Jake Sanderson’s plan, all along, was to play junior hockey this season.

It made sense to him, his mother, Ellen, and his father, Geoff, who played 17 years in the NHL.

When Sanderson entered the U.S. National Team Development Program in the summer of 2018, he was just a sophomore in high school. So, his path to UND was to include two years at the NTDP and his senior year at a to-be-determined junior hockey program.

But his coach had a different idea.

Seth Appert, who assisted on two national championship-winning Denver teams and was a head coach at RPI before joining the NTDP, told Sanderson that he will be ready to play college hockey a year early.

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“He strongly suggested I do extra classes,” Sanderson said. “He believed in me. He believed I was ready to play college hockey. My parents kind of believed him as well. My parents had planned on having me play an extra year of juniors. But we contacted the school, the academic advisor, Lisa Vollmers, and she laid everything out for me.”

Sanderson started down his new path, rolling two years of school into one and graduating a year early.

“It was kind of tough, especially during the hockey season, because sometimes I had to stay in and do extra homework after school instead of going and hanging out,” he said. “Even during quarantine times, I really had to dial in on school because I really wanted to come here this year.”

Sanderson targeted a summer graduation. But after the coronavirus pandemic shut down the hockey season in early March, he doubled down on his school efforts to graduate in the spring.

He succeeded and first stepped foot on campus in July, taking a road to UND that has seldom been traveled.

Only four other players in the last 20 years have accelerated their education to come to UND a year early.

Jonathan Toews and Joe Finley did it in 2005, Dillon Simpson did it in 2010 and Keaton Thompson did it in 2013.

It takes a rare person to pull it off.

For starters, they have to be good students, capable of handling the extra class load required to graduate a year early (Toews, Finley and Simpson all went on to become all-academic team members in college).

They also have to be elite enough hockey players that they’re ready for the college level a year early when most NCAA players need a year or two of juniors after high school graduation to be prepared.

Why does UND think Sanderson is one of these rare players?

“Just seeing what he’s done the last two years,” UND coach Brad Berry said, “playing against college teams and junior teams and playing at a very high level.”

UND's Jake Sanderson skates during a game against Notre Dame last season. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP
UND's Jake Sanderson skates during a game against Notre Dame last season. Photo by Rena Laverty / USA Hockey's NTDP

Not always a top prospect

Sanderson was not always a top prospect.

The 6-foot, 183-pound defenseman from Whitefish, Mont., was barely receiving any college interest when UND offered him a scholarship.

“To be honest with you, Dane Jackson recognized Jake at a young age,” Geoff said. “That was a part of Jake’s loyalty. Dane recognized him first and that’s where he wanted to go. I was very comfortable with the coaching staff, knowing Brad Berry and Dane through my professional years.”

Since committing, Sanderson has blossomed into one of the best players in the world for his age group, a rapid ascent that was highlighted in the NHL Draft last month.

The Ottawa Senators selected Sanderson with the No. 5 overall pick, making him the second-highest drafted player in UND hockey history, only behind Toews (No. 3, 2006). Sanderson is the highest-drafted player in college hockey this season.

“In our group the last two or three months, we’ve seen on a daily basis what he brings,” Berry said. “We haven’t played a game yet, but he’s trending in the right direction of playing a significant role on our team.

“What I really love about Jake is his humility, his hard-working, blue-collar approach to the game. Getting drafted pretty high in the first round comes with a lot of stuff. He’s one young man that doesn’t have an ego. He’s all about trying to get better each and every single day and trying to maximize his days here in The Ralph.”

Comfort at UND

Sanderson’s father, Geoff, has a pretty good lay of the land when it comes to the hockey world.

That’s what playing in the NHL for the Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes, Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres, Columbus Blue Jackets, Phoenix Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers, and working for the New York Islanders will do.

It made sense that Geoff joined Jake on his recruiting visit to UND.

“I was probably more familiar with it just knowing the program,” Geoff said. “I knew the facilities. There are a lot of schools with great facilities, but I was very comfortable with the coaching staff that I knew personally. So that was a big factor for me.”

During the visit, they were seated on a couch in a room just outside the players’ lounge. At one point, Geoff looked at Jake and said, “If you want to be a hockey player, this is the place to go.”

Jake committed on the spot.

Geoff and Ellen both traveled to Grand Forks last month to be with Jake during the NHL Draft. They watched it from a Ralph Engelstad Arena suite, while the rest of UND’s team was sitting in the upper bowl watching it on the big screen.

The players roared after Ottawa announced Jake’s name.

“That’s exciting,” Geoff said. “That’s another big part of why he came to North Dakota is the character. That’s the bottom line. It’s the character of the guys. It’s all about the character in the locker room. That’s why Jake came to North Dakota.”

UND rookie defensemen Tyler Kleven and Jake Sanderson (right) stand in USA Hockey Arena, where they were teammates for the U.S. Under-18 Team last season. Photo by Brad Elliott Schlossman / Grand Forks Herald
UND rookie defensemen Tyler Kleven and Jake Sanderson (right) stand in USA Hockey Arena, where they were teammates for the U.S. Under-18 Team last season. Photo by Brad Elliott Schlossman / Grand Forks Herald

Ready for his debut

It was a unique road to Grand Forks, but Sanderson is thankful he took Appert’s advice.

“Looking back on it, I’m really happy I beared down and finished my school stuff,” Sanderson said, “I’m very happy at North Dakota. It’s been awesome.”

Three of the previous four UND players to accelerate their education went onto pro careers that included NHL stops.

Toews, who played two seasons at UND, is still in the NHL, having captained the Chicago Blackhawks to three Stanley Cups.

Simpson, who briefly played for the Edmonton Oilers, has spent the last two years in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization. Finley, who played for the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders, retired after the 2018-19 season. He played his final three pro years in Finland. Simpson and Finley were both four-year players at UND.

Thompson, who played three years at UND, plays in the AHL, one step below the NHL.

Between the four of them, they played in a combined 10 NCAA Frozen Fours in 13 college hockey seasons.

Sanderson’s turn to make his college debut is coming with the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Pod beginning next week in Omaha’s Baxter Arena.

UND will spend a total of 22 days in Omaha, playing 10 games. There will be plenty of down time, too.

So, what will Sanderson bring on the trip to occupy that down time?

“My backpack,” he said. “I’ll have a lot of school work to finish up the semester.”