Anders Lee said he still had to pinch himself whenever he saw the captain’s “C” embroidered on his jersey in the Islanders’ locker room.
It doesn’t matter he has donned that “C” on four different jerseys throughout his entire athletic career, serving as captain in two different sports and at three different levels. For Lee, it’s humbling every time.
Those who have coached or competed alongside him contend being a leader comes naturally to Lee. Nothing is ever forced, everything is always genuine and in the toughest of times, Lee has continuously been the guy everyone in the room looks to.
As the sports world came to a crashing halt when the coronavirus pandemic postponed or canceled every professional sports league and event, including the 2019-20 NHL season, Lee is doing what he always has done: Acting as a leader.
In his second season as captain of the Islanders, who will have to fight tooth-and-nail for playoff position should the NHL season resume, Lee was asked to lead in a way in which he never has before. As several prominent athletes around the country began to record encouraging messages to fans in these trying times, the Islanders knew Lee would be the one with all the right things to say.
“Hey Islanders fans, I know there are a lot of kids out there that have had their school years or youth sports put on hold and I know it might sound a little bit confusing, but your teachers, your parents, your coaches, they all want what’s best for you,” Lee said in a homemade video posted to the Islanders’ official Twitter account on Thursday. “That’s your health and their health. I know this is a little bit of a tough time, probably stuck at home but maybe go outside, go in the backyard, kick the ball around. Grab your brother or sister to play some catch or even shoot some pucks in the driveway.
“Most importantly, stay healthy, stay safe. Keep washing your hands, I know that’s what we’re doing here. So, next time we’re ready to go when it’s time to get back on the ice. All the best, take care, stay healthy and go Isles.”
Sure, there may be higher stakes and more pressure involved in being a spokesperson for the Islanders in the middle of a national pandemic than there was when he was a three-sport student athlete at Edina (Minn.) High School or as a collegiate hockey player at Notre Dame.
Lee is uniquely equipped to handle a captain’s responsibilities during this unprecedented time. He understands how much youth sports can shape a person and what having them taken away must feel like.
“We lost to a perennial rival of ours in the finals of the district playoffs and it was not a close game, we were undefeated and they were undefeated, but they beat us 36-6 or something,” former Edina football coach Kim Nelson told The Post in a recent phone call. “Anders was really active in the huddle [after the game] talking to his teammates and telling them it was going to be OK and thanking the seniors, just he handled it really well.
“After that big loss, being undefeated and having all these expectations at playoff time and then to lose — he did all the right things after that kind of a loss. Instead of just thinking about himself and how bad it felt for him, he always seems to turn to his teammates and worry about them first.”
That was just the kind of kid Lee was, according to Nelson, who now serves as football coach of Roosevelt High School in Sioux Falls, S.D.
He was the kind of kid who would begin organizing drills at the start of practice despite it being his very first day on the football team after transferring in his junior year from a nearby private school. The kind who influenced the entire team, including upperclassmen, to pitch in and clean up the field following practice.
“Nobody complained, because Anders is doing it, so it must be the right thing,” Nelson said.
After Lee was unanimously voted captain of the football team as a junior, he was named captain of the hockey team the same year as well. He wore the “C” for both teams throughout his last two years of high school and very well could’ve been captain of the school’s baseball team too, but he elected not to play his senior year to focus on football and hockey.
Nelson and Curt Giles, who has been the hockey coach at Edina High since 1999, both say they knew Lee was captain material from the very first moment they met him.
“Anders was very personable,” Giles told The Post. “He had a magnetic personality. He was big, he was strong, he was athletic, but he had this look to him that every student in the high school and every kid that he played with was attracted to him as a person.
“He wasn’t just an athlete, obviously a good athlete, he was a really good person. He wasn’t a jock who thought he was better than everybody else and kind of pushed people away, he was one of those guys that brought people in. His personality, as much as anything, was as impressive as his athletic ability.”
In a way, Lee was the captain of Edina High. It was his welcoming demeanor that allowed him to easily connect with everyone he came in contact with. He was approachable, but undoubtedly cared about whatever others had to say. To this day, Nelson’s wife, Shelly, says Lee was one of the first teenage football players to genuinely ask her about herself.
Notre Dame hockey coach Jeff Jackson recognized that maturity while recruiting Lee during his senior year in high school. Jackson, who coincidentally served as assistant coach for the Islanders in the 2003-04 season, was enticed by Lee’s dual-captain reputation and trusted his recruiting coordinator and assistant coach Andy Slaggert to find a player with “the right fit.”
Lee’s leadership carried over to the collegiate level while playing for the Fighting Irish. Jackson was prepared to name him captain after his freshman season, something the 34-year hockey coach said he had never done in his entire career. Lee, however, said he was concerned for his teammates when Jackson approached him with the opportunity to be captain.
“He was so respectful of the upperclassman that he didn’t think that it was time yet,” Jackson said. “He was being respectful to the juniors and seniors that were coming back. I give him a lot of credit for that, because most kids wouldn’t have the maturity to be able to make that kind of a decision.”
Lee chose to serve as alternate captain his sophomore year before assuming the role of captain the following season, his last before making the jump to the NHL.
More than anything, Lee has always lived up to the cliché of “leading by example.”
“You’re just in a position that people look toward you,” Lee told The Post. “They look at you, they either look up to you or look to you in times of need or whatever it is. I really like being either there for someone or trying to get the boys going or rallying and keeping the group close.”
Lee has maintained his role-model tendencies through every team he has been a part of. Lee was a prominent rallying voice in the locker room for the Islanders, who were one spot below the playoff line when the season was paused.
“He’s an easy guy to follow, I think everyone on this team would consider him a close personal friend,” said Josh Bailey, who is the longest-tenured Islander. “We’ve had our [team] talks, here and there, and he’s the guy we all look at. We follow his lead and he does a good job of being even-keeled and positive even when things aren’t going well.
“When someone is positive it’s a lot easier to follow them and you find a way to get out these things quicker that way.”
Islanders head coach Barry Trotz has had many captains in his 22-year NHL coaching career, including Jason Arnott, Shea Weber and Alex Ovechkin. To Trotz, a good captain keeps the pulse of his team and serves as an extension of both the coaching staff and players.
Trotz believes Lee embodies all of that. If you ask Lee for his evaluation of the Islanders’ seven-straight losses just before the season was suspended, the ideals he has seemingly followed his entire athletic career shine through.
“As of late, we’ve been thinking a lot,” Lee said of the team. “That thinking has slowed us down. Our mistakes have turned into two chances and goals against. Sometimes, when things are going well, your mistakes don’t hurt you. We’ve been caught a little bit and it’s slowed us down, mentally and physically.
“We have to be able to let go of all the tough things that’s gone on and just go play. That’s not easy to do in the position that we’re in because it’s a results-type business. But the one thing you can do every night is show up and play as hard as you can and do what you can for your teammates. We do that as a team, we’re always successful.”