The sport court was tucked away in a potholed parking lot, separated from the nearby railroad tracks by chain-link fencing and several banks of trees. It was old, small and relatively unsafe, at least for professional athletes playing touch football.
Several seasons ago, outside their former training facility in Syosset, N.Y., the New York Islanders began holding spirited 5-on-5 or 7-on-7 games before every practice. The tradition lasted just three weeks, predictable given the slipshod setting, cut short when defenseman Johnny Boychuk chased after a deep pass and wound up scraped and bruised. “I led him perfectly, but it was right into the fence,” the quarterback admits. “After that, we figured we should focus on our day jobs.”
This was probably for the best. Who knows how many other injuries might have occurred hunting down Hail Marys from Anders Lee? A decade before he became the NHL’s third-leading scorer, a net-front monster and deflection master, the 27-year-old left winger was shredding high schoolers in suburban Minneapolis, knocking cowered opponents back into second grade like Spike from Little Giants. Think his 46-goal pace through Wednesday seems gaudy? Try 1,982 passing yards and 1,105 more on the ground as a senior at Edina High School, along with 37 total TDs and Minnesota Gatorade Player of the Year honors … in 10 games.
Just ask Kim Nelson. He was Edina’s head coach when Lee transferred there in 2007, prior to his junior season, looking to move closer to home. (The school was literally located across the street.) Back then Nelson ran a “fairly sophisticated” air-raid attack that sampled concepts from Urban Meyer, Mike Leach and Gus Malzahn, largely out of the shotgun with wide splits along the offensive line, and contained multi-tiered pass progressions named things like HOT SHALLOW DIG SHOOT.
“That style of offense was a little bit new to the Twin Cities area,” Nelson says. “Anders was just the right guy at the right time. He was an innovator, I guess.”
The thought sounds crazy today, but Lee always felt that football came more natural than hockey. “Getting away from people, seeing down the field, stuff like that,” he says, “I loved it.” As a signal-caller he was fast and physical, equally capable at designed quarterback counters and broken scrambles. Occasionally defensive coordinator Reed Boltmann tried to coax Nelson into letting Lee also line up at safety, the position that he had played before changing schools. “Hey, he’s the franchise,” Nelson replied. “If we lose him, we won’t have much left.”
“I’d probably compare myself to very lame high school Tebow,” says Lee. "I didn’t run a 4.4 or anything. Just tried to make plays and run and get guys open."
Granted, he wasn’t exactly surrounded by scrubs. One of the Hornets' offensive tackles attended Western Carolina. The defense was anchored by Zach Budish, a second-round draft pick by the Nashville Predators who spent several years in the minors. But Lee was the offense’s unquestioned leader, organizing team meals, giving younger teammates rides home, staying late to pick up the dummies after practice. Once, during summer 7-on-7s at a nearby high school, Edina trailed by a score with 30 seconds left. “Don’t worry, I got this,” Lee told Boltmann, and then connected on two straight passes to win the game. “He’s got a quiet confidence about him,” Boltmann says. “He was kind of an assistant coach, the guy everybody looked to.”
Mike Rallis remembers. These days he goes by Riddick Moss, fledging professional wrestler for WWE NXT, but in ‘07 he was Lee’s best wide receiver. One specific play stands out. Unbeaten through seven games, the Hornets were facing Wayzata for the Classic Lake Conference title. The call was 432 Switch, spread formation, two receivers on either side. Flushed from the pocket by two oncoming blitzers, Lee rolled to his left, flipped his hips and chucked a dime to a diving Rallis, who was double-covered on a post route. They both still remember what the television announcer said:
AT THE WAYZATA 37 … PLAY ACTION … LEE ... STANDING … TAKES A HIT AFTER HE THROWS ... AND IT’S CAUGHT BY RALLIS! WHAT A CATCH!
In an alternate universe—one without ice rinks, perhaps—Rallis figures that Lee would’ve become a legitimate dual-threat Division I quarterback. Maybe more.
”When I’m trying to do my armchair scouting of the NFL draft or something like that, I try to determine if I can picture a QB being a franchise guy,” says Rallis, who later played at the University of Minnesota and earned a tryout with the Dolphins. “He’s the kind of guy that you would build a franchise around, 100 percent. Just the way he carries himself, the way he works, the way he commits himself to the team and the game ... When I watch Russell Wilson, I see a lot of similarities in the way [Anders] would scramble and use his athleticism."
Plenty of football programs showed interest anyway. Northern Illinois, Air Force and Wyoming called. The hometown Gophers invited Lee to their junior day, where he recalls watching film with their offensive coordinator. Harvard offered him opportunities to play both football and hockey, which he found “really appealing. But that would’ve just been absurd, and probably not doable. My talents were not going to get me further than college football, and I’m okay with that.”
In his mind, the choice was easy. “My route was always through hockey,” he says. But NHL teams were concerned. On the second day of the the 2008 draft, his first year of eligibility, Lee was watching from a friend’s basement—and wearing a Chicago Blackhawks T-shirt, he recalls—when his phone rang. It was former Islanders assistant GM Ryan Jankowski, calling from their table on the draft floor, wondering whether Lee planned to continue playing football as a senior at Edina. Yes, Lee replied. He was the captain and the quarterback. He couldn’t quit now.
“I think this was a pretty unique case,” Islanders GM Garth Snow says, explaining why his and every other team passed on Lee that June, “and I think that’s what scared most teams away.”
Fortunately, the Islanders had another crack. Ranked 118th among North American skaters by NHL central scouting, 117 spots behind future linemate John Tavares. Lee went in the sixth round and No. 152. (As the pick was announced, he was busy working a job with Cutco, making cold calls to sell knives.) “Powerful, strong, really raw,” Snow says. “The biggest question mark was his skating. We just felt there was enough character and drive to improve.”
Their faith has been rewarded. With 26 goals in 46 games this season, two behind Alex Ovechkin for the league lead, Lee counts among the NHL’s preeminent power forwards; all but three of those strikes have occurred below the faceoff hashmarks, largely on tip-ins, redirections, second-chance efforts and rebound cleanups. He certainly looks the part, 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds with swooped hair and a square jawline, like Johnny Bravo on skates. (One assumes this makes Tavares, as team captain, Johnny Alpha.)
“Takes a lot of energy to play against Anders, I’d imagine,” coach Doug Weight says. “It’s a good thing for his linemates as well. [Opponents] use a lot of fuel up trying to prevent him from getting to the paint or getting in the goalie’s eyes. It’s a distraction. It’s a fatigue factor for the other teams. He knows where his fish is fried. I can use four more cliches if you want. He knows what’s going to make his money.”
Drawing parallels between Lee’s football background and his on-ice presence isn’t difficult. “He hits like a lineman,” Weight says. “He comes in with these big claws and smashes you against the boards.” Watch how he digs into position around the crease, massive legs bent and arms ready, like he’s about to execute 432 Switch from the shotgun again. Or how he out-muscled Devils defenseman John Moore toward a loose puck in the first period Tuesday night, bolting toward paydirt to put the Islanders ahead 1-0. “At that point everyone was behind me,” Lee said after. “I don’t get that many breakaways in hockey.”
He misses football sometimes, but the sport finds ways to hang around. As a native Minnesotan, he is obviously rooting for the Vikings throughout their present miracle run. It was an ongoing joke among the Notre Dame men’s hockey team that Lee should’ve grabbed a playbook during his freshman year, because the Fighting Irish were hurting for quarterbacks after starter Dayne Crist suffered a knee injury. One summer, Lee told Nelson that he was coming back home to Edina. “I’ll meet you, we’ll talk some football,” Nelson said. “A little HOT SHALLOW DIG SHOOT sounds good to me,” Lee texted back. As a native Minnesotan, he is obviously rooting for the Vikings throughout their present miracle run.
Rallis still thinks about their “magical” season together too. Last week, the wrestler was driving with Levi Cooper, who performs under the name Tucker Knight, en route to another show on their circuit. Somehow, the conversation landed on high school football. Out spilled the decade-old memories—how Rallis had called Lee that summer, hoping to recruit him to Edina before the latter eventually transferred; how Lee once showed a brief shred of gridiron mortality by dropping a reverse pass from Rallis that got intercepted; how he later clinched the conference title against Wayzata by swatting down a deep ball at safety to preserve Edina's undefeated year.
“That’s my quarterback,” Rallis says. “He’ll always be my quarterback.”