AMERICANS: The puck stops with Lee-Knight

Tri-City HeraldJanuary 21, 2013 

Standing in net Saturday night at Spokane Arena, with 10,366 people breathing down his neck, Luke Lee-Knight never flinched.

Playing against his former team for the first time — in a Tri-City Americans jersey no less — Lee-Knight made one spectacular save after another, leading the Americans to a 4-3 win in overtime.

“I was a little psyched for the game,” Lee-Knight said. “It was my first time playing against them, you want to show them what they could have had. A majority of them (the Spokane players) I played with. It was a lot of fun.”

It was a game Lee-Knight likely would not have played if regular starter Eric Comrie had not been shut down the day before with a hip injury. In fact, Lee-Knight has started the last six games for the Americans heading into tonight’s home game with Seattle. He is 4-2 in that run, with losses to Kelowna and Kamloops.

“The obvious, is Eric is a great young goalie — you just can’t replace him,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. “Luke, in every game, has played well. He played four in a row before we found out the bad news. We all feel bad for Eric, but we are excited about how we are playing. Luke has come in and stood tall.”

The newness of being a starter in the Western Hockey League still is growing on Lee-Knight, 19.

“The effects haven’t worn off yet,” he said. “I’m still really excited, but I know I have to be accountable every night and go out and play my hardest. I just hope to make the most of it.”

Being named a starting goalie in the WHL didn’t seem like it would ever happen for Lee-Knight, a native of Calgary, Alberta.

The past 18 months, he could have given the Travelocity roaming gnome a run for his money.

Skipped over in the WHL draft, Lee-Knight was listed by Prince Albert at 17, and at 18, he was invited to camp. With three goalies on the roster, he was the odd man out and was traded to Spokane.

With the Chiefs, he played nine games, posting a 2-0-1-1 record with a 2.91 goals-against average and an .868 save percentage. On Dec. 28, 2011, he was traded back to Prince Albert — along with Anthony Bardaro and a draft pick — in exchange for goalie Eric Williams and forward Todd Fiddler.

With the Raiders, Lee-Knight was 0-4-1-0 in 13 appearances. He had a 6.39 GAA and an .828 save percentage. He was let go at the end of the season.

All was not lost. Americans general manager Bob Tory invited Lee-Knight to training camp, and he was the last man cut before the season started as the Americans opted to go with Brenden Fielbelkorn, 18.

“It was tough,” Lee-Knight said of leaving after the exhibition season. “You feel you can play at this level, but no one will give you a chance. You work so hard with no reward.”

With no WHL prospects, Lee-Knight joined the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, where he was 4-1 with the Broncos with a 2.56 goals against average, a .924 save percentage and two shutouts when Tory called him out of the blue, asking him to return after Fielbelkorn left the team for personal reasons.

“I was sad to leave the first time, but when I got the opportunity to come back, I jumped at it,” said Lee-Knight, who returned to Kennewick on Nov. 12. “I was thankful for the opportunity. I came back not knowing how much I would play. I knew Eric was going to the Top Prospects Game, then he got injured. It’s sad, but that’s how the hockey world works sometimes.”

Lee-Knight got his first start Dec. 1 against Vancouver, posting a 4-3 victory. He followed that performance with a 3-2 win at Portland on Dec. 7. He is 6-3-0-0 this season with 3.29 GAA and a .903 save percentage.

“You have to deal with goalies a lot and LK has stepped up and done awesome for us,” veteran Tri-City defenseman Mitch Topping said. “Just a different face between the pipes. He made some huge saves that kept us in the game (in Spokane). For his first time playing against his former team, to play that well, was extraordinary. Every game he has made incredible saves.”

Veteran Drydn Dow, also a Calgary native, said the defensive corps has not changed its game plan since Lee-Knight took over.

“You keeping playing the same game and give them confidence,” Dow said. “Injuries are tough, but it’s nice that he finally got a break. He’s proven himself capable.”

Lee-Knight can sympathize with Comrie’s season-ending injury. When he was 16, he broke his ankle in practice and was laid up for six months.

“It was just a freak accident,” Lee-Knight said. “I broke my (left) ankle in a bunch of places. I had surgery Christmas Eve and I was pretty much a zombie on the couch Christmas Day. I still have screws and plates in my ankle.”

After months of therapy — getting help from his mom, Kim, who is a physiotherapist — he returned to the ice in July. That summer, he got picked up by Prince Albert.

With his steady work in goal, Lee-Knight’s dad, Todd, has been racking up the frequent flier miles to see his son play — even at a moment’s notice.

“My dad has put in a lot of miles,” Lee Knight said. “It’s nice for me to have that support. I’m glad I can give him something to be proud of.”

The Americans will bring in prospect Evan Sarthou, who plays for the L.A. Jr. Kings, to back up Lee-Knight tonight, while Troy Trombley, 18, who was with the Americans last week, is expected to return for the weekend games against Medicine Hat and Portland.

That means Lee-Knight will get the lion’s share of playing time.

“It will be every night,” he said. “I have to be cautious of how much work I will be doing and take care of my body. I haven’t had to play this much since my midget days.” Lee-Knight may have the support of his coaches, teammates and parents, but there are others — the fans — that he still has to convince he is worthy of the starting role.

“The guys have been great teammates and they have helped me through the transition to my current role on the team,” Lee-Knight said. “Just because you are technically the starting goalie, you still have to show (the fans) what you have and earn their respect, so to speak.”

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