It’s almost a month since the Vancouver Canucks were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoff’s, the dust has settled and everyone and their Auntie have analyzed and over analyzed what went wrong. The players may now even be more concerned with how they will get a birdie on the eighteenth hole then anything pertaining to the ice. For Mike Gillis and his Management team its still business as usual. Gillis and his colleagues are left with the job of righting the ship. Recently Gillis addressed some of the issues the team has by restocking his shelves when he signed three young defensemen. One of the players who put pen to paper with the Canucks GM was Lee Sweatt. Sweatt was awarded a one-year; two way deal, worth $650,000.
Lee Sweatt hails from Illinois, he started his hockey career playing for the Chicago Steel in the USHL during the 2002 –2003 season, he then spent time with Colorado College, he was also a member of the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage from 2006 – 2007. Since then he has been plying his trade in some of Europe’s best leagues, with stints in Austria, Finland and Russia. Last season he played for both Riga Dynamo in the KHL and TPS Turku of the Finnish SM Liga. He has been teammates with former NHLer’s like Marcel Hossa, Sandis Ozolinsh and Tomas Plihal. He’s competed against the likes of Jagr, Yashin and Radulov. Sweatt ended his most recent season by helping TPS win the SM Liga Championship.
So what does the Canucks defenseman like to eat, who does he think is the best player on the Canucks roster and what similarities does he have with NHL All Star Brian Rafalski? Who better to answer those questions than Lee Sweatt?
The interview starts with questions about Lee, the conversation then moves on to his European hockey journey. Lee explains his expectations and hopes about the Vancouver Canucks. He also kindly agreed to answer a few questions from Canucks fans:
JE – As a child from Illinois which hockey team if any did you support?
LS – Growing up in Chicago, I was a definite Blackhawk’s fan.
JE – When you’re not on the ice how do you spend your time, do you have any hobbies?
LE – I am currently getting a triple-major MBA in Technology Management, Project Management, and Finance, so most of my time goes to that. I spend a lot of time reading and I really do enjoy a lot of sushi, so most days, that is what I will be eating for lunch.
JE – Who has supported you throughout your career?
LS – My family and friends.
JE – How would you describe your defensive style of play?
LS – My defensive style of play has evolved over the last three years of my professional career and especially in the last year or so. Early on in my career, I was much more of a “run-around” kind of d-man that utilized my feet to play guys tight man-on-man. This style, while successful in college, didn’t really work out at the pro level and I have had to adjust my game. I play a body-position, containment defensive style where I use my footwork to always keep my body position between the attacking player and myself. I gradually take time and space away and I try to finish checks on guys whenever advantageous for me to do so.
JE – How do you think you will make the leap from playing in Europe to playing in the NHL or AHL?
LS – I am not worried about making the leap from the leagues in Europe to the NHL or AHL. The NHL will be an adjustment, in terms of size, speed, and skill, but that is why we all play the game; to be in the NHL, so I am not worried at all about trying to adjust to it, I will find a way.
JE – What is the best and most memorable moment of your hockey career so far?
LS – Probably winning the Finnish league title this past season. Either that, or being awarded a scholarship to play college hockey for Colorado College.
JE – In Canada and the U.S. some NHL players are considered superstars and worshiped by fans. How popular with fans were you in the KHL and SM Liga, and what are the fans like in Europe?
LS – The same holds true with fans in Europe. I have always been the guy that stays late with the fans and takes as many pictures as people want to take. I figure that these fans are the reason why we can play the sport we love for a living, so why not give them a little piece of my time. When we won the Finnish title, I would have to say that was one of the most exciting, yet chaotic events that I have ever been apart of in my life. Hockey is life to many Finnish people, especially in Turku, so it was really amazing to be a part of that.
JE – When playing hockey what do you excel at the most what is the best aspect of your game, and what makes you better than other defensemen?
LS – I would say my drive to compete in any situation is a stand-out attribute of mine, as well as my offensive abilities, especially on the PP, where my shooting skills from the point, either a one-timer or a wrister, create a lot of opportunities in front of the net.
JE – You are also a good inline hockey player and represented the USA at the 2008 Men’s World Inline Hockey Championships. During the tournament you scored 4 goals 6 assists and were named best defenseman of the Championships. How does it feel to play for your country, and what attracts you to playing a different kind of hockey?
LS – Actually, I wouldn’t be here without Roller Hockey. Roller hockey has helped me develop my offensive game since I was about 8 or 9 years old. Without it, I think I probably would have been out of hockey and doing something much different now. Playing for my country for the last nine years in that tournament (since I was 15), has really been amazing and to have been fortunate enough to win the World Championships twice, was really unbelievable.
JE – You have spent the last few years playing hockey in Europe, what was that experience like, and how does the European game differ from North American hockey?
LS – I have experienced a collection of different leagues and countries during my three-year tour of Europe and I have learned a lot about each league that I played in and the countries involved. The style of play, in general, can be considered more of a puck control game, especially from a defensemen’s point of view, than the North American game can be at times. Defensemen need to be able to find seams and make plays and are encouraged to be creative. In general, the game is more open and more flowing than the North American game, but an interesting caveat exists in the Finnish game. In Finland, the style of game is a hybrid between this creative, flowing style of hockey and dump-and-chase hockey. I suppose that is why that league is so heavily scouted by NHL teams because the jump from that league to North America is much, much easier because the game is pretty similar to North America, at least by European standards.
JE – You had quite a successful season playing for TPS Turku you set a new record for points scored by a TPS defenseman in one playoff season you were also a member of the SM Liga All Star Team, and you were awarded the Pekka Rautakallio trophy for the SM Liga Defenseman of the year. How do such accolades make you feel?
LS – Honestly, it is quite an honor. Some really great Finnish hockey players held those records and awards before I did, and I was just fortunate enough to play on a team with players that really complemented each other. I believe the last time a North American defensemen was awarded with these accolades, was in Helsinki and the player was Brian Rafalski. It is a real honor to be mentioned in the same category as a player like Rafalski and I am just very appreciative of the opportunity and support I was given in Turku.
JE – You spent last season playing for Dynamo Riga in the KHL where you played 37 games, you also spent time with TPS Turku why did you switch teams during the season?
LS – Opportunity. When I was in Riga, our team was competing against teams of much higher caliber than us and to stand a chance, we had to play a very defensive style of play. I was told once that it was better to ice the puck than try to make a play because our team wasn’t “skilled” enough to make creative plays. Once I heard that and started playing a strict defensive role, I knew that I was really limiting my exposure to NHL clubs. I am actually grateful that I did play a very defensive role for a while because it taught me how to play defense against players like Jagr, Yashin, and Radulov, and now my defensive ability has flourished because of it. But, as a 5’9” defenseman, I needed to show I could put numbers on the board, especially on the PP. I had a great relationship with TPS since I left, and especially their director of player development, Ari Vuori, so I was able to come back to the team and have the exact type of opportunity that I needed to show NHL teams that I could dominate one of the best leagues in Europe offensively. I guess the rest, everyone knows.
JE – As you mentioned your height, if someone told you that you were lacking in stature to play at the NHL level what would you say, how do you compensate for this?
LS – All I would say is that I use my low center of gravity, my weight, intelligence, and footwork to my advantage and I have surprised everyone in my career so far that has doubted my ability to succeed at higher levels, so I guess doing that again is not going to be an issue.
JE – In your opinion who is the best player on the Canucks roster?
LS – Ooooooo, loaded question. I am going to play it safe and say Luongo, because he is the one that is going to hopefully help me out of a jam every now and then.
JE – Vancouver Canucks fans love their team and are some of the most passionate fans in hockey what do you think of them and how do you intend to get in their good books?
LS – Like I said earlier, my work ethic on the ice, no matter what the situation, is something that they can always depend on from me. Off the ice, I am very approachable and friendly, so if they want to come and take pictures or whatever, feel free.
JE – What does it mean to you to be given the opportunity to play for a team like the Canucks?
LS – It is amazing to be able to be given the opportunity to play with Canucks for this upcoming year. I have worked my whole career, from when I was a kid growing up in Chicago to now, to be able to play in the NHL. I am very fortunate to have a team with the prestige of the Canucks to offer me a contract.
JE – Veteran Canucks defenseman Sami Salo is from Turku, Finland, he played for TPS Turku during the early part of his career. You also played for his former team will you be able to have a conversation with him in Finnish?
LS – I actually have practiced with Sami a few years ago when I first went to TPS. He was warming up for camp during our August practices and skated with us. Have I learned enough Finnish to have a conversation? Not even close. I can’t even tell you, “Hi, my name is Lee” in Finnish. It is such a difficult language, but the beauty of Scandinavian countries, in particular Finland, is that their English skills are great, so I am sure I will have no problem getting to know Sami.
JE – Which Canucks players are you looking forward to meeting the most?
LS – I am excited to meet all of the guys. It will be quite a different experience being in a locker room that features English as the dominant language once again, although there is a lot of Swedish influence.
JE – If you could compare yourself to a current or past Canucks Dman who would it be?
LS – I don’t believe I have a direct comparable on the Canucks right now. The best comparable I can make is a young Brian Rafalski, or my agent, Scott Norton, likes to compare me to Stephane Robidas from Dallas.
JE – When you report to training camp you will be expecting to challenge for a spot with the Canucks. What will you do at training camp to impress the coaches enough to give you a spot on the roster and why should they choose you over other players? If you don’t make the roster how will that make you feel?
LS – I am definitely expecting to challenge for a spot on the Canucks. My goal is to surprise some people at camp and come out of there with one of the spots on defense. I will try to display my offensive abilities in order to show them that I can be a good 2nd PP unit guy for them for this first year and have the potential to develop into a top PP guy down the road. Obviously, because of my size, I am going to have to show that I can play against the big guys and hold my own. Most people think that because I am 5’9”, I am small, but I weigh around 188-192 lbs, and enjoy physical play. I will also need to show how my body positioning and my defensive style will enable me to use my footwork to my advantage and keep opposing players outside the dots. If I don’t make the roster, I will take it as a challenge and I will continue to work to make the team every day. I did not come over from Europe to play in the AHL, so I plan on getting called up as much and as often as possible.
JE – Why should Canucks fans be excited about seeing you play in a Vancouver Jersey?
LS – They should know that I have always surprised people with my size, especially because I am very physical and that I will always give everything I have for the team, no matter what the score is on the board or what place we are in during the season.
JE – What have you heard about the city of Vancouver and are you looking forward to exploring the sites?
LS – I have heard great things and that it is like a northern San Francisco. I am definitely looking forward to seeing the town and experiencing what the city has to offer.
Lee kindly answers some of the fans questions:
Josh Hall from Surrey BC asks: As a now NHL signed D-man, I wanna know Lee, in a 1 on 1 situation, when you are last man back defending against the on coming player, do you take the puck or the man?
LS – I use my body position to force the player to the outside while keeping my stick on his stick, taking his time and space away.
Lia Cacatian from Vancouver BC: Would like to know what your initial assessment is of the Canucks defense?
LS – NHL defensemen are good and they are in the NHL for a reason; Vancouver’s D-men are no exception.
David Roy who lives in Vancouver: Wonders who your hockey hero was growing up?
LS – When I was younger, my hockey hero’s progressed from Bobby Orr, to Ray Bourque, and then towards the later part of my “fan years (during high school and college)” – Brian Rafalski.
Clayton Corley from Calgary Alberta: Would like to know how you are preparing for your first NHL camp?
LS – Right now I am working out every day for about 2 hours a day. Mostly weights and dry conditioning right now. During July I will start skating more intensively for about 2-3 times a week with my brother and some other players in Colorado. In the first two weeks of August, I will bump that up to about 3 times a week. The last two weeks of August about 4-5 times a week and the first week in September, before camp, I would like to skate every day for the week before I go.
Henrike Wöbking who lives in Cologne Germany: Has a question about 1 of your former coaches. Pierre Pagé, who was your coach in Salzburg, has a great reputation working with young players, developing them. Did you benefit from that?
LS – Pierre is a great coach that has a lot of history and prestige and he definitely helped show me a few things about body positioning that I use to help develop my defensive game. The only hard part is that in Austria, you are not playing against the best talent, but what he showed me helped make me a better defensive player when I got to the KHL.
The start of training camp is still a few months away, for Lee Sweatt this will mean countless hours of mental and physical preparation on and off the ice to ensure he is in perfect condition and ready to impress the Canucks coaching staff. Perhaps there is one final question that can only be asked of Lee, will blue be your lucky color?
I would like to say a big thank you to Lee Sweatt for doing the interview, and good luck.
About the Author: James has been writing about the Canucks since September 2009. He lives in England with his Wife and is a proud stay at home Dad to his young daughter. He has been a vegetarian for over 20 years. James and his Wife love cats, they currently have four, but that is likely to increase. He has made an art form of taking things literally, which is something he’s been doing for almost 40 years.