Inspirational Stories QCH Foundation ottawa

Bench Strength

For the past 20 years, Carleton Place resident Lee Dunbar has devoted countless hours to encouraging and motivating young hockey players in our region to give their very best. 

However, when the volunteer hockey coach learned he was in the fight of his life against cancer, it was the young athletes who started cheering him on and provided encouraging support. 

“It’s really helped, all that positive energy coming from the kids.”

The U12 AAA Ottawa Valley Titans team recently presented a $3,000 cheque to QCH Foundation toward the purchase of a new AI-enhanced MRI machine. It’s the kind of technology that helps to detect cancer earlier in patients like Coach Lee. The cheque presentation took place in mid-December at the Neelin Street Community Centre in Carleton Place. 


“I really appreciate it, that they decided to raise this money for one of their own,” said the 54-year-old married father of two young adult sons, Andrew and Connor. He and his wife, Patti, have been married for nearly 30 years. 

Coach Lee likes to provide his young players with lots of positive feedback. He calls it ‘filling their emotional tanks’. What he’s learned over the past year is that “players can fill coaches’ tanks as well,” said Coach Lee of the different ways the athletes have been showing their support, from their fundraising efforts to their wearing of Hockey Fights Cancer sportswear to their sending of encouraging messages and photos. 

In 2022, Coach Lee knew there was something wrong with his health. He was initially treated by his family doctor for a suspected infection. But, when his symptoms continued to linger, he was sent to a urologist, who delivered the unsettling possibility of cancer. 

 Coach Lee had been alone in the physician’s office that November day, due to COVID restrictions. His wife had been waiting in the car outside the medical building. He would share the bad news with her upon his return to the vehicle. “We were both kind of a bit stunned.” 

The days and weeks that followed were a blur. “It was fast and furious,” Coach Lee said of his lab work, biopsy, CT scans and bone density scans. 

On the morning of Christmas Eve 2022, a new message popped up in his online patient portal. He was struck with trepidation. “Do I look? Do I not look? I thought, ‘Maybe this will be the Christmas miracle’,” said Coach Lee, whose hopes were dashed when he read the medical update, revealing how serious his cancer was.  

He and his doctor met in early January to discuss the results. He had stage-four cancer with tumours that had spread to both his arms and to one of his femurs. It was incurable but, with surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, doctors could slow its progression and extend his life. 

Coach Lee successfully finished his treatment last June and spent part of his summer on a family holiday in Alberta. He’s currently undergoing further rounds of chemotherapy, as a proactive measure. 

“We’re going to keep fighting,” he said with optimism. 

Coach Lee’s involvement in the hockey community began when his eldest son was old enough to start playing the sport. The young dad offered to help out and, much to his surprise, was handed the role of team head coach. He started taking courses to improve his coaching skills.  

“I’m the kind of person who, if I’m going to do something, I go all in,” said Coach Lee. Over the years, he’s also mentored other coaches, and served as a board member. You see, Coach Lee had an excellent role model growing up: his dad, who was a serial volunteer. 

The day finally came when Coach Lee’s youngest son aged out of hockey. Yet, the coach continued to help youth, first with the Carleton Place Jr. Canadians, when it was owned by Jason Clarke, followed by the Titans. He coached its U14 team last year with his friend and head coach, Scott Buffam. 

“The most rewarding part is just seeing the kids improve,” said Coach Lee. “It might sound funny, a coach saying it, but the wins and losses aren’t what drives me; it’s seeing the individual kids get better. That’s really the driving force behind why I do it.”