Payton Lee has taken to the ice at surface at Western Financial Place plenty of times over the course of his hockey career.
So while the friendly confines of his hometown Western Hockey League barn aren’t unfamiliar territory, the 19-year-old locally-grown goaltender is excited to spend a little more time here than he has in recent winters while playing across the province with the Vancouver Giants.
“It was always a day I had circled on the calendar to come back home and play in front of friends and family,” Lee said Tuesday morning. “To be doing that for 36 games or whatever it will be this year, it’s definitely going to be special. I’m looking forward to the new challenge.
“It’s very exciting. Obviously growing up watching this team play, it’s always been kind of a dream to play for them. It’s going to be exciting this year to make that happen.”
Lee’s opportunity to come home to Cranbrook was made official Monday afternoon, as Jeff Chynoweth, president and general manager of the Kootenay Ice, shipped off a conditional sixth-round pick (2017) to the Edmonton Oil Kings in exchange for the experienced goaltender.
“That was our No. 1 priority heading into the off-season — we felt we had to get some experience at that position with Declan Hobbs,” Chynoweth said Monday afternoon.
“There’s an overabundance of 1996-born goaltenders available in the Western Hockey League… I know what his character and what his make up is. We thought he would be a great fit for our organization, not only for him to come home and have a chance to finish his WHL career, but also be a leader and mentor for not only Declan Hobbs, but the rest of our group as well.”
Monday’s deal marks the second time in less than a year that Lee has traded in familiar duds for new team colours, but this time around the feelings were not quite the same.
After a 140-game career (52-71-5-4) with the Giants, Lee found himself dealt from the West Coast to northern Alberta when he was traded from Vancouver to Edmonton in exchange for a sixth-round pick back in November 2015.
“This one was a little different than the last time,” Lee said. “Last time was a little more sudden and not expected. This time, I knew the goaltending situation there [in Edmonton] was complicated. It was likely that I was probably going to be moved somewhere. It couldn’t have happened in a better place. To come home and play here, I’m pretty lucky and I’m very thankful for that.”
The feeling of coming home is nothing short of exciting for Lee. Making the situation easier yet was the fact Oil Kings’ brass were up front and honest with the overage puck-stopper at the conclusion of the 2015-16 campaign.
“In our exit meetings [with the Oil Kings], it was talked about at one point that it was obviously going to be a complicated goaltending situation [moving forward],” Lee said, in reference to Edmonton retaining veteran goaltenders Patrick Dea (1997) and Alec Dillon (1996), plus youngster Carter Phair (1998).
“I definitely respect them making the move early and giving me time to think about playing with the Ice, rather than worrying about where I was going to be playing next year.”
Come 2016-17, the challenge with the Kootenay Ice for the 6-foot-1, 191-pound Lee might be a bit different from the challenge he faced this past season. After landing in Edmonton, Lee played a vital role in helping propel the Oil Kings into the post-season before putting a scare into the eventual Eastern Conference-champion Brandon Wheat Kings during first-round action.
After going 12-53-6-1 in 2015-16, the Ice are simply looking to re-enter the playoff conversation — a task that won’t be easily achieved with what is expected to once again be a young group.
Still, Lee has been previously educated on the subject of bouncing back from a tough campaign to make the playoffs the following season.
In 2012-13, Lee — 16 years old at the time — and the Giants stumbled to a 21-49-0-2 record, missing out on the WHL post-season for the first time since the team’s expansion campaign (2001-02).
Fast forward to 2013-14, Lee and the Giants scraped out a mark of 32-29-7-4, returning to the WHL playoff picture once again, serving as an object lesson for what can be achieved in short order when a team buys into what it is being sold.
“I look forward to trying to get this team back to the playoffs and making a push to do that,” Lee said. “It’s going to be fun. Anytime you’ve got a team that’s working hard to make a push for the playoffs, it’s a good time. Hopefully everybody gets on board with that and we can build all year and try to make that our goal.
“It’s going to take a lot of commitment from everyone. I played on a team [Giants] when I was 16 where we were last in the league, I believe, and the next year we made the playoffs. It can definitely be done. Obviously it’s going to be a good challenge, but if everyone commits and listens to the coaches, listens to the game play, we should make a good push and be a contender to make the playoffs.”
Outside of providing a stabilizing presence between the pipes, Lee is also expected to play the role of mentor for 17-year-old Declan Hobbs. With only 26 career games under his belt, Hobbs isn’t quite ready for the starters gig yet. As one of the team’s three overagers, including forwards Matt Alfaro and Zak Zborosky, Lee will also serve as a leader, much the way workhorse Wyatt Hoflin did this past season.
“I’m going to come in and work hard every day, lead by example and just do the right things,” Lee said. “I don’t say too much in the room, but I lead by my actions.
“I’m going to try to be as open with [Hobbs] as I can. If he has questions or is wondering about certain things in the league — obviously he has played a year in the league now, so he’s probably starting to figure it out — but if there’s anything he needs help with, I’ll obviously be a good teammate and help him out as much as I can and try to be a good mentor for him.”
With the addition of Lee, the overage situation seems set for the Ice, as the hometown kid joins returners Alfaro and Zborosky.
Blue paint possession also has clarity, with Lee and Hobbs the outstanding candidates to share in crease time. Also in the system is goaltender Jakob Walter (1999), who unexpectedly skipped out on 2015 Ice training camp, opting to join the Nanaimo Clippers of the BCHL. Walter went 6-5-0 with a 3.66 goals-against average and .880 save percentage (SP) in 13 games this past season.
With plenty of time remaining before hockey season starts up once again in the East Kootenay, Lee is at home working for Brandt Tractor in Cranbrook while getting back to his off-season workout routine.
Lee was originally selected 28th overall by the Giants in the second round of the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. In 168 career games, he has registered a record of 61-86-7-4 with a 3.36 GAA, .884 SP and six shutouts.
He previously represented Canada as a member of Team Pacific at the 2013 IIHF World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Quebec, earning a silver medal in the process.
Ice Chips: Goaltender news galore for Kootenay Ice fans this week as recently-drafted prospect Jesse Makaj (2001) was named to B.C. Hockey’s U-16 Provincial Camp (July 13 to 17). From that camp, 20 players will be selected to represent Team B.C. at the Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup… In addition to Makaj, new Ice prospect defenceman Jordan Chudley (2001) has been named to Hockey Manitoba’s POE Top-40 Camp (May 12 to 15). From there, Hockey Manitoba will select players to represent Team Manitoba at the Western Canada U-16 Challenge Cup. Lee hasn’t been the only goaltender dealt in recent days by the Oil Kings. Tuesday afternoon, the Oil Kings announced they had traded list goaltender Austin McGrath (1998) to the Everett Silvertips in exchange for a conditional seventh-round pick at the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft. A native of Lloydminster, Alta., McGrath spent the bulk of 2015-16 with the Lloydminster Midget AAA Bobcats of the Alberta Midget Hockey League…