Heading into the 2006 World Junior Championships in British Columbia, the powerhouse American team grabbed the headlines. Although the Americans are talented and deep, only a few players actually return from last year’s roster. The only returning blueliner is Ottawa Senators 2005 first round pick Brian Lee, a humble talent who called being drafted “amazing”.
Known for his poise on the ice, the soft-spoken blueliner was a surprise selection to last year’s club. Lee was sparingly used as a 17-year-old, but this year has been a valuable member of top four on defense. What he has been able to do though, is build on last year’s experience.
“I’d like to think so,” said Lee with regards to last year’s experience helping him this time around. “I guess we’ll see in terms of progression in a little bit.”
One of the reasons World Junior experience is not a problem for the American team is the fact that much of the team played together in the National Development Program, most notably at last year’s Under-18 World Championships. The American team dominated the tournament, but because Lee opted to played high school hockey, he was not on the roster.
“I know all these guys from the summer [camp],” says Lee when asked about not being part of that team.
Despite being heavy favorites, the Americans handcuffed themselves by not winning their game against Switzerland. Lee’s club tied the Swiss, meaning they had to beat Canada on New Year’s Eve to win their pool.
“No. I think they just played hard,” said Lee about the Switzerland game. “It was a good game.”
The Americans failed to win against Canada, meaning the favorites now have to take the long road to gold. First up was a quarterfinal game against the Czech Republic. The club narrowly edged the Czechs 2-1, setting up a semi-final showdown against the high-flying Russians.
For Lee, the road to the NHL is presently taking him through North Dakota. A freshman at the University of North Dakota, Lee has had a fine season thus far. In 20 games before the tournament, he had two goals and 12 points. The team as a whole has had a solid season thus far, despite a young core.
Very few colleges have as much success attracting freshman talent each year as North Dakota. Among those joining Lee in their first year at the school include top 2006 prospect and Team Canada forward Jonathan Toews, as well as Taylor Chorney and T.J. Oshie, who both also made the American squad this year.
When asked what it is like to play with so many talented fellow freshmen at school, Lee said, “It’s unreal. Great players and great guys too, so things are a lot of fun.”
Looking forward with this young core of players, it is not hard to imagine this program winning a national championship in the next couple of years. Lee is cautious not to get caught up looking ahead though.
“I think we’re just worried about this year,” said the 6’3 blueliner listed at 201lbs.
So far college has been an enjoyable experience for the 18-year-old. Balancing life on campus and college athletics can be difficult, but Lee seems to be adjusting.
“School gets to be a bit [tough] when you go on the road three weeks in a row and you’re missing Thursday, Friday class,” said Lee, who is interested in majoring in business or medicine.
Regardless of what he decides to study, he appears to have a future in Ottawa. The Senators’ first round pick was at its highest spot since 1996 at ninth, and they were ecstatic to acquire the Minnesota native.
“I was hoping to be top ten,” he says, “but I wasn’t sure if that was going to happen.”
Although the pick surprised many, the Senators history at the draft table quieted all doubts. That being said, Lee is not looking forward to Ottawa quite yet. The quest to give the United States its second gold medal in three years is enough of a preoccupation at the moment.
Matt MacInnis contributed to this article. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.