Jake Sanderson joins the Senators family, on and off the ice

United States' Jake Sanderson (8) celebrates with Ben Meyers (39) and Noah Cates (27) after Meyers scored a goal against Canada during a preliminary round men's hockey game at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, in Beijing. (Matt Slocum/AP)

He hasn’t played an NHL game yet, but rookie prospect Jake Sanderson is already immersed in the culture of the Ottawa Senators.

On the weekend, Sanderson moved into the home of Senators captain Brady Tkachuk and attended minor hockey games played by the children of Senators defenceman Nick Holden. Injured defenceman Thomas Chabot was there, as well.

After the Senators’ 5-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, Sanderson watched Tkachuk play a bit of street hockey with kids in their west-end Ottawa neighbourhood. Welcome to the extended family, kid.

Sanderson promises to join in the fun, on the ice, and on the street, as soon as his surgically repaired hand allows him to.

“I’m sure I will eventually,” Sanderson said, when asked if he was part of the street hockey game. “That sounds like fun. It’s a great setup (at Chez Tkachuk) and it’s in a great spot, too, so I’m super happy.”

Sanderson, 19, will never experience a season quite like this one. While it ended well, with a three-year, entry level deal with the Senators, the prized defenceman from the University of North Dakota had a surreal adventure: multiple injuries sidelined him from several college games, cut short his Olympic hockey experience with Team USA and earlier he had to watch helplessly as the world juniors were postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

It’s a good thing Sanderson has the maturity and family background to keep things in perspective – Jake’s father, Geoff, played more than 1,100 games in the NHL.

Still, who drew up this 2021-22 scenario? Sanderson’s sophomore season at UND ended with the Hobey Baker candidate out with a serious hand gash that required surgery. Sanderson hurt his hand on March 5 while getting accidentally stepped on with a skate after he dove into the goal crease to prevent a goal. On March 24, UND was eliminated in the NCAA tournament with an overtime loss to Notre Dame. Sanderson could have made a huge difference in that game.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Sanderson admitted, speaking to Ottawa media Monday at the Canadian Tire Centre. “I had a couple of injuries, which was a bummer, but those things you can’t really control so you’ve got to keep rolling with the punches.

“I had a great season with my boys at North Dakota, and had the opportunity to go over to the Olympics, too, which was pretty cool. Obviously, I got injured there again, and kind of turned into a fan there, just watching the other events and cheering on the boys. It was a crazy year, but a good one, for sure.”

If and when Sanderson, Ottawa’s fifth overall draft choice in 2020, plays a game this season for the Senators remains to be seen. Sanderson has not started skating yet here, but is expected to this week.

“I had surgery a couple of weeks ago,” Sanderson said. “My rehab is going pretty well. I’m seeing improvements every day and am seeing doctors, too. Everything’s going upwards and positive. I’m not sure about the timeline right now, but I’m pretty confident with how things are going so far.”

While Sanderson would like to play, he says the hand will have to be fully healed for him to join in one of the final games of the season. The Senators have 14 left on the schedule, which concludes April 29 in Philadelphia.

“I don’t really want to force it right now, if I’m not 100 percent, just because I could re-injure it,” he says. “So, I’m being smart and the trainers are being smart with it, too.”

Not surprisingly, this roster of mostly young players has embraced the newest and youngest member of the team. It also helps having centre Shane Pinto here, Sanderson’s ex-teammate at UND.

“Shane’s been taking me under his wing, just like he did at North Dakota. He’s a great buddy of mine and we’ve been hanging out a lot,” Sanderson says. “I appreciate him, for sure.”

While it’s been nice to “just just jump in and jell” with a young core, the older guys have been good to him, Sanderson says.

One of the older guys, defenceman Nick Holden, has a famous “babysitter” in Brady Tkachuk, who has looked after Holden’s kids on occasion. And so, Sanderson got to tag along as Tkachuk attended minor hockey games played by a couple of Holden’s four kids. (Tkachuk, not surprisingly, was an animated spectator at the rink).

Holden could also be a mentor for Sanderson as a fellow D-man.

“It’s funny, the first time I met him, on Saturday, we had a day off and he was moving into Brady’s house. And so, Brady and him came to my kids’ hockey games. So, it was like, ‘hey, thanks for coming, meet my kids.’ It was awesome. So far he seems like a really good guy. Kind of quiet, but outgoing at the same time.

“So, we’ll probably peel more layers back as he gets more comfortable and I’m excited to see him on the ice as well.”

Holden says the key to guiding a young player is to just let him be himself and communicate as much as possible.

“I think you can just reach out to him and make sure he feels included – and just let him know you’re available,” Holden says.

Having experienced so much as a hockey prospect before he turns 20 in July, Sanderson is savvy enough to know what his strengths are, even beyond his two-way game on the ice. He was asked why he feels his game can translate well to the NHL level.

“I think just my maturity, on and off the ice,” says the Whitefish, MT native. “To just come in with a professional mindset every single day. I’ve learned a lot of things just being here this past week, from the guys.

“On the ice, I think skating, too, is one of my strengths. Just to be able to get up the ice and join the play.”

In 23 games this season, Sanderson had 26 points for UND, including 18 assists.

Sanderson says he chose the No. 85 with Ottawa because he thought it was unique. It also includes the digit ‘8,’ which his dad wore. The No. 8 is retired here for Frank Finnigan, one of Ottawa Senators of the early era.

According to Jake, Geoff Sanderson didn’t push hockey on his three sons, Jake, his older brother, Ben, and kid brother Sawyer. But he couldn't have been a better guide.

“He was huge,” Sanderson says. “He wasn’t a yeller. He wasn’t going to force hockey on me or my brothers. I just kind of gravitated toward it and having him to kind of lean on through the contract process, the draft and all that stuff was nice, for sure.”

The world junior tournament is being rebooked for this summer, but Sanderson isn’t sure if that is in the summer plan for him. He’s a professional now and his focus is on getting healthy, possibly playing an NHL game or two, and then preparing for the Senators development camp.

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