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Meet USA WJC Captain, Jake Sanderson

Even though he’s very different from his former NHLer father, Jake Sanderson hasbenefited greatly from the guiding hand of Geoff – and all that direction just may result in the next Cale Makar instead of a beer-league backup.
Jake Sanderson

A couple of months had gone by before Jake Sanderson found out that he had logged the most ice time of any player on Team USA in the gold-medal game of the World Junior Championship in 2021. 

Somebody told him. So clearly, Sanderson isn’t the kind of guy who runs to check out the summary after the game. But seeing that much ice is actually on-brand for a guy many scouts believe will, among a lot of other good things, munch minutes at a prodigious rate at the NHL level.

You might be tempted to assume that young Jake received his superior cardiovascular genes from his father, Geoff. After all, you don’t play over 1,000 games in the NHL by being a guy who gets winded climbing a flight of stairs. But Geoff was always more of a fast-twitch guy, using his quick-strike qualities to twice score 40 goals in the NHL and hit the 30-mark six times. The elder Sanderson was clearly the type of player who preferred to get his work done quickly and efficiently. “If I played 16 minutes,” Geoff said, “I was done for the night.”

When told of his father’s observation, Jake said it was pretty much on point. He actually takes more after his maternal grandfather, a former geneticist at the University of Alberta and marathoner. “That’s funny he said that because it’s true,” Jake said. “My mom always said I got my grandpa’s lungs, which I’m grateful for.”

Jake Sanderson, in case you haven’t noticed, is something of a stud. Chosen fifth overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 2020 draft, Sanderson is the probable captain of the U.S. team at the 2022 WJC and the complete package when it comes to blueliners. He’s cerebral, physical and a force at both ends of the ice. His side of the ice, where he uses his elite skill and long stick, is a place where offensive forays often go to die. And although offense is certainly not his calling card, it’s improving. In fact, in a two-game series between his North Dakota Fighting Hawks and Miami-Ohio, the sophomore scored three goals and six points in a sweep. You can book it that Sanderson will be in a Sens uniform before this season’s end. The sixth-ranked Fighting Hawks hope that will be sometime after April 9, when the Frozen Four championship game will be played. The Hobey Baker is a distinct possibility. And if all goes as planned, Sanderson will be an integral part of the first U.S. team to repeat as WJC gold medallists.

So Sanderson is going to need those superior lungs just to get through this season. A big part of the reason why he’s in a position to do all these things is indeed because of his father, but not for the reason you might think. We always talk about the inherent advantages the sons of NHL players have – genetics, environment, competitive mindset and, as one scout put it, “enormous wealth” – but the leg up that Jake Sanderson received from his father was one you don’t often see in hockey parents, former NHL players or otherwise. The biggest gift Geoff Sanderson gave to his son was a sense of perspective.

At a time when it seems everyone – parents, players, families, agents – is in a rush to get to the highest competitive level possible, the best thing Geoff Sanderson ever did for his son was to convince him of the value in pumping the brakes occasionally. He did it armed with the perspective of a guy who played at the highest level, but the motivation for it was concern for all three of his hockey-playing boys. Case in point: in 2015-16, Jake had made the Calgary Flames under-15 AAA team as a 14-year-old, a massive accomplishment for a kid who had played most of his hockey in Montana and had switched to defense when his family moved to Calgary a few years before. But after his first game, Jake was in tears. He had separated his shoulder and was demoralized. Geoff sought out the coach after the game and asked that his son be allowed to move down to AA hockey for the season. The Sandersons were also a skiing family, and Geoff would never let his children ski down black diamond runs without mastering the more manageable blue runs, and he saw no reason why hockey should be treated any differently. “I told the coach, ‘I don’t think he should play here,’ ” Geoff said. “He had coached Cale Makar a few years before and said, ‘We really like Jake. He reminds us a lot of Cale.’ And I said, ‘That’s great, but he’s not going to finish the year with two shoulders in place.’ So I convinced Jake he should play AA. I was just trying to protect my son.”

Imagine that. Turning down an opportunity to be the next Cale Makar. But the funny thing is, going back to AA and taking things at a more reasonable pace may lead to making Sanderson another Makar. Jake said he remembers the conversation where his father convinced him to move down a level like it was yesterday. “It wasn’t that my dad didn’t believe in me,” he said. “I just think he knew I could go back and have the puck on my stick a lot more, just being more confident and just being able to make more plays.”

Case in point, Part II: after his freshman season at North Dakota, Sanderson was drawn by the lure of the NHL. The Senators wanted to sign him and add him to their impressive group of youngsters sooner rather than later. But again, dad’s sage counsel was valuable. Geoff played for seven NHL franchises and had seen his share of teenage D-men get chewed up by a man’s league. Instead, Jake followed the Makar-Hughes template, which appears to have worked out just fine for him. (It also helps that his family advisor is Steve Bartlett, whose agency also reps Makar.) 

“I’m talking Chris Pronger, I’m talking Rostislav Klesla, you can go on and on with young high picks who step out of the draft and struggle,” Geoff said. “Look at Chris Pronger. A Hall of Famer, and I watched him struggle for three or four years until he got adjusted. You can hide a teenaged forward out there and he can play, but a teenaged defenseman can get exposed, get physically manhandled or make terrible mistakes. And it’s magnified. The game is 80-percent confidence, and if you lose that confidence, it’s hard to get it back in the NHL.”

So Jake went back to North Dakota for a second season, one that will surely be his last. And there’s also the matter of having the chance to dominate at the WJC, something he’ll be set up to do, considering his defense partner will likely be either New Jersey Devils 2020 first-rounder Luke Hughes or highly touted Los Angeles Kings prospect Brock Faber. The U.S. team will have a strong group of returnees, almost all of whom, like Sanderson, were groomed in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. 

Not only did that team provide Sanderson with his launching pad to become a first-round pick, it also ensured that he wouldn’t play for Canada. Before joining the NTDP, Sanderson had been speaking with a Jr. A team in Calgary, but it wasn’t prepared to commit to sign an undersized defenseman, so he went to the USA Hockey tryout camp and proved his worth. Geoff represented Canada three times at the worlds, winning gold twice. “The Under-17 Challenge was coming up that season, and I knew Canada was definitely scouting me for that,” Sanderson said. “But I just think the opportunity to play with the NTDP gave me a unique situation. I’ve always thought of myself as American. I lived in Calgary for multiple years, but I’ve always considered myself an American.”

And he comes by it honestly. Jake was born in Whitefish, Mont., and took his first tentative steps in a Learn-to-Skate program in Phoenix when his father played for the Coyotes. He continued in Learn-to-Skate the next season in Philadelphia when Geoff was dealt to the Flyers. The family relocated to Montana after Geoff retired, and that was where Jake played his first minor hockey. The family didn’t move to Calgary until Jake was nine, when his father started an oil-rig mat business along with former teammate Brendan Morrison.

Funny story: Jake had to be coaxed out of being a goalie, and it was not an easy sell. The only thing that got him out of the net was that if he wanted to play on a spring-hockey team in Calgary after moving there, the only position that was open was on defense. “I just thought playing goalie was really fun when I was younger,” Jake said. “Even when I was 13 or 14, I still wanted to play goalie. Thank god my parents didn’t let me. I don’t know what it was, but I’m glad they didn’t let me do it.”

Once again, Jake Sanderson followed his father’s advice. And once again, everything worked out just fine. 

This article originally appeared in The Hockey News' World Junior Championship preview.

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