Sunday, 8 April 2012

Sportsmen I love: Part Four. Bobby Lee

Now here is a player I never saw play. In fact, I had never heard of him until a year or so ago.

I have never seen him score, never seen him register an assist, never even seen him take to the ice.

But, despite all that, I love him.

Bobby Lee, the Canadian inspiration behind Brighton Tigers' greatest years, is someone, quite simply, it is impossible NOT to love.

Born Robert James Lee, Bobby became the first player to score more than 200 goals in British ice hockey and become one of the most iconic players to grace the ice this side of The Pond.

Born in Montreal in 1912, the curly hair centre learned to skate at the age of three - much like, I imagine, most of Canada. He began playing hockey aged six on the frozen lakes of St Lawrence river and again, like most of Canada, played for local junior hockey clubs until he joined Baltimore Oriels in 1935, heading the scoring charts in his first season in the Eastern League.

A year later Lee - together with fellow future Brighton Tiger Gordie Poirer - swapped the mean streets of Baltimore for the sun of Sussex - clocking up an impressive 54 goals and 36 assists in his first season with the Bengals.

A transfer to the Earls Court Rangers soon followed - although that can be forgiven. It was in London that Lee met his wife Billie, who World Sports Magazine described in one issue as his 'Guide, philosopher and friend'.

There he stayed until the outbreak of war, at which point he returned to his homeland and signed for Quebec Aces and went on to appear for the Montreal Canadiens.

Lee was later drafted to England after he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and once again found himself playing in Brighton, this time for the Candian Services team.

With the war won, Lee was demobbed and took up the position of player coach for the Tigers for the 1946-47 season as the Earls Court Rangers failed to start up again in the direct aftermath of war.

Their loss would be Brighton's gain. Despite having what experts considered one of the worst teams in the UK, a Lee-inspired Brighton - he was also captain - landed three of the four major trophies on offer.

That season launched what would become a golden time for the Tigers and Lee himself posted 88 goals and 75 assists.

By the end of the 1950 season, Lee had amassed an amazing 572 points in British hockey, with 301 goals and 271 set ups.

In fact, by 1952 Lee had broken another milestone, becoming the first player to notch 400 goals.

He ended up playing well into his forties before retiring to work at first the Mile Oak Inn and then the Windmill Inn at nearby Southwick.

Lee died on New Year's Eve 1974 - seven years before I was born.

The Tigers are no more. Sussex does not even have a hockey team to call its own.

But, much like the legend of footballers like Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney were passed down through the generations without the need for You Tube clips, so has that of Bobby Lee.

Possibly the most talented man to skate the ice in the UK, Lee will continue to go down in local folklore for as long as people continue to love ice hockey.

Tigers memorabilia is next to impossible to track down. However, thanks to one very kind shop owner in Queens Road I did get my hands on a match programme from 1949.

In it, Bobby Lee uses his programme notes to talk about a sight-seeing trip to London and the club's recent match-ups.

However, it is a little aside about his frustration with hockey sticks which brings a smile. He writes, "In all the last three seasons we have never broken so many sticks and I believe that is the case with most of the other clubs around the circuit.

"Almost every week we have to send off to London for some more, and although sticks are brand new, they just seem to break easily.

"I can still remember the expression on one of our defencemen's face when he slapped at the puck on the blue line and, in doing so broke his stick, the puck staying exactly where it was."

I have no idea why that makes me smile. It just does. And, although I will never get to see Lee play, I know he would have as well.

1 comment:

  1. I'm Bobby Lee's eldest Grand-daughter. He was born on 28th December 1911, in Verdun, Quebec, Canada.

    Thanks for the article. I loved him very much too, and miss him still. He would have been 100 last year! :)