Lee Sweatt, left, was ecstatic after scoring his first NHL goal in January, but decided at 26 that there was more to life than a career in pro hockey. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Lee Sweatt's decision to retire before his 26th birthday flew under radar this summer. Here was a young defenceman who after four years at Colorado College, three more seasons bouncing around Europe and several months in the minors appeared to have a future in the NHL.
When injuries hindered the Vancouver Canucks blue-line, Sweatt was summoned from the Manitoba Moose in late January. There he was in his NHL first game against Nashville Predators, with less than eight minutes remained, scoring the game-winning goal with a pinpoint wristshot high over the blocker of goalie Pekke Rinne.
Sweatt's reaction was memorable. He skated over to the sideboards with his arms raised in triumph. He tried to act cool as he waited for his teammates to celebrate with him, but he couldn't contain his excitement. Sweatt broke into a joyous grin as he hugged Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows.
The next shift Sweatt took a Shea Weber shot off his foot. An X-ray revealed that he suffered a bruise, but with the all-star game that weekend, he had a few days to recover and was back in the Canucks lineup for the next two games. But after his three-game stint, Sweatt was returned to Manitoba because veteran Sami Salo was almost ready to return from his Achilles injury.
Unfortunately, Sweatt was hit with another shot in the same foot in his next practice and the mishap knocked him out with a broken foot for the rest of the season. In the meantime, the Canucks liked what they saw in young defenceman Chris Tanev in the playoffs and as a result decided not to make Sweatt a qualifying offer.
So Sweatt's agent Scott Norton found him work with the Ottawa Senators. But three weeks after he signed a two-year deal, Sweatt decided to leave the game to focus on his career as a financial advisor with Wells Fargo, the company he has been training with in Colorado Springs.
"I felt I had achieved a lifetime goal," Sweatt said. "I didn't need to prove myself all over again. I didn't want to be a bubble guy again. I didn't want to be the guy in the still living the dream at age 30 and sacrificing my goals outside the game."
Sweatt was raised just outside Chicago in the village of Elburn. His father Walter was linebacker for Wofford College in North Carolina, the smallest school in Division I NCAA football. His mother Dottie grew up in Boston, was friends with some of the Bruins in the late 1970s and even once dated Terry O'Reilly.
When he was young, Sweatt chose hockey over football because he liked the way the word hockey sounded.
"I didn't think football was that interesting of a sounding word," he said.
He and his younger brother Billy, a forward who played with Lee at Colorado College and again with the Moose last year, played endless hours in the family basement.
"I don't think I was that good early on," Lee said. "It wasn't until I started playing on roller hockey in the basement that I improved.
"My dream was to play four years of college hockey. Everything else after that was gravy."
Sweatt also had a dream of one day working in the financial world. He won a stock market game in the sixth grade. He earned an economics degree at Colorado College. In his first four years as a pro, he studied and worked towards an MBA in not one area, but three (finance, technology management and project management), while his teammates played video games or listened to music or watched movies on road trips.
But for the sports nut it is difficult to fathom why Sweatt would give up on the hockey dream for the financial world when he appears so close to becoming a full-time NHLer. Undrafted, only 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, Sweatt had come so far and was a compelling underdog story.
So much so, that when he scored against Nashville at the Rogers Arena, his teammates chanted "Rudy, Rudy, Rudy," because his story and physical appearance resembled the football player from movie of the same name.
But it turns out that Sweatt's goals and dreams remind sport aficionados of another real-life character popularized by the big screen. Moonlight Graham was the real-life character author W.P. Kinsella employed in his wonderful novel that was turned into a movie, Field of Dreams.
Graham wanted to be a doctor as well as a baseball player. He played two innings right field for the New York Giants in May 1905, but never batted. He never played another major league game and three years later, he became a practicing physician in Chisholm, Minn.
"I ended up playing in the NHL and I played well. I scored a goal," Sweatt said. "I also believe that the longer I stayed out of the real world the worse off I would be. I have long-term earning power outside of hockey
"I know, for some, this is difficult to understand. But I have a chance to help people. It's not easy to understand [the financial investment world]. People need help and I can affect people's lives."
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