COLOGNE, Germany – The result wasn’t what Chris Lee wanted, yet he couldn’t help but smile.
Although Canada lost the gold-medal game of the world championship in a shootout to Sweden on Sunday, the journeyman defenceman was basking in the moment afterwards.
“This is something I never thought would happen, to be honest with you,” Lee, 36, said. “It has. I took it all in. We had a pretty good run.”
Lee was the only Canadian player skating in Sunday’s game who isn’t currently in the NHL. He’s never played in the NHL, for that matter. Only Swedish defenceman Philip Holm can say the same.
After establishing a new KHL record for points by a defenceman with 65 for Magnitogorsk Metallurg, Lee was named to Canada’s pre-tournament team. He even scored a goal in a 4-1 exhibition win over Switzerland.
Lee was then needed for regular duty midway through the tournament after Tyson Barrie reportedly suffered a leg laceration after wrestling with a teammate off the ice.
He stepped right in to quarterback a Canadian power-play unit with Wayne Simmonds, Claude Giroux, Brayden Schenn and Jeff Skinner. The six-foot, 179-pound rear-guard finished the tournament with two assists in seven games.
“Part of the reason we had success was because we were a team,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Lee fit. You wouldn’t have thought he wasn’t an NHL player.”
Born in MacTier, Ont., part of cottage country in Muskoka, Lee was never drafted. And, after playing Junior A hockey in nearby Orillia and Couchiching, his hockey journey made more twists and turns than a canoe heading down the riverbend.
He played four years of American college hockey for SUNY-Potsdam, hardly a place to jumpstart a pro journey. But he moved on to the ECHL in 2004 and worked his way up to the AHL two years later.
In 2010 Lee made the trip to Europe and has been there ever since, first in Germany with the Cologne Sharks and Mannheim Eagles and then in Sweden with Farjestad.
He found a home with Magnitogorsk in 2013 and has spent the last four seasons there.
Following his record-setting season, in which he also played for Canada at the Deutschland Cup in November, Lee has clearly emerged as a real threat to make the national team for the 2018 Olympics.
“He’s a great skater. He’s a real power-play specialist. 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,” said Canadian assistant GM Sean Burke, who’s expected to oversee the selection of players for the Olympic team without NHLers.
“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.”
For his part an Olympic spot is something Lee would strongly consider if asked.
“I hope so. We’ll see how it goes,” he said. “I haven’t made a decision yet [about next season], but to be on the radar is pretty nice.”
For now, Lee is taking in his experiences in France and Germany.
It was tough to lose a close game in a breakaway competition. The shots were 43-42 in favour of Canada, whose defeat prevented a three-peat at the tournament.
Still, the night, which ended with him wearing a silver medal around his neck, was one he’ll always cherish.
“They’re a good squad, too. They have NHL guys as well,” Lee said. “That was an NHL hockey game – like a playoff game.
“For a gold-medal game to go 1-1 after 80 [minutes], it’s a pretty tight match. Both teams were playing for their country and playing hard. It was fun to be a part of.”