Boulder native Grace Lee played for Team Korea in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Lee was eligible to represent the county because her parents are citizens of South Korea and the United States. Photo courtesy of Grace Lee
Grace Lee’s main coaching responsibility with the 16U Lady RoughRiders this past winter was with the forwards.
The assignment made sense on a couple levels. Lee, a center, was coming off of her freshman season at Yale and two years removed from playing for Team Korea in the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
Lady Roughriders coach Chris Lockrem was impressed with Lee’s hockey intelligence and ability to anticipate on the ice when he saw her as a player years earlier, so when the Ivy League canceled athletics for the 2020-21 season due to health and safety protocols implemented to curb the spread of coronavirus, Lee decided to become an assistant coach with a team from her former hockey club in her home state. She thought it fit well with her skill set, and it allowed her to stay in the game amid the lost season.
Making the decision to alter her path is nothing new for Lee. The Boulder native began playing on mostly boys hockey teams before moving to Minnesota for high school and traversing the globe for a chance to play in the Winter Olympics. Lee has blazed her own trail while pursuing hockey.
Lockrem noticed another trait beyond Lee’s tangible qualifications: The respect she got from players. Even as the youngest coach on staff, Lee’s past experience gave her an air of legitimacy and authority among the players.
““The girls know what (Lee’s) accomplished, and I think they were all ears and eyes and wanted to listen to her because she’s been there, done that.”
— Chris Lockrem,
16U Lady RoughRiders coach
Being younger than the other coaches forced Lee to find a balance between bonding with the players and being an authoritative voice as a coach.
“To make that line and kind of make that point of, ‘I want to be your friend and I want to have a good connection, but also I’m a coach and you guys need to listen,’” Lee said. “That was a pretty hard thing that we needed to adjust to.”
Lee was an assistant coach for the national champion 16U Lady RoughRiders.
The adjustment did not keep the team from finding success. The Lady RoughRiders won the 2021 USA Hockey-Chipotle Girls Tier II 16U National Championship in the 1A Division in early May, defeating the Philadelphia Little Flyers 3-2 in overtime. It was the program's first national title.
But the program that was so successful this season didn’t exist when Lee was playing. Instead, she competed on boys' teams for much of her childhood. She was one of just two girls on the 10U team when she played, and by the time she reached 12U, it was just her.
Being one of the only girls on a hockey team never bothered Lee; it was what she was used to, having played the sport since age 8. It also created a relatively low ceiling for the competition among girls in the area. As she neared high school, Lee learned she had to move on from Boulder to find a future in hockey.
The first step was one season with the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite 14U team. Then it was off to Shattuck-St. Mary's School in Minnesota for high school.
Located about an hour south of the Twin Cities in Faribault, Minn., Shattuck-St. Mary’s School is a boarding school known above all else for its hockey programs. Nathan MacKinnon and Sidney Crosby both spent seasons with the Sabres; Crosby even contributed to one of the program’s 25 national championships between its boys and girls teams.
“I also think when you’re playing boys, you’re kind of not introduced to how good girls' hockey actually is,” Lee said. “And so when you get to Shattuck, everyone there is at a high level. It was an adjustment realizing this was the top of the top. I think it helped me a lot.”
The number of games and diversity of competition are parts of the draw of playing at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, especially when compared to a typical high school program. Sabres' teams play between 50 and 75 games a year against a variety of opponents. Lee’s sophomore year (2015-16), one of those opponents was the South Korean national team.
The team — coached by Shattuck-St. Mary’s alumna Sarah Murray — was in Faribault to experience what North American hockey is like to prepare for the Olympics. But Lee suffered a concussion before the Sabres could face South Korea in game action.
So the vastly different programs went their separate ways, and Lee didn’t immediately think much about the team or the Olympics.
Over the next year, though, premonitions began to float through her mind. Both of her parents are citizens of the United States and South Korea, so she had a path to eligibility for the team. The Shattuck-St. Mary’s connection with Murray was another advantage. Serendipitously, the games were also to be held in PyeongChang, South Korea, giving Team Korea — which was a unified team that included players from North Korea and South Korea — an automatic bid.
So months after the initial meeting, Murray and Korea faced Shattuck-St. Mary’s once again. This time, the contest provided an unexpected ending when Murray offered Lee the last spot on the Korean team in January 2017.
Lee didn’t accept the invitation immediately. Saying, ‘Yes’ would mean a year off from school. It would mean another move to an unfamiliar place, this time on a different continent. Lee talked it over with her parents and had conversations with Shattuck-St. Mary’s coach Gordie Stafford. Finally, on Feb. 8, 2017 — the last day she could make the decision — Lee agreed to join the team.
Lee (left) moved to South Korea at 17 to train with Team Korea.
At age 17, Lee moved across the world in June of 2017, about eight months before the games started. She had to adjust to living on her own as a teenager when she attended Shattuck-St. Mary’s, but doing the same on the other side of the world was its own challenge. Lee said it was four or five months before she felt truly comfortable in her new, temporary country.
Life on the ice wasn’t as different, though. Lee didn’t speak the same language as most of her teammates, but gaining their collective respect wasn’t difficult after she showed enough talent in practice to prove she belonged on the team, even as the youngest player. Communication also eventually got easier, as Lee figured out how to make the best use of the limited Korean she knew and the small amounts of English her teammates could speak. The result wasn’t perfect, but it was better than the alternative of not being able to speak to each other at all.
Still, team dynamics were just a little different than anywhere she had played in the United States. All players on a roster were considered equal to each other on most of the US-based teams Lee had played on. That was not the case with Team Korea. Younger players were expected to clean up after practice and generally do what the veterans told them to do, even on the ice.
There was a limit to the level of physicality with which young team members could play with in practices. There was one session when two of Lee’s teammates — a young player and a veteran — battled against the boards for a puck. The young player came away with it as the veteran crashed to the ice. There was a team meeting after that practice.
Playing in the Olympics is an experience Lee, whose Korean name is Lee Jingyu, brought with her to the bench as a coach of the 16U Lady RoughRiders.
“Our older players basically told us that (when) something like happens we need to apologize and whatnot,” Lee said. “So I think a lot (of) the North American players, we stood up and we were kind of like, ‘Hockey’s a physical game. You can’t apologize for battling with someone.’”
Team chemistry fizzled, much like Korea’s chances of success on the national stage. The team had an unspectacular showing at the Olympic games, going 0-3 and bowing out in pool play.
But for Lee, the experience was about more than wins and losses.
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