MISSOULA — As Jake Sanderson took the ice for Team USA against Canada on Tuesday night, he thought of where he used to watch these exact moments.
In his living room in Whitefish with his family, Sanderson would watch the World Junior Championships growing up, hoping to one day compete at that level.
Fast forward to 2021, and Sanderson not only competed, but starred.
The 18-year-old Whitefish native and defenseman helped guide the U.S. Junior National hockey team to the World Junior Championships gold medal on Tuesday evening with a 2-0 win over Canada in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Each time Sanderson stepped on the ice throughout the tournament, he knew his family was watching from the same special spot.
"I think my family was in Whitefish when they were watching the game so I thought that was pretty special," Sanderson told MTN Sports on Friday. "Obviously before this year, I watched a lot of the World Junior games and tournaments and usually I was in Whitefish during Christmas time and I always watch them in my living room in Whitefish, and I thought it was pretty special that my family got to watch me playing on TV in our living room."
In the end, Team USA cruised to the gold medal, going 6-0-0-1 throughout the tournament en route to the gold. The United States lost its first game of the tournament to Russia 5-3, then reeled off six wins in a row to claim the crown.
Sanderson appeared in all seven games and racked up two assists in the tournament.
The second of his assists might have been one of the biggest plays of the championships for Team USA. Sanderson was credited with a game-winning assist after finding Alex Turcotte, who then dished it to Arthur Kaliyev who scored with 1:16 left to give the United States a 4-3 win over Finland in the semifinals on Monday.
"On that game-winning goal, I got it up top and kind of the structure of how we were playing was get it down back low and let our forwards do the work," Sanderson explained about the goal. "So I got the puck up top and rimmed it around to Turcotte on the other side and he made a really nice pass to Arthur Kaliyev. Arty made a sick shot and that's what he does and he's pretty clutch so that was nice."
It was a quick turnaround for the gold medal game, with Team USA and Canada playing one day after the semis.
"I was a little bit nervous before the game. Gold medal game, there's a lot at stake," Sanderson said. "I think my nerves go away the second I step on the ice, that's kind of something that happens for me."
He added with a laugh, "There were times when I was on the bench that I was pretty nervous but when I'm on the ice I don't really have nerves. I kind of just play the game."
In the end, Team USA defeated Canada for its first World Junior Championships gold medal since 2017. Sanderson logged the most ice time of anyone on the team with 21 minutes, 41 seconds played in the finale.
Even better, Sanderson and his team shut the Canadian team out, their fourth shutout of the tournament. Sanderson credited teammate and fellow defenseman Drew Helleson, who suits up for Boston College, along with the team's goaltenders as catalysts for the team's success on defense.
"Even though we were up 2-0 in the game, there was like three minutes left or so, I never really thought for a second that we won it yet," Sanderson said. "I always had an idea in my mind that, 'Oh, maybe they'll score, maybe they'll change the game,' so I think during the game, even though we were up the whole time, I never thought we won it until that buzzer went and everybody poured off the bench and we were all jumping on each other, so it didn't really sink in until the last minute of the game."
The win capped off a long time spent in the "bubble" of the World Junior Championships for Sanderson and Co., which started back in early December with tryouts. Sanderson added he knew most of his teammates from past meetings when he played for the U.S. U17 and U18 teams.
For the young, budding star, it was an early highlight of 2021 that continues the blooming trend 2020 gave him when he was drafted fifth overall by the Ottawa Senators in October. He's on pace to becoming the first Montana-born athlete to play in the National Hockey League.
"Honestly I'd probably rank this the No. 1 thing in my career right now," Sanderson said. "Just such a great team effort and we had great guys. It was super special to do it with the group we had."
Now, the former Glacier Avalanche standout returns to the U.S. to focus on the remaining portion of his college hockey season at North Dakota. The Fighting Hawks are currently 7-2-1 and ranked third in the latest college hockey polls. In three games for UND this season, Sanderson has one goal and two assists to his name.
And as the achievements continue to roll in, Sanderson couldn't be happier to know he's representing his home state each time.
"I love when people ask where I'm from," Sanderson said. "I always love saying Whitefish, Montana, because it's so unique and that's my favorite spot in the world, is Whitefish, so I love representing it."