More Sports

Actions

Whitefish native Jake Sanderson's long, winding journey leads him to cusp of Montana hockey history

Jake Sanderson
Jake Sanderson
Jake Sanderson
Jake Sanderson
Jake Sanderson
Posted at 9:14 AM, Nov 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-30 15:51:19-05

MISSOULA — Jake Sanderson's young life can be described with one word: relocation.

Just 18 years old, Sanderson has already moved around plenty, starting at a young age and into his current freshman year at the University of North Dakota.

But it's a good primer for the traveling that could be in Sanderson's future.

The Whitefish native was selected with the No. 5 overall pick in October's NHL Draft by the Ottawa Senators. While currently continuing his career at UND, the Senators hold his rights as a professional player, and if and when Sanderson takes the ice in the National Hockey League, he will be the first-ever Montana-born player to achieve that milestone, marking history for the Treasure State.

"When I do think about it, it's a pretty cool accomplishment and I'm very grateful for that and very grateful for my family to help me get there and all of the people in the minor hockey in Whitefish that coached me when I was younger," Sanderson told MTN Sports. "All of the coaches that helped me along the way I'm very grateful for, so just to be able to represent the state of Montana and Whitefish in general is really special to me and that means a lot to me and my family.

"I feel like (moving) is something that I want to do just to further my hockey career. You have to move away from home someday to pursue your dreams to play in the NHL."

Sanderson's journey has taken him all over, but it started in Whitefish where he was born and spent the early years of his childhood, including kindergarten through second grade of his elementary school education. However, the family moved around a lot as his father, Geoff Sanderson, pursued his NHL dream, as Geoff compiled a 17-season career.

So Sanderson moved around to places like Phoenix, Arizona, Buffalo, New York and Columbus, Ohio, while his father played professionally.

But the family owned a house in Whitefish -- and still does -- so they'd return to Montana each summer where Sanderson grew up and eventually went to school. Prior to leaving for North Dakota, Sanderson again lived in Whitefish during quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through all of that moving, Whitefish is where Sanderson considers home, with skiing, fishing and more recreational opportunities with his family at the forefront of his memories from there.

He even got his first start in hockey in Whitefish and competed for the Glacier Avalanche of the Glacier Hockey Association in Whitefish, along with his brother Ben. Sanderson said he played there from ages 8 to 11.

"Yeah, that was really cool," Sanderson said. "I think hockey has really grown in Whitefish from the time I've been there, and we won a banner there -- it was like the first-ever banner that we won and we have all of our names signed, and every time I go back to the rink, I always look at it in the rafters and see my name and a bunch of my friends when I was younger, their names on it.

"Just the rink in general in Whitefish is kind of really special to me, too, because that's kind of where I started my hockey career. I think Whitefish is probably my favorite place on Earth. It's an unreal place."

Glacier Hockey Association president Clint Muhlfeld has known Sanderson for 10 years and remembers watching him grow up in Whitefish as a kid, from the time he was first putting on skates and giving hockey a shot. Now, he's serving as inspiration for other players in the program.

"We're just thrilled and proud of Jake's success," Muhlfeld said. "It represents all of his hard work and dedication to hockey, and not only is he an amazing hockey player, he's an outstanding person. He's a testament to the level of hockey players that Montana is producing now. We're just proud that Jake grew up here playing hockey. He's such a great example for younger kids in the program here."

For Muhlfeld, seeing Sanderson climb the ranks is extra special. A close family friend, Muhlfeld's son Jack, who also plays hockey, has grown up close with the Sanderson siblings, especially Jake's youngest brother, Sawyer.

"Jake's just a great role model for these kids here and something to aspire too as well," Muhlfeld said. "He spends time doing other things than just hockey here and that's what's so cool about a Montana kid making it to the big leagues. He's a well-rounded individual and athlete and a great kid. He's been like a big brother to Jack and it's pretty special situation for everyone involved."

At age 12, Sanderson moved to Calgary, Alberta. Both of Sanderson's parents originally hail from Canada and he holds dual-citizenship with Canada and the United States.

After a few years in Calgary, Sanderson again moved, this time to Plymouth, Michigan, where he tried out and made the U.S. National U17 and U18 teams. There, Sanderson's stock rose, and he experienced high-level hockey with elite development players in the U.S., while also following in the path of plenty of current NHL players who made the team.

"There was about 300 kids in my school in Calgary and the school I went to my first year in Michigan had 7,000 kids, so there was huge difference and culture shock there," Sanderson recalled. "I absolutely loved my time in Michigan. The coaches are like second dads to me, that's how much they meant to me and the relationship I had with them, so Michigan's a great spot and has a place in my heart always."

North Dakota started recruiting Sanderson when he was 15. One of the nation's top college hockey programs, Sanderson was impressed with their commitment to him and interest in having him join the team, so he gave his verbal commitment while in Michigan.

Jumping from the national teams to college hockey has had adjustments for Sanderson as well.

"Probably the No. 1 difference just from Michigan is being on the team with older kids," Sanderson said. "Back in Michigan we were all the same age and it was pretty nice, but here there's guys who are six years older than me so they're definitely pushing me on the ice and I'm really grateful for that. We're all really gelling together here and I'm really enjoying it."

On the ice, Sanderson is a defenseman and is a left-handed shooter. In 2018-19, Sanderson played in 44 games for the U17 team where he scored four goals and tallied 20 assists for 24 total points. In 2019-20, he suited up for the U18 team where he was named team captain and scored seven goals and racked up 22 assists for 29 total points. In the 2020 Biosteel All-American Game, Sanderson was named MVP of the game thanks to a pair of assists.

Sanderson, who stands 6 feet tall and weighs 183 pounds, will play for UND until the time comes when Ottawa approaches him to sign a professional contract. Once he does that, his college career concludes, and he will begin in either the NHL or the American Hockey League, the primary development league for the NHL.

He was also one of 29 players named to USA Hockey's preliminary roster of its 2021 U.S. National Junior Team on Monday. The players will participate in a training camp starting Dec. 6 to audition for a spot on the final 25-player roster that will represent the United States in the 2021 World Junior Championship. The final roster will be announced on Dec. 13.

Until then, he's a Fighting Hawk. UND, the 2016 national champion, was picked No. 1 in the preseason college hockey polls. North Dakota, which competes in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, begins its season on Dec. 2 at the Baxter Arena in Omaho, Nebraska, and will play 10 games against conference-only opponents in a 20-day span in a "pod" similar to a bubble like the NHL used to finished its 2019-20 season.

So Sanderson's focus resides on his time at North Dakota until the day comes when he makes history for Montana hockey in the NHL.

"Biggest focus right now is my team here at North Dakota," Sanderson said. "I'm just living in the present right now. We'll be in a bubble for a month and that's kind of what I'm looking forward to right now, is playing some hockey games which will be exciting."