Every NHL club has minor-pro affiliates, but the Ottawa Senators have their own college farm team.
Or so it would seem.
When the No. 1 ranked University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks take to the ice late afternoon Wednesday in Omaha to begin their NCAA season, no less than four Ottawa prospects will be in the starting lineup against Miami (of Ohio).
Over the phone from Omaha, UND head coach Brad Berry lets out a knowing laugh as he is reminded of the deep connection between Ottawa and UND. The Senators clearly admire Berry’s work as a recruiter and developer of talent. Since 2018, Ottawa has taken four UND players, all within the first two rounds of the draft.
Defenceman Jacob Bernard-Docker was selected in the 26th overall in 2018. One year later, forward Shane Pinto went in the second round (32nd overall) to the Senators.
And of course this year Ottawa drafted two Fighting Hawks — American defenceman Jake Sanderson, fifth, and defenceman Tyler Kleven in the second round (44th overall).
Sanderson was just named to USA hockey’s preliminary world juniors team and will report to the American camp next week. As the lines sort out, each of the defencemen appear to be on a different pairing: Bernard-Docker on the first pair, Sanderson the second and Kleven the third.
The road to Omaha and an unusual three-week pod of games, to hopefully circumvent the pandemic, has been long and stressful. UND has not played a game since March and while residing in a state hit hard by COVID-19, the University of North Dakota team has undergone strict protocol and weekly tests for months in order to remain healthy.
Last week, while American families gathered for Thanksgiving, the Fighting Hawks remained together, away from their closest relatives. It was too big a risk to take so close to a slate of games that will see UND play ten times in the span of ten days in Omaha.
“Our family is the North Dakota hockey family,” Berry said, of the unusual step of having Thanksgiving dinner as a team.
The Fighting Hawks were tested for COVID-19 when they arrived Sunday and will be tested on each game day during the “tournament.”
After not playing a game for close to nine months, it is suddenly go-time.
”For us, it’s going to be like going from zero to a hundred miles an hour,” said Berry. “Usually we get to play non-conference games and an exhibition game or two, kind of dip your toe in the water.
“There’s no dipping your toe in the water here, it’s all in.”
Considering Ottawa’s four prospects will be playing a major role in UND’s quest for a national title, we asked the Canadian-born Berry (Bashaw, Alta.) for a scouting report on the Senators Four Fighting Hawks.
Height: 6-0 Weight: 181 pounds
Born: Canmore, Alta
Drafted: 26th overall, 2018
2019-20 team: UND
Berry refers to Bernard-Docker, his Mr. Reliable, as the “elder statesman” of the Ottawa Four.
“He’s very versatile, a well-rounded defenceman, a good two-way player,” Berry says. “I think he gets a lot of attention for his defensive instincts. He’s very good defending, but also at breaking out pucks. He makes good reads and has very good feet and agility.
“But I think he’s got untapped potential on the offensive side. He runs one of our power play units (the second) and he’s out in every situation. He has attention to detail on both sides of the puck and he’s going to be counted upon heavily here as a third year player.”
This summer, JBD as he is known, was voted by his teammates as one of the team’s alternate captains.
“So now he gets to work on the leadership side of it,” Berry says. “I know he’s looking forward to spending this extra year here and we are, too.”
JBD takes a knee for BLM
Bernard-Docker was displaying his leadership as early as last June, when he and teammate Jasper Weatherby attended a Black Lives Matter march in Grand Forks, ND, in the wake of the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
And the day before Wednesday’s season opener in Omaha, Weatherby and Bernard-Docker let it be known they would be taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem as a demonstration against racial injustice. The pair told the Grand Forks Herald that the demonstration would be a one-time thing for now.
Weatherby and Bernard-Docker, junior classmen and roommates, are both members of the UND Student-Athlete Inclusion and Diversity Group.
“We’re not perfect, we’re trying to learn more every day as well,” Bernard-Docker said. “With our team being mostly white males we’ve never had to deal with racial injustices. Just to open some of our guys’ eyes and show them the history of the past hundreds of years in America, and around the world, how minorities are treated, is important. It makes you realize how good we have it.”
As a team, UND is working on an initiative to have a more diverse attendance at its hockey games.
Height: 6-2 Weight: 185 pounds
Born: Whitefish, Mont.
Drafted: 5th overall, 2020
2019-20 team: U.S. national U-18
It is the mixed blessing of having a star freshman on the roster — Sanderson, assuming he makes Team USA for the world junior tournament in Edmonton, will miss the final seven games of this opening ten-game NCAA span, as well as the New Year’s Day game back in Omaha.
Berry is philosophical about it.
“Whether it was this situation or like last year with JBD and Team Canada, we are open for that,” Berry says. “We always feel we get an even better player back after they get that international experience playing against their peer level. And we’re excited for him.
“In saying that, we get to have him for the first three games of the pod starting (Wednesday) and he’s another young man that, for his age, has a great foundation, a body of work in the national development program to command some good minutes for us. In all situations.”
Though he has yet to play an official NCAA game, Sanderson has had experience playing against college and junior teams. His composure has been evident while practising with UND over the past several months.
“You’re playing against grown men, 21, 22, sometimes up to 23 years old,” Berry says. “It can be a bit intimidating at times with the size and the speed of the players. But it isn’t to him.
“For example, (Tuesday) in practice we did a 3-on-2 drill. He and his partner defending against three highly skilled forwards and he was a breakout machine as far as getting to pucks first, picking pucks out of traffic. It’s very encouraging — we haven’t played a game yet but — he’s got a lot of the details to set himself up for success at the college level for sure.”
The Fighting Hawks head coach is among those who feel Sanderson, the son of long-time NHL forward Geoff Sanderson, has a ton of offensive upside.
“Jake Sanderson is an elite skater,” Berry says. “He gets up the ice and joins the rush, very much so on breakouts and transition plays. Also, he’s got a boomer of a shot. He’s got a really great one-timer and a quick release to get pucks through to the net. He’s going to get opportunities to score some goals, but also set some up.”
Height: 6-2 Weight: 192 pounds
Born: Franklin Square, N.Y.
Drafted: Second round (32nd overall), 2019
2019-20 team: UND
How strong is Shane Pinto? So strong, his head coach frets that he might hurt one of his own teammates in practice.
“We do a lot of faceoff work with centres and wingers jumping in, and I sometimes worry he’s going to rip someone’s arms off because for Shane, it’s for keeps, even in practice.”
Pinto’s 16 goals last season tied for the team lead tell part of his story. He has a great shot. But he has worked hard on his overall game and takes pride in a faceoff percentage of 61 per cent in 2019-20.
“He’s a big-bodied centreman,” Berry says. “I was just talking to our strength coach about him today. When Shane came in he was kind of a tall, lanky centre. Good strength, not great, but over the course of this past year he’s really put on good muscle, streamlined his body. He’s been outstanding. He takes pride in his own end of the rink but is a really good offensive player. He’s good on rushes and strong on protecting the puck in the offensive zone.”
Recently, Pinto has been working on setting up on the left side of the circle on the power play, the Alex Ovechkin spot, for one-timers.
“He’s not only one-timing pucks, he has the vision to make those seam passes and put it toward the net when a guy is open,” Berry says. “He can really discern when to shoot and when to pass.”
Height: 6-4 Weight: 200 pounds
Born: Fargo, N.D.
Drafted: Second round (44th overall), 2020
2019-20 team: U.S. national U18
Kleven is a big, raw defenceman who could benefit from spending an extra year at college. He’s already come a long way.
“He’s a hard-nosed kid who plays a physical brand of hockey,” Berry says. “When he was playing youth hockey in the Fargo area he was a little bit reckless in his game. Coming up and out and reading rushes — he was a bit erratic. But he went to the national development program and they really did a good job the last couple of years with him — kind of teaching him the game, as far as the defensive side of it. And also the offensive side.
“He brings something a little different to our D-corps (with his physical play) and we really embrace that.”
Berry feels that Bernard-Docker will be a good role model for Kleven to pattern his game after.
The UND staff see a bigger role for Kleven after this season, due to losses on the blue line.
“One thing about Tyler, he’s in our top six right now and we’re going to lose a lot of our defencemen.”
That includes JBD, certain to turn pro after his junior year, as well as seniors Gabe Bast and Matt Kiersted (JBD’s partner), expected to be a sought-after free agent.
“We’re losing a lot of experienced guys and we feel Tyler, though he’ll get good minutes this year, his development path will exponentially grow.” Berry says. “And he will get an added role over the course of his years here.”
The puck drops on the UND season at about 4:35 eastern time.