Payton Lee grew up in Cranbrook watching the Kootenay Ice, dreaming of a chance to play high-level hockey.
The young 16-year-old netminder got the opportunity to suit up and man the crease against the franchise he grew up cheering for, as the Cranbrook native rolled into Western Financial Place with the rest of the Vancouver Giants on Saturday night.
“It was a pretty neat experience for sure,” said Lee. “I haven’t been back since the summer and to come back and get a chance to play in front of a team I watched my whole life was pretty neat and extra special to get the win.”
Lee, a goaltending prospect who was picked in the second round of the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, was heavily favoured to make the Giants roster this year, however another goalie, Tyler Fuhr, threw a wrench into those plans.
The Giants expected Liam Liston, 19, to be the starter, while Lee, Fuhr (no relation to former NHL stopper Grant Fuhr) and Jackson Whistle battled for back up honours in training camp. Fuhr won, Whistle was traded to Kelowna, and Lee was sent down to play with the Richmond Sockeyes of the PIJHL.
Releasing him to the Sockeyes was more about giving him a chance to flourish and gain some confidence, according to Giants head coach Don Hay.
“I think it was the best thing for him, help him gain some confidence,” said Hay. “He was the best goaltender in Jr. B, got to play and practice. He got to practice with us and that helped him gain a lot of confidence so I think that was a really good decision.”
However, things changed when the Giants opened the season with eight losses in 10 games.
Liston and Fuhr both struggled in net, which made the decision to call Lee up to the WHL easy for Hay.
He earned his first start in a tight 3-2 home loss to the Brandon Wheat Kings on Oct. 26. Two nights later, he got his first win of the season in a 4-1 shellacking of the Victoria Royals.
The Giants sent Lee back down to the Sockeyes after that, but he was called up again, as the Giants have recently been on the road, arriving in Cranbrook in time to earn a spot in the crease against the Ice.
Hay said Lee will join the team for good this time around for the rest of the season, adding that he’ll need to make a decision regarding the immediate future of Liston and Fuhr.
“Payton’s the goalie of the future and the future might be right now for us,” said Hay. “We feel that we’re going to continue to play Payton and give him valuable development time so when we start fresh next year, he’s not going to be a rookie, he’s going to be a veteran player who’s played in competitive games.”
Lee went through the minor hockey system in Cranbrook, before moving to Kelowna to attend the Pursuit of Excellence hockey school, where he played second-year bantam and first-year midget hockey.
Even at a young age and competing in the WHL, Hay likes what he sees and knows Lee will only develop stronger as he gets more action under his belt.
“He really attacks the position as a professional,” said Hay. “He trains hard, he practices hard, he does all the right things off-ice. We think he really is going to be a good quality goaltender and we like his approach and we like his mental strength.”