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Hard work and dedication pays off

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Justin Lee’s love of the game as a toddler foreshadowed his dedication to hockey as an adult.

“I have a photo of him sleeping in his skates while still in a diaper and in his crib,” his mother, Carla Lee, of the family grain farm near Waskada said earlier this week. “He just wore his skates all day at home; as soon as he could roughly walk.

On Saturday, the now 22-year-old defenseman completed an NCAA champion lap after his University of Denver Pioneers beat the Minnesota State Mavericks 5-1 in the game. NCAA Men’s Hockey Championship at TD Garden in Boston.

“My parents have always supported me in anything I wanted to do and I can’t thank them enough,” Lee of Denver said Tuesday. “I fell in love with (hockey) from an early age and it’s always something I wanted to do.”

In the Frozen Four final, the Pioneers trailed 1-0 early in the third period before busting out for all five goals to claim the ninth NCAA title in program history. Lee, a junior, got an assist on Massimo Rizzo’s goal that put Denver up 3-1.

“It was just amazing,” Lee said of celebrating the title with his teammates and coaches on the ice and his parents, including dad, Don and mom from the stands. “Like it was still planned that we won, but it was just a great experience…

“In our group, we got into it at the start of the year and it was a topic – we wanted to win a national championship – and that was always our goal.

Denver, which finished the season 31-9-1 overall, defeated UMass Lowell 3-2 in the Western Region semifinals on March 24 and eliminated the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs 2-1 in the Western Region finals. west two days later.

The Pioneers then opened the Frozen Four by ousting the Michigan Wolverines 3-2 in overtime on Thursday to set up Saturday’s showdown with the Mavericks.

Lee’s road to a national championship involved moving away from home to play at Notre Dame in Wilcox, Saskatchewan at ages 15 and 16 with pit stops along the way with the Virden Oil Capitals of the MJHL at the age of 17. and an 18-year season split between the USHL’s Lincoln Stars and Fargo Force.

Lee, who helped Virden reach the MJHL Finals in 2017-18, chose Denver’s winning tradition when he committed to college.

“It was a fun course and I got a chance to play for different teams and travel,” said Lee, one of 13 Canadians and the only Manitoban on the Pioneers roster.

“It’s kind of hard to describe, having left home when I was very young and then spent two years in the Notre Dame program, which was amazing there. I loved every minute.

“Then playing at Virden for a year which was amazing with a really good team and host family and it was great that I got to spend a year in the USHL as well.”

Lee’s parents were thrilled to see the result of the team’s success.

“I’m so proud because he put in so much work and time and commitment and also missed a lot – a lot of other things just to do what he loves,” Carla Lee said.

During the off season, Lee returns to help out on the family farm 2.5 miles from Waskada. His only brother, his sister Charlie, is a 12th grade student.

“He knows how to work really hard,” said Carla Lee, who operates a hair salon in town. “Actually, I think with COVID last year he was home and he seeded the whole farm. He put the whole harvest.

Undrafted Lee plans to return in 2022-23 for his senior season in Denver with the possibility of a fifth bonus season added due to the pandemic. Any professional aspiration will have to wait.

“Since you were little, you’ve dreamed of playing in the NHL, haven’t you?” said Lee. “That’s always been my goal… But you can always work on yourself to improve your game and I just want to improve.”

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Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatsky