There was a time, not very long ago, when Anders Lee - whose 20 goals this season rank third in the NHL - could have chosen to pursue a career in the NFL. The star quarterback at Edina High School in Minnesota, Lee was voted Gatorade Player of the Year in the state and was a finalist for Minnesota's coveted "Mr. Football" award in 2008.
That same year, he and his family visited Notre Dame, which was recruiting Lee to join their hockey program. Over breakfast, Fighting Irish head coach Jeff Jackson threw out a question that gave Lee a lot to think about: To have a long career in one of the major leagues, are your odds more in your favor to become a starting NFL quarterback, or to be one of an NHL team's 12 forwards?
In a decision that changed the young man's life, and the course of the New York Islanders, Lee chose hockey. Still, it was far from easy. He was not picked until the sixth round of the 2009 NHL Draft. While others may have seen him as a long shot because of concerns over his skating, the Notre Dame coaching staff and the Islanders' scouts did not.
We spoke with Jackson - an assistant coach with the Islanders from 2003-05 - around the same time Lee was becoming the first Islander in two decades to reach the 20-goal mark before Christmas.
Chris Botta: What's the first thing that comes to mind when you're asked about Anders Lee?
Jeff Jackson: That he's a heckuva person, first and foremost. His head and heart have always been in the right place. I'm really proud of the player and the man Anders has become. As you're seeing with the Islanders, he's a never-say-die guy.
CB: Considering he had plenty of options - including possibly playing football at the University of Minnesota or Stanford - how did you convince him to play hockey at Notre Dame?
JJ: We really wanted him and definitely recruited him heavily to join us, but we weren't looking to force a decision - just lay out his options and talk them through. He was a great athlete in high school and an excellent student. Anders could have gone to plenty of great schools. We just told him what we thought of him as a hockey player and student and made the case for Notre Dame.
On the morning they were heading back home, Anders and his parents had breakfast with me at the campus hotel -- the Morris Inn. I was really impressed by his maturity for a teenager. That's when we discussed his potential in the pros. I'm glad he chose Notre Dame and hockey. It's worked out well for him, for everyone.
CB: Anders played three years at ND and spent very little time in the AHL, for the most part sticking with the Islanders and flourishing now as a first-line player. What strides did he make in his development as a player under your staff?
JJ: He was a kid in a man's body when he arrived at Notre Dame. He made himself into a great player. To improve his skating, Anders worked a lot with our strength coach, Tony Rolinski, on his quickness and agility. Paul Pooley, one of our assistant coaches, spent a lot of time with Anders on puck skills and his skating stride - especially on his outside edges. You see a lot of players determined to get better, but Anders worked as hard as anyone. He improved his game week by week.
CB: Amazing to think the third-leading goal scorer in the NHL right now was a sixth-round draft pick.
JJ: Credit (then-chief scout) Ryan Jankowski, who I know pushed hard for Anders, and everyone with the Islanders. Ryan also always believed that wing was the best position in the long run for Anders. We played him at wing his first two years at Notre Dame, and then he played a lot at center as a junior. Playing center added another dimension to his game and he learned a lot that year. He's found a home at wing on the Islanders' No. 1 line.
CB: Are you surprised to see him scoring at this rate in the NHL?
JJ: It was going to come down to whether he could play at the NHL pace, and he answered that pretty quickly. He's always had the athleticism and the net-front presence. He worked at tipping pucks every day at practice. He's a strong man with a great touch. So it's not a huge surprise he's scoring this much.
CB: What has Lee's ascension as a top player at ND and with the Islanders meant to your program?
JJ: Most of all, we're proud because he's a good citizen and representative of Notre Dame. He never hesitates to give his time to us, like at our pro camp. But I also believe his development has caught the attention of players that decided to play at Notre Dame. Cam Morrison, a sophomore with us, was a second round pick of the Avalanche last year. It's been good for a big kid like Cam to see what Anders has become in the NHL.
CB: How often are you in touch with Anders?
JJ: You don't like to intrude too much; he's an Islander now. But I'll send him a text after a big milestone or major moment. He continues to give back to Notre Dame and I see him in the summer.
CB: Looking back, anything else that you remember about that breakfast at the Morris Inn with Anders and his parents?
JJ: When I meet with a young man and his family, it's always interesting to see how the player is around his parents - how he speaks about them, how he speaks to them. Anders was a very respectful young man and he hasn't changed. You're proud of all of your players, but to see Anders do this well with a team I once coached is special, without a doubt.