He’s working with his eighth Senators head coach, his sixth general manager, employed by the third club owner.
Who is he?
Randy Lee, of course, the Ottawa Senators’ director of hockey operations and player development. If you see any of the Senators development camp in Kanata this week, watch Lee, jumping in and out from behind player benches, directing traffic, his fingerprints on every aspect of this high-intensity camp for prospects.
With his still-boyish good looks — “the best hair in hockey,” winger Shawn McEachern used to say about Lee — the 50-year-old Lee might resemble a recent addition, an up-and-coming manager or coach. In fact, Lee has been with the Senators longer than Scotiabank Place has had ice, longer than most anyone on the hockey operations side except for Allison Vaughan, manager of hockey administration, with 20 years in the books.
Since 1995, Lee has been a Senators fixture, a local kid who joined the hometown NHL team, even if he had to be pushed through the door. Assistant Senators coach Alain Vigneault asked Lee to speak to then-head coach Rick Bowness about replacing E.J. McGuire as an assistant coach. Lee, who began coaching local teams at age 15, had worked with Pat Burns in Hull, became a longtime strength coach for the Olympiques and twice turned down Vigneault for an assistant’s job with the Olympiques because Lee had work and coaching commitments (CJHL, Ottawa Jr. Senators).
Nevertheless, with McGuire heading back to major junior hockey (Guelph), Vigneault told Bowness: “I’ve got the guy to replace him.”
If only the “guy” wasn’t so busy.
“I wasn’t really interested in going pro, because I was working as a consultant for Fitness and Amateur Sport, coaching hockey (Nepean Raiders, CJHL),” Lee recalls. “But I said, ‘OK, I’ll go talk to him.’
“I was so impressed with Rick Bowness. I thought, ‘He’s a good man and I should give it a try.’
“I’ll give it a year or two,” Lee told his wife, Julie, who concurred.
Famous last words.
“Now it’s 17 years later and it has gone — like that,” Lee says, with a snap of the fingers.
Like so many junior employees of young companies, Lee has grown with the Senators organization. After a couple of years as video coach for Bowness and then Jacques Martin, Lee spent six years as the strength and development coach, and one as director of player development before morphing into his current dual role.
Senators management is a four-headed monster: general manager Bryan Murray, assistant GM Tim Murray and director of player personnel Pierre Dorion; plus Lee, whose hockey operations work, managing the salary cap and other aspects of the collective bargaining agreement help validate his second university degree, a Masters in Sports Administration from the University of Ottawa. His first was a Phys-Ed degree from McMaster University in Hamilton. Even there, Lee was coaching hockey — the AAA Hamilton Huskies, whose roster included one Ken Evraire, future CFL star. (“I turned him pro,” Lee used to joke to Jacques Martin. Different sport, but still … )
And where to from here for Lee? Hopefully, nowhere. Watching Lee enjoy a Mika Zibanejad pass to Shane Prince for the (snipe!) finish on Friday afternoon at the Sensplex, listening to him speak with such pride over players the club has groomed into NHL regulars, it’s clear this is a man fulfilled in his work.
It isn’t just the kids that instil pride in Lee and his development team (strength coach Chris Schwarz, skating coach Marc Power, others providing physio, diet, mental skills etc.). Lee is just as thrilled for the veterans, many of them castoffs from other organizations, that were developed into players here: Matt Carkner, Ryan Shannon, Shane Hnidy, André Roy, to name a few.
While he misses coaching, player development gives Lee that connection a coach knows well. He learns about a player’s character, helps project him down the road as a guy who might help the big club, not just in the regular season, but in the playoffs, when character and fortitude separate the performers from the ghosts.
Nothing makes Lee happier than to see a player the club drafted, on the recommendation of a team scout, overcome the usual challenges to sign his first contract, his first signing bonus.
“That’s when we get to tell them, ‘Now you’re a professional hockey player. You’re now getting paid for your services.’ ”
Sometimes it requires Lee going to bat for a player, while getting teased by others in management that this ‘prospect’ must be a close relative.
More than once Lee has told B. Murray, “Don’t give up on this kid.”
In particular, Lee likes the players that truly “care” because they have the character to overcome skill or strength deficiencies.
Over time, the Senators organization has itself developed — into a synchronized developmental group, providing talent with the tools to be better, bigger, stronger.
“I think we do a really good job of giving players every resource to be as good as they can,” Lee says. “Ultimately it comes down to the player.”
When the Binghamton Senators won the 2011 Calder Cup American Hockey League championship, Lee and his development team were thrilled to see so many of their young recruits play significant roles. Their success made the jump to the NHL by Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Erik Condra, Zack Smith and so on that much smoother.
“I believed in Bryan’s rebuild, because I kept telling him, ‘It’s not a big rebuild, it’s a minor re-tooling,’ because I knew how good the guys were coming up,” Lee says. “I know them better than anybody. It’s my job to know them.”
One of the latest up and comers is forward Mark Stone, who is working on his skating after getting a taste of NHL playoff hockey with the Senators in the spring.
“Randy has been a big influence on me,” Stone says. “The main thing with him is he wants guys to get better. He enjoys seeing guys make the NHL.
“His goal, his job, is to make players improve, not only on the ice, but off it as well. He wants good people. And he wants people in good physical shape on the ice.”
That Lee gets to do all of this more or less in his own backyard (if only there were air miles for each Binghamton road trip) here in Ottawa, where he and Julie have raised three children, makes Lee pleased he listened to Vigneault and Bowness 17 years ago.