USHL Alum Lives Dreams On and Off the Ice
Tuesday September 18, 2012
Lee Sweatt scored the game-winning goal for the Vancouver Canucks during his NHL debut. (photos by Getty Images)
Lee Sweatt reached the NHL and is now achieving his goals away from the rink
Feature by Brian Werger, USHL.com
USHL alumni are continuing to make waves in the NHL, but one former USHL player was absent from a NHL roster this season. There wasn’t a grand retirement ceremony or a tear-filled press conference of a player walking away from the game he spent his whole life playing, but there was Lee Sweatt, at the ripe old age of 26, who hung up his skates to pursue his dreams away from the ice.
Sweatt achieved the dream of every hockey player when he set foot on NHL ice during the 2010-11 season. He even scored a goal in his first ever NHL contest, which would prove to the game-winning goal for the Vancouver Canucks in a 2-1 victory against Nashville.
“It was an amazing feeling just stepping on the ice for warm-ups and my first shift is something I will always remember,” said Sweatt. “I ended up scoring that goal and it was really wild and something I will never forget. My debut in the NHL was pretty incredible and definitely a lifelong dream I felt like I achieved and fulfilled.”
The amazing feeling turned into pain only a few moments later for the defenseman who had a NHL debut that simulated the ups and downs of a roller coaster ride. One shift after scoring his first NHL goal, the same foot that first touched NHL ice took the brunt of a slap shot by Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber. The multi-million dollar defenseman is known for having one of the hardest shots in the NHL, a claim that Sweatt unfortunately now can attest to.
“That’s for sure,” Sweatt painfully recalls.
He would go on to play two more games for the Canucks before two more shots to the same foot in practice resulted in a broken foot that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Sweatt summed up his NHL experience with one simple sentence: “Right around the end of January, I got called up, played three games, got injured, and that was it.”
But the Lee Sweatt story goes well beyond one sentence.
A Chicago area native that grew up in the western suburb of Elburn, Sweatt played for various youth organizations such as the Carol Stream Blues, Chicago Flames, Glenview Stars, and Chicago Mission. It was another hockey team near his hometown that helped further launch his career – the Chicago Steel in the USHL. The Steel was a team that Sweatt admits he didn’t know much about or ever imagined he would have the opportunity to play for, but learned more about the USHL when he got to the Mission.
“I didn’t really have an idea that I would be good enough to play junior hockey, but that was my goal,” says Sweatt. “I only thought I was going to be able to play in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), but I went through tryouts with the Chicago Steel, the team liked what they saw and picked me up.”
The then 17-year-old wasn’t a highly-touted prospect and says he “flew under the radar”, but he now found himself in a locker room beginning the 2002-03 USHL season with guys playing a brand of hockey he wasn’t accustomed to.
“There were several older guys, 19 and 20 years old, and it was a different hockey than midgets – a lot faster and a lot more physical. It was a good experience, that’s for sure.”
The season for the Steel was “humbling” for the young defensemen, but he valued the many lessons he learned about the game of hockey and getting to the next level. The travel was quite different playing a 60-game regular season that included trips throughout the Midwest. Trips that were now in a team bus with 22 teammates instead of the family car.
Following that season in the USHL, Sweatt became eligible for the NHL Draft and was hopeful to hear his named called by one of the 30 NHL teams. “I thought maybe I had a shot to be drafted, but it was long shot,” said Sweatt. “I am a smaller guy so I wasn’t a high-priced commodity when it came to NHL defensemen, especially with draft picks.”
Sweatt wasn’t selected in the 2003 NHL Draft, but he remained focused on taking the next step in his career, the step that the USHL helped prepare him for – playing college hockey.
Heading to Colorado
With scholarship in hand, Sweatt headed west and embarked on a successful four-year playing career at Colorado College – a career that saw the defenseman put up 88 points (21g, 67a) in 156 games for the Tigers.
“It was amazing,” said Sweat of his collegiate days. “I wouldn’t suggest any other way to play hockey throughout those ages than college. You get your schooling, get to have fun with all the guys, and live in the hockey house. It is just a great atmosphere, especially in the WCHA playing against Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Denver. It was a great time to be in that league and it was a lot of fun.”
As hard as he worked on the ice for the Tigers, Sweatt worked just as hard in the classroom and tackled the challenge of balancing hockey with academics. That work paid off when he earned recognition as the top scholar-athlete at Colorado College following his junior season. He didn’t let up there as he was named the WCHA Student-Athlete of the Year in 2007 after graduating with a 3.8 grade-point-average in mathematical economics.
That senior year almost didn’t happen for Sweatt as the NHL came calling during his junior season. A couple of teams offered him contracts and the defenseman who was once passed over in the NHL Draft now had a decision to make. With the allure of the NHL knocking on his door and living out the boyhood dream, Sweatt made a powerful choice – he turned the NHL down.
Sweatt went on to have an even better season on the ice as a senior in which he served as the Tigers’ captain. It also gave him an opportunity to spend a season being teammates with his younger brother, Bill, who was a freshman at Colorado College.
A diploma in hand and four years of college hockey that put him on top of his game, Sweatt was ready to pursue the NHL dream. However, no offers came his way from NHL teams. So did the young defenseman regret not signing a contract a year earlier?
“Not at all,” said Sweatt. “I didn’t want to leave school because it was way more valuable in the long run than the potential of playing in the NHL for a couple games after junior year.”
“It is a little different now, especially with the salary cap. The maximum signing bonus you can get is about $250,000 over three years. It doesn’t go very far, especially with the lifestyle of professional hockey.”
Across the Pond
Although no NHL contract was placed in front of him at the time, Sweat never lost confidence that he could make it to the highest level of hockey. He decided to head overseas and continue to develop his skills.
That first year was spent in Finland and despite the lack of success for the team, Sweatt had a great season individually and again started to capture the attention of NHL teams. One team in particular, the Vancouver Canucks, had the idea of bringing him back to North America and put him in the system. The NHL dream was close again and Sweatt again made a powerful decision – he turned them down.
“I didn’t feel I was ready to come back and didn’t feel I was ready to step in and play an integral role,” Sweatt explained. “So I chose to stay over in Europe for a few more years.”
His game was improving on the ice, but the defenseman felt like he was losing a little bit of what he learned away from the rink. Sweatt hadn’t done anything to further his education since leaving the United States, so during his second season abroad while playing for a team in Austria, he began taking classes online to earn his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Colorado.
Living in Europe, playing professional hockey, taking classes towards his MBA – Sweatt had almost everything he could have wanted, but the NHL was still on his mind.
Getting a Shot
After three years overseas, Sweatt finally put his name on a NHL contract and signed a deal with the Vancouver Canucks, feeling the timing and position was right to give him an opportunity to play in the NHL. He headed to training camp for the club, performed well, and even appeared in some NHL preseason games.
Sweatt was the last defenseman cut after training camp and reported to the Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Manitoba Moose. He worked diligently on his defensive game because despite his offensive talents that he groomed in Europe, he knew the defensive aspect of his game needed to improve before cracking the NHL lineup.
The defenseman played well in the AHL, putting up 14 points (5g, 9a) in 41 games while leading the team with a plus-15 rating through the first half of the season. It was also another family reunion as he would again be teammates with his brother Bill who was signed by the Canucks organization in the offseason. In late January, Lee got the long-awaited call – he was going to the NHL.
The lifelong dream was fulfilled on January 26th, 2011 when Sweatt made his NHL debut with the Vancouver Canucks. He instantly became a hero scoring the game-winner that night but also faced the biggest adversity of his career being injured in the same game. A few days later, his season was over after re-injuring the foot. He had reached the NHL dream, but was now forced to the sidelines.
“It wasn’t a lot of fun, I will tell you that,” said Sweatt. “The healing process was taking much longer than I had anticipated and it was extremely frustrating.”
Turning the Page
Sweatt went into that offseason as a free agent once again, but it didn’t take long for another team to come calling as he signed a contract with the Ottawa Senators. It was then that Sweatt made another powerful decision – he retired from hockey at the age of 26.
“When I signed, I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to continue playing,” said Sweatt. “When you fulfill a dream and then you have all the things going on in your life that you want, including finishing my MBA, I finally had some options in the real world to take advantage of.”
“I didn’t really have that burning desire to go to training camp, get sent back to the AHL, and maybe get a couple more NHL games later in the year. It wasn’t something I was really keen on doing. I would rather use my brain.”
Sweatt admits that many people told him he was crazy to give up that chance to play in the NHL again, but he was at peace with his decision and excited about his options outside of the hockey rink. Those options were made possible thanks to earning a diploma.
“If I didn’t have my college education and have my MBA almost finished, I probably wouldn’t have left,” said Sweatt.
The now former NHL defenseman was always thinking about his next steps even while pursuing the hockey dream. The uncertainty of making the NHL throughout moments in his career and being sidelined with the foot injury made Sweatt look at the big picture and life after hockey.
Sweatt, who turns 27 in August, has moved on to his second career as a financial advisor which first caught his interest during his college days when he held an internship in the field. Although he doesn’t lace up the skates for a living, the former hockey player had the notion of staying close to the game in his new career.
“I decided I could help a lot of people, especially kids in hockey who get all this new-found money right away and might not have the best guidance on what to do with it,” says Sweatt. “I have seen it a bunch of times where it’s here today and gone tomorrow and doesn’t really last. I feel like I can really help guys out and manage that.”
“I just want to make sure they don’t blow it and not have anything to fall back on because a lot of these guys either don’t even go to college or don’t graduate. I feel really bad for the kids because they really give up a lot of the value that they could have earned in their lifetime. I can understand what they are going through, they see the money and think ‘I might as well go and do it’, but in the long run, it really ends up hurting their long term earning power if you don’t have a college education.”
Sweatt has lived through the process and hopes his experiences can help educate those young players reaching for their goals. He had the foresight to make the right choices at a young age that are now benefitting him in the long run.
“Pro hockey is not going anywhere, it is always going to be there. So you might as well wait, develop more, get bigger, get stronger, and get your education,” says Sweatt. “If I didn’t make those decisions, I would be in a lot different or worse place. I would be hanging on to the dream for sure because that is the only thing you can hang on to. Having a high school education doesn’t really get you very far in our economy anymore.”
“You always have to have options and that is probably the most important thing in terms of my takeaway from everything I have been through – to make sure these guys always keep more doors open than just one.”
Sweatt didn’t view hockey retirement as an ending, but a beginning to a long and happy life as he embarks on his new career and looks forward to the next steps. He gave a lot to hockey and is very appreciative of everything that hockey gave to him.
“It has been a fun ride and feel very fortunate for everything I have been able to do through hockey. I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of things in life without it. I lived a dream and it was fun. Now it is time to move to a new chapter.”
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Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 11th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2012-13. With 18 NHL Draft picks on team rosters and over 200 players already committed to NCAA Division I schools this season, the USHL has emerged as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent. For more information, visit us on the web at www.USHL.com or visit the League’s social media platforms, including Facebook (www.facebook.com/ushlhockey), twitter (www.twitter.com/ushl), and YouTube (www.youtube.com/ushlinteractive). Fans can also watch USHL action all season long, live or on-demand via FASTHockey (ushl.fasthockey.com).
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