Lee Archambault has gone to great lengths to show his Illini hockey pride. In fact, you could say his passion is out of this world.
The NASA astronaut and former University of Illinois hockey player brought an Illini jersey with him during a 14-day, 5.8-million-mile mission aboard the space shuttle Atlantis.
“There are a very limited number of personal items that a crewmember can take [into space],” said Archambault, who played forward for the Illini from 1978 to 1983.
“I chose to take an Illinois hockey jersey because hockey was a big part of my life while I was at the university. One of the best memories I have was playing on the Illini hockey team, so I wanted to give something back to the team.”
Upon his return to earth, Archambault was honored by the UI Alumni Association as one of its three “comeback guests.” During the festivities, which took place Oct. 25-27, the Chicago -area native presented his space-worn jersey to the ACHA team.
Afterward, Archambault watched the Illini take on Lindenwood University, and was impressed with what he saw.
“They looked terrific,” Archambault said about the new wave of Illini players. “Chad Cassel is a phenomenal coach and has them clicking on all cylinders. They’re a great bunch of guys, and I was really proud to see what they do on and off the ice.”
The players, who are members of the American Collegiate Hockey Association, are equally proud of their famous alumnus.
Like a lot of kids in the Chicago area, Archambault learned to skate and play hockey at the Elmhurst YMCA. He went on to play high school hockey before enrolling at the University of Illinois in the late 1970s.
“I chose Illinois because it’s a great school,” Archambault said from his office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “The fact that they had a hockey program made it all the better.”
Archambault obtained a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1982 and then a master’s degree from Illinois in the same subject two years later.
Before his space career, Archambault was a decorated fighter pilot who flew 22 missions in a Stealth fighter during the first Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, where he dodged anti-aircraft artillery. He was named an Air Force test pilot in 1995 and selected to undergo astronaut training in June 1998.
The rigors of training kept Archambault away from the rink for a number of years, but he’s looking to get involved with the game again. He is slated to attend several USA Hockey
Coaching Clinics in the Houston area over the next few months in hopes of giving back to the game he loves.
“In the past, the hours weren’t conducive [to playing hockey], plus you have to be very careful with what sports you participate in when you’re in training,” said Archambault, who is scheduled for another space flight this fall.
“I’ve recently started to miss this game so I’m excited about getting back into hockey. I’m starting with coaching clinics, and I want to get back on the ice.”
That is until his journey into the final frontier calls him away from home again.