, based on his determination."