Bobby Lee was an icon in Brighton, decades before the word became common. Renowned for his sportsmanship and ready wit as much as his skills with stick and puck, the Tigers’ faithful idolised him. A classy forward, who was the team’s all time leading points (827) and goals (430) scorer, he was also a capable coach and greatly respected as a dependable teammate.
The 5ft 10in tall Montreal native was the driving force behind the sides that captured back to back league titles in the first two post-war campaigns and swept up several other trophies. In 1946-47 he topped the league’s points scorers, centring a line with Lee Thorne and GB’s Jimmy Chappell that scored 206 points, a British record at the time. The following season after taking the scoring title again, the Ice Hockey World made him their Player of the Year. For nine campaigns he was a fixture in the Sports Stadium on the town’s West Street, and earned selection to numerous All-Star teams as both centreman and coach.
No man shot a puck harder or truer, said his admiring contemporaries. On his way to becoming the first player in Britain to reach the 400-goal mark, he outpaced his rivals to such an extent that he reached 300 goals before anyone else had managed 200. By the time he retired aged 42, he had a career total of 430 goals in 456 games.
In his youth Bobby played hockey on Canada’s frozen lakes almost as soon as he could walk, and then went through the Canadian junior development system, the world’s finest. In 1936 Tigers’ coach Don Penniston, who had played with Bobby on the junior Montreal Royals, invited him to Brighton. After one season, London’s Earls Court whisked him away and he stayed for two years, gaining All-Star ‘B’ team berths each term, until the outbreak of war when he returned to Canada.
There he played senior hockey in his home city, going to the finals of the prestigious Allan Cup in 1942. This earned him a call-up by the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and he played one game in the big league.
After enlisting in the RCAF he was shipped back to the UK where he was able to play services hockey in Scotland, Brighton and Wembley. This included his first taste of coaching when he guided the RAF HQ Meteors to the Canadian Services League title at Wembley in 1945-46. When Earls Court failed to re open immediately after the war, Bobby was snapped up by the Tigers as their player-coach in 1946-47.
At his retirement ceremony in the S.S. on 4 May 1954, Benny Lee presented him with a cheque for £150 (about £4,000 today). When he died, his long-time teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Johnny Oxley said: “I wept when I heard the news. He was one of the greatest fellows I have ever come across and the greatest centreman I have ever seen.”
Lee is still a Brighton icon. Since 2004, his name has been emblazoned on the front of a Brighton & Hove Bus Co. vehicle.
Robert James Lee was born on 28 December 1911 in Verdun, Montreal, Quebec and died on 31 December 1974 in Worthing, West Sussex. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1949.