Lee Sweatt's retirement announcement probably went unnoticed by most, but for those few interested fans it was quite the surprise. It must have been even more surprising for the Ottawa Senators, who weeks earlier had signed the defenseman to a 2 year contract.
The previous season, 2010-11, Sweatt had finally made his NHL debut after several years quite literally travelling around the hockey world. He made a memorable debut with the Vancouver Canucks, scoring the game winning goal in his first game, and celebrating with a nonchalant smirk:
"It was an amazing moment when I scored. It was absolutely incredible," he said, not long after he signed a two-year, two-way deal with the Ottawa Senators this month.
"I was just thinking, 'Don't screw up defensively' and I end up scoring a goal that became the game winner. Unreal."
The undersized defenseman got his start in hockey with Colorado College he earned a mathematics degree in economics while being named top student athlete in the WCHA in 2007. Despite his success his size scared off every NHL team.
Though he was undrafted and unsigned, Sweatt remained undaunted. He took his game to Europe, where his skillful and speedy style of play fit in perfectly. He played 2 season in Finland (where he was named as top defenseman) and 1 season in each of Russia and Austria. He was able to pursue a high level of hockey while also travelling the world.
His story was remarkably similar to that of Brian Rafalski, another undersized American defender who later blossomed in the NHL. Perhaps that was what the Blackhawks were thinking when they drafted Sweatt, a Chicago native, in 2007.
Sweatt never did join the Blackhawks organization. But he finally gave North America a try, signing with the Vancouver Canucks in 2010-11. The Canucks were deep on the blue line, so Sweatt probably never really expected to play with the NHL team that season. But he jumped at the opportunity to play with his brother Bill on the Canucks farm team in Manitoba.
Then a funny thing happened. Mounting injuries in Vancouver allowed for Sweatt to get his NHL debut. He looked good in limited ice time in 3 games before breaking his foot while blocking a dreaded Shea Weber slap shot. It was good news/bad news for Sweatt. His season was all but done, but since it happened in the NHL he would continue to earn his NHL paycheck for the duration of his rehabilitation. For a player who never really expected a NHL career, the extra money must have been like winning the lottery.
Interestingly, the Canucks did not offer Sweatt a qualifying offer in the summer of 2011, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. The Ottawa Senators were very interested, committing a 2 year contract to him. However just weeks later Sweatt announced his retirement as he wished to pursue business interests.
I have a lot of respect for a player like Lee Sweatt. He was a highly talented player (who was also quite the in-line hockey player) who excelled at every level. But he probably knew he would never last long in the NHL. So the 25 year old took his NCAA scholarship, his tour of Europe and his NHL cup of coffee and left the game.
His degree suggests he will be a successful businessman no matter what his venture is.
“He’s extremely bright and has been involved in the finance world for years,” said his agent, Scott Norton.