Every person who has ever been lucky enough to lace up their skates and step on to NHL ice has been on a journey.
For the Sidney Crosbys, Evgeni Malkins, and Alexander Ovechkins of this world, the path taken to reach their dreams was perhaps a simple one. For others it’s not quite so straightforward.
Players like Martin St. Louis, Antti Niemi, and even recent Hall of Fame inductee Dino Ciccarelli weren’t able to revel in the excitement of being drafted by an NHL club. Such athletes have had to rely on years of determination, hard work, and an innate belief in themselves and their own abilities just to have the right to play in the best league in the world.
In April 2010, professional Finnish hockey club TPS—which plays in the SM-liiga—had just been crowned playoff champions, and were awarded the Kanada-malja (or “Canada Cup”).
American-born defenseman Lee Sweatt played a pivotal role for his squad, and was largely responsible for helping his side win the championship.
In 15 playoff games, he was the leader with seven goals and six assists. He was later presented with the Pekka Rautakallio trophy as the league's best defenseman. Sweatt then decided to return to North America in the hopes of pursuing a professional contract—either in the NHL or American Hockey League.
On May 31, 2010, the 25-year-old Illinois native signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Vancouver Canucks.
After many years, he was finally given the opportunity to prove that he could be a professional hockey player in North America; getting the one chance that had previously eluded him.
Like Ciccarelli, Sweatt wasn’t lucky enough to get drafted by an NHL team.
“During my draft year I was in my freshman year at Colorado College,” Sweatt said. “Although I performed well compared to where I was earlier in my career, I still wasn’t seen as a potential draft choice and as a result I went undrafted.”
While attending college he had to choose between his studying and hockey.
“I progressed as my years went along at school and I had a couple of offers to leave school early, but I decided to stay because I valued finishing my education.”
Once he had completed his degree, an AHL team showed an interest in his services, the Canucks defenseman explains.
“After my senior year I signed an ATO (amateur tryout contract), to play with the San Antonio Rampage, during the last 11 games of the season.”
In those 11 games, he tallied one goal and one assist with eight penalty minutes, and wasn't offered a professional contract.
“That was quite the learning experience but again I did not play up to the level needed to earn an NHL two-way contract.”
Unable to find a home with a team in North America, Sweatt was determined to continue playing the sport he loved; making the tough decision to leave his country and seek employment in one of the many European Elite Leagues.
“I knew the European game was more modeled towards skill instead of brute strength, so it would allow me to develop the skills that I needed in order to get a contract over here in North America.”
He started his European tour of duty in Finland, but collected air miles in Austria and Latvia, playing in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Sweatt eventually settled, once again, in Finland for TPS Turku. Even though he was playing on a different continent, he was able to receive attention from the NHL.
“During the time I played with TPS, there were a few teams that were interested in me signing back in North America with an NHL two-way deal.
Although many general managers coveted him, there was a particular organization that was in pursuit of his talents much more than any other.
“Vancouver was the one team that has been following me throughout my career and has always shown and continues to show the most interest in my potential and me as a player.”
Almost three months after giving Sweatt a contract, Vancouver GM Mike Gillis signed a player who Lee Sweatt knew very well—his younger brother Bill.
Forward Bill Sweatt was drafted 38th-overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks.
The arrival of the brothers from Elburn, IL, meant the Sedins weren’t the only brother duo within the Canucks' organization. Lee was very happy to be reunited with a familiar face.
“Having the chance to play with my brother is really something special.”
This wasn’t the first time they had been teammates.
“I had the opportunity to play with him in college for my senior year, we never thought that would happen again in professional hockey but it has, it's been a real treat and we are both very fortunate to be able to experience this together.”
After training camp, both Sweatt boys were sent down to the Manitoba Moose. Lee played 41 games for the farm team, scoring five goals with nine assists.
One man's misfortune can often be a great gain for someone else. An injury to Canuck defenseman Alex Edler meant that the young prospect received an unexpected call; one that, until then, he had only been dreaming about.
“Getting called up was a dream come true. I was actually on my way to play the Toronto Marlies, here in Winnipeg for a Sunday morning game, when I got the call. I was just about to hop into the car with my suit on, when Claude Noel, the head coach for the Manitoba Moose, called and said I got called up to play in the NHL.”
The transition from the AHL to being a member of the Canucks was a great and valuable experience. Just sharing a dressing room with players like Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, and Alexandre Burrows taught the rookie a lot about playing at the NHL level.
“Being in the Canucks' locker room was an education in leadership and character. All the guys are class acts and real professionals. The things they say and how they go about their business every day is an exceptional learning experience. I am glad to be a part of it.”
A few players even gave him some advice.
“They told me to keep doing what has always made me successful and what got me the call-up in the first place.”
Like any raw recruit, he was determined to make a huge impression during his debut. The young novice's first taste of life with the big club came in a match against the Nashville Predators, and what he was able to do in the game even surprised him.
“Getting the game-winning goal in my first game was shocking.”
He then described how he scored his inaugural goal.
“The pass was exceptional from Daniel Sedin and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
He was a little unsure about what he should do, once he realized he had put the puck in the net.
“When I scored, I was actually in shock. I had no idea what to do—it took me a few seconds to comprehend that I needed to celebrate the goal. When the goal ended up being the game-winner it was really something to appreciate. I would have never imagined this happening in my career let alone the first game. I was just trying to play safe defense but ended up with the game-winner.”
With a flood of emotions, he couldn’t wait to give his sibling the good news.
“My brother was so pumped for me when I talked to him after the game. He watched the game and my goal and was just blown away. I hope I get a chance to see, and possibly play with him, when he gets his first NHL goal.”
The defenseman, not surprisingly, has kept the puck from that initial match.
“I am planning on making it part of a collection of items from my first game and putting that together into some memorabilia item that I can hang in my house or office.”}
Most highs can only last for so long, and sometimes fate has a tendency to deliver a crushing blow.
During a Saturday, February 5th practice in preparation for a game against the Ottawa Senators, Sweatt unfortunately broke his ankle and has missed the last 14 games. Sweatt hasn’t let that deter him while rehabbing his foot, however; the Canuck freshman still remains positive and hopes to fully recover soon.
“My ankle is getting better every day. I just had a really good checkup yesterday and it is coming along very well.”
When healthy, Sweatt may be faced with the reality of traveling back to Manitoba, but if he gets his way it won't be long until he’s pulling on a Canucks' sweater again.
“I won't feel disappointed. I will take it as a challenge and I will continue to work hard to make the Canucks' team every day. I didn’t come over from Europe to play in the AHL, so I plan on getting called up as much and as often as possible.”
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