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Commentary: For Jake Sanderson, this should have been one of the most memorable years of his hockey career

The Fighting Hawks superstar had World Juniors canceled and injuries that kept him out of the Olympic playoffs, the Penrose Cup-winning night and the NCAA tournament.

2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship - East Regional
UND gets ready for the 2022 NCAA regional against Notre Dame in MVP Arena on March 24, 2022.
Rich Gagnon / UND athletics

ALBANY, N.Y. — UND had a generational talent on its roster this season.

At No. 5 overall, Jake Sanderson is the second-highest NHL Draft pick to ever suit up at UND, a program that's been around for 76 years.

Jonathan Toews, who went No. 3 in 2006 before launching his Hall of Fame-bound career, is the only UND player taken higher.

Not only that, Sanderson stayed in college for a second season beyond his draft year, which has been a rarity among top-10 NHL Draft picks during the last 15 years.

Sanderson said he felt dominant for the final eight games of his freshman season, but he wanted to come back and do it for a full year before heading to the Ottawa Senators.


This should have been one of the most memorable years of Sanderson's hockey-playing career.

He should have been the best player the National Collegiate Hockey Conference has ever seen. He should have captained the U.S. World Junior Team aiming to defend gold, played in the Olympic Games, won the Hobey Baker Award and helped UND chase its ninth NCAA national championship.

Instead, he played in fewer than half of the NCHC games, his World Juniors was canceled, his Olympics started late due to COVID-19 and ended early due to an injury, he missed the Penrose Cup-winning night, the NCHC Frozen Faceoff and ultimately the NCAA tournament.

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When he was in the lineup, Sanderson was as advertised. He was electric and put on a show nearly every night. Going into the playoffs, no defenseman in the nation had more points per game than Sanderson.

He might be the best blue liner to ever played at UND — and UND had James Patrick.

But it was setback after setback for the defenseman from Montana. He sustained three different injuries and two different illnesses.

The run of bad luck started in the first half of the season.

Sanderson missed two games in November because of the flu. He missed two more in December because of an injury. He contracted COVID-19 on his way to the Olympic Games in January. In his first Olympic game, he sustained an injury that kept him out of the Olympic playoffs and the rest of college hockey's regular season.


Sanderson finally came back the first weekend of March and promptly suffered a season-ending injury. He played in two of UND's final 14 games of the season.

"Obviously, we want him in our lineup and we missed him dearly," UND coach Brad Berry said. "But at the end of the day, I don't think there's anyone who feels worse than Jake Sanderson."

Sanderson will soon sign with the Ottawa Senators, officially ending his college career. His last play at UND will epitomize his time in Grand Forks.

It was the final minute of Game 2 against Colorado College on March 5. The Tigers had a 6-on-4 advantage with their goalie pulled. Colorado College got a puck behind UND goalie Zach Driscoll in the crease area.

Sanderson saw the goal-mouth scramble starting, sprinted toward the crease and dove head-first to try to keep the puck out of the net. He did, but in the process, Tiger defenseman Bryan Yoon accidentally stepped on Sanderson's hand, slicing it so badly that he needed an operation.

"With his injury that he sustained in his last game at home, he very easily could have jetted off to Ottawa right away and his pro career could have taken off," Berry said. "He made an effort to stay around our guys and be a part of our family here. That says a lot about Jake Sanderson. He's going to have a very successful and fruitful career in front of him. But I'll tell you what, I think his impact that he left here in a short amount of time, we'll remember that."

Sanderson rebuffed any idea that he would leave his team midseason.

He spent the last few weeks watching practice every day next to Gavin Hain, who suffered a season-ending injury in January.


Sanderson's absence was especially evident during UND's 2-1 overtime loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA regional semifinal Thursday in MVP Arena.

The Fighting Irish are annually one of college hockey's best defensive teams, clogging the neutral zone and making offense difficult to generate. Consider: During the last three meetings with Michigan and its seven first-round NHL Draft picks, the Wolverines only managed four goals combined.

UND had two players in its lineup this season that could generate offense at the drop of a hat. One was Riese Gaber, who did everything he could to will UND to a win Thursday night against Notre Dame. Gaber accounted for nine of UND's 24 shots on goal and he drew a penalty shot.

The other dazzling offensive talent was Sanderson, who didn't play.

Could he have made the difference Thursday night? Could he have had a grand finale in college hockey the way Johnny Gaudreau did, carrying Boston College to a national title on his way to NHL stardom? We'll never know.

This is surely it for Sanderson's college career. The Senators will be calling now — they probably started the second Graham Slaggert's overtime goal went in the net — and will lure their top prospect, whether he can play again this season or not.

Sanderson has been the toast of Ottawa since the Senators picked him in the summer of 2020. But he always put his pro career on the back burner and was far more invested in being with his UND teammates and winning college hockey games than discussing his future.

For Sanderson, college hockey wasn't a stepping stone to the pros. It was a destination. That's why he went diving head-first into the crease against Colorado College. Winning games at UND was paramount for him.


"We'll remember that elite player that came into our program," Berry said, "who wasn't about anything else but being part of North Dakota hockey."

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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