Sound Tigers’ pair of Division III dandies

by Kimber Auerbach || AHL On The Beat Archive

Kurtis McLean comes to Bridgeport after playing in the Calder Cup Finals last season.

There were 59 players at this year’s New York Islanders’ training camp and all but two had either played on a Division I college hockey team or a major junior club before they were signed or drafted to the NHL.

Those select two were Kurtis McLean and Chris Lee, who both graduated after four years of playing for Division III hockey schools.

McLean and his linemates, wingers Mike Iggulden and Trevor Smith, all have claim to the top three spots on the Sound Tigers’ leading scorers list. McLean currently holds the top spot with 18 points (six goals and 12 assists) in 16 games.

Lee, after joining the Sound Tigers in mid-October, has played in seven games for Bridgeport this season and has five assists, and he quarterbacks one of the team’s top power-play units.

Born and raised in Kirkland Lake, Ont., McLean attended Norwich University in Vermont, where he had one of the most illustrious careers in school history. In each of his four seasons with the Cadets, McLean led the team in goals and points, compiling impressive career numbers of 118 goals and 94 assists for 212 points in 115 games.

During the 2002-03 season, McLean led Norwich to an NCAA championship. And in his senior year, McLean received the 2005 Sid Watson Award, presented to the Division III Player of the Year as voted on by the nation’s head coaches. McLean also was the first four-time First Team All-American in NCAA Division III history.

“I didn’t really have a clue where I was going to go after college. I enrolled in the science program thinking that maybe I’d become a chiropractor or a teacher but around my sophomore year I started to feel that I had the chance play semi-pro. Playing hockey in Vermont is very competitive but obviously not every team is as competitive as all Division I clubs,” McLean said.

“I was fortunate from my freshman year on, to play a lot of minutes, which is something that I may not have been able to do at the Division I level.

“I take pride in the fact that I’ve worked my way up to this level and hopefully continuing on,” McLean said. “With my background, I understand that a spot will not just be given to me so I have to work my way up and be ready to take advantage of the opportunities when they come up.”

McLean signed an AHL/ECHL contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins that saw him start the 2005-06 season with the Wheeling Nailers. After his first year, he had 56 points in 41 games and finished the season in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. McLean experienced several ups and downs the following year playing for both teams again but last year, he played the full season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and by the end of the season was counted on to play a lot of minutes at crucial points of the game.

Last season, the Penguins mirrored their NHL affiliate in Pittsburgh by making it to the league finals, but they lost to the Chicago Wolves in the Calder Cup Finals. McLean played in all 23 games and was the team’s third leading scorer with four goals and 15 assists for 19 points.

“It was a great run last season with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. We had a team full of skilled but hard-working players,” McLean said. “Our coach at the time, Todd Richards, implemented systems that really were like the ones that [Islanders] coach [Scott] Gordon is putting us through now. We won some big games down the stretch, coming back in a few to make it exciting. That two month stretch really was like NHL hockey and has helped me prepare for this camp.”

Chris Lee was a standout defenseman at Division III SUNY-Potsdam.

In the past both McLean and Lee were rivals but now they are sharing the same dressing room and niche off the ice with the rest of the off-season acquisitions looking to make an impact with their new organization, the Islanders.

Lee, went to the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he led all Bears defensemen in points his sophomore, junior and senior years. In his final year of school, he was named a SUNYAC First Team All-American and finished his college career with 115 points in 110 games.

“I did not have the goal in mind to play professional hockey at all once I entered into Potsdam. It was definitely an unconventional route but I just worked hard my four years at Potsdam,” Lee said. “I had a productive senior year and was able to be noticed by a couple of pro teams and had a couple of offers coming out of college. I was able to start in ECHL and worked my way up.”

In the ECHL, Lee began his college career with the Florida Everblades in 2004-05 and scored 27 points in 68 games. The next two years bounced around from Florida and played for three different AHL teams, including the Sound Tigers. Last season he was in Iowa playing for the Stars.

“My interaction with Kurtis before this was really only on a rivalry basis,” Lee said. “Norwich was always the powerhouse while Potsdam was the underdog. I knew him pretty well and followed his career a little as we both turned pro. We’re both looking forward to this next stage in our careers and helping the Islanders’ organization win games.”

Both McLean and Lee partook in their first NHL exhibition games while in Moncton for the Islanders’ training camp. The two young stars dressed in a game against the New Jersey Devils and had a direct impact on the outcome of the contest. McLean scored his first goal of the preseason schedule, while Lee also tallied his first, which was the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Islanders the 3-2 victory.

“That game was a big thrill for both of us,” Lee said. “Whenever you play you want its nice to contribute on the scoreboard but for both of us to do it on the same night, made it that much better.”