First impressions aren’t everything, but in the ultra-competitive world of pro hockey, they certainly count for a lot. And it’s safe to say Ottawa Senators prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker is a natural.
Just ask his coach.
“He was a guy that did everything very well,” Brad Berry, head coach of the University of North Dakota men’s hockey team, told Sportsnet of his first glimpse of Bernard-Docker on the ice.
Senators fans will be hearing a lot about Bernard-Docker’s skillset over the next few years as he hones his craft in North Dakota — a skillset that includes elite skating, a rare elusiveness, strong instincts and a natural shot that looks like it’s ready for the pros. Terms like “reliable” and “mature” will accompany descriptions of his playing style, and video will show a game that’s offensively inclined but not at all flashy — and that’s a good thing. But it’s his character off the ice that has made the biggest impression on every coach and scout he meets.
“He’s an extremely mild-mannered kid, but he plays with such poise and he can contribute at both ends of the rink as a defenceman, which is the part that we like,” Senators chief amateur scout Trent Mann told Sportsnet. “He skates really well, he plays with poise, he can move the puck, he can shoot the puck. So he has all those attributes that you’re looking for, plus he’s a high-end kid.
“Strong upbringing, good family, he’s just a really good kid. Once you meet him, you like him that much more.”
After closely following his second season with the AJHL’s Okotoks Oilers in 2017-18, Mann met Bernard-Docker face-to-face for the first time during the NHL Scouting Combine last April and walked away from the meeting “very, very impressed by his maturity.”
Berry had a similar takeaway after meeting with the 6-foot, 185-pound rearguard during the competitive NCAA recruitment process.
“I think the biggest thing, after we saw his hockey skills on the ice, was … finding out what type of person he was,” Berry said. “He was just an unbelievably hard-working, respectful person that you knew was going to get better each and every day he played the game.”
And he’s done exactly that.
When he committed to UND about one year ago, the Canmore, Alta., native was in the midst of an impressive campaign in Okotoks, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this week. By season’s end, Bernard-Docker had dwarfed his respectable first-year stats: Seven goals as a 17-year-old rookie turned into 20 in his second year, and he nearly doubled his point total from 22 to 41 while earning the title of the AJHL’s most outstanding defenceman.
And the Senators were watching the whole time.
“He’s just one of those kids that, every time we went to go see him, we thought he was a little bit better every time,” said Mann. “The staff were excited about the possibility of picking him, really.”
An extended playoff run — seven goals and 14 points in 15 games — helped launch him into Round 1 conversations, but he was still widely projected to be taken in the second. So it came as a surprise to more than a few hockey fans when Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion called his name with pick No. 26 after trading back four spots to pick up an extra second-round selection later in the same draft.
“People were a little bit surprised,” acknowledged Mann. “But you know what, you have a right-shot defenceman that skates really well and is very mature and can do a lot of things for us. We’re an organization that didn’t really have a lot of depth at defence — a lot of our young guys are already in the NHL so there’s a gap there for us and it’s an area we needed to address.”
In the process, Bernard-Docker became one of five players to be drafted in the first round directly out of the AJHL. Brent Sutter was the first (1980), and Cale Makar was taken the highest (fourth overall to Colorado in 2017).
And so far, gambling on Bernard-Docker has proven to be a worthy move. The blueliner’s reputation has only grown since draft day as Bernard-Docker has proven himself to be a quick study wherever he goes. So quick, in fact, that he’s already logging regular minutes on a strong Fighting Hawks roster that can be tough to crack as a freshman.
“It is very rare, especially for a goaltender or defenceman, to come in and have the impact that Jacob has had,” Berry said. “I think sometimes true freshmen come in and they get slotted in … but he’s been a regular every night. He’s been playing five-on-five, power play, penalty-kill minutes, right away. And that says a lot to where he’s come from.”
Many promising prospects — including fellow Senators up-and-comer Christian Wolanin — have worn the Fighting Hawks sweater on their way to the NHL, but few have fit in so quickly and seamlessly as Bernard-Docker.
“At North Dakota to be playing as much as he does as a freshman, you don’t hear that too often,” Mann said. “It’s just one of those programs, they develop really well but you have to go in and work at it and be prepared that you might be doing a little bit of watching on the front end…. But Jacob, he’s kind of defying the odds a little bit right now.”
Through 29 games this season in North Dakota, Bernard-Docker’s racked up five goals and 15 points. He leads all rookies on the team in points, and is tied with sophomore Matt Kierstad for the most points among defencemen.
So though the pick may have come as a surprise to many, there are several reasons why the Senators have no regrets — but the rest of the NHL may already have some.
“Right-shot defencemen are extremely valuable, especially at the NHL level,” Mann said. “He’s a mobile, right-shot defenceman that’s going to be able to play in a lot of different situations for us, and he’ll play for us for a long time.”