Ottawa Senators prospect Jacob Bernard-Docker is what coaches dream of in a right-handed defender. A smooth skater, with all-world vision and a cannon of a shot to match, his well-rounded game has arguably turned him into the best defenceman in college hockey.
“Usually, when I’m asked for a comparison to an NHLer, I say Morgan Rielly,” said the 20 year-old via Zoom, “He’s a guy that I strive to be like; responsible in both ends of the ice, skates extremely well, and he’s physical when he needs to be.”
“I’ve got a lot of work to do to be a player like him in the NHL, but I think that’s what you’ve got to shoot for.”
Bernard-Docker’s ability comes from a commitment to betterment that carried him through a bizarre offseason. After his University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks saw their 2020 season come to an abrupt end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he committed himself to making the best out of what he had. This entailed making adjustments while holed up at home for two months in Alberta.
“I was just working out in my basement. I didn’t have any ice, but I ordered a pair of Marsblades and utilized those the best I could on the driveway,” he laughed, “I was shooting a lot of pucks.”
What came to light this past December, however, was that the 2018 first-round selection of the Senators was not only committed to being a factor on the ice, but off of it as well. Prior to UND’s opening contest inside the NCHC Pod, Bernard-Docker, along with teammate Jasper Weatherby, announced his intention to kneel for the American national anthem prior to the game, in protest of racial injustice.
“I don’t know if there was a specific moment that really provoked me to do it,” he explained, “I think for me, I did my own research, and I thought maybe I could try to raise awareness, and then try to make a little bit of a difference in the world.”
Bernard-Docker is keenly aware of the fact that simply kneeling is not enough. As the men’s hockey program’s ambassador for UND’s SAID (Student-Athlete Inclusion & Diversity) committee, he and his fellow student-athletes have turned their focus toward making their campus, and community a better place. While the pandemic has made this a difficult task, Bernard-Docker again emphasized the importance of doing what he can.
Knowing that the sport he loves is also a landscape that needs to shift to become more inclusive, it’s a fitting place to focus his efforts. It started with a team movie night, viewing a documentary highlighting the history of racial injustice in America.
“Obviously on our team, we’ve got a lot of white males, and I think it was good to just kind of open some guys’ eyes,” he said, “I think the guys took it really well, and learned a lot.”
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to kneel. I think hockey culture needs to change, along with the world.”
It’s a movement that Bernard-Docker knows has to start at the youth level. When the COVID-19 situation finally dissipates somewhat, he and Weatherby are exploring initiatives to bring minority groups to Ralph Englestad Arena, skate with them, and introduce them to the game.
“That’s how you’re going to get a more diverse group playing hockey.”
Upon hearing his passion for giving back off the ice, it’s easy to forget that Bernard-Docker is a hell of a player on the ice. A three-year veteran of the UND program, he has 13 goals and 35 assists in 78 career games. With a tally and four helpers in the 2021 campaign’s first ten contests, he shows no signs of slowing down, as the team guns for its second straight Penrose Cup.
The Fighting Hawks currently boast a 7-2-1 record, and it seems that the only thing that could potentially derail their quest is the virus itself. This weekend will mark the second in a row that UND has seen their games postponed, due to an ongoing COVID outbreak among Omaha’s squad. This comes after 10 games inside the security of the NCHC Pod, an experience that Bernard-Docker says he’ll never forget.
“We had a lot of fun away from the rink, playing a lot of pool and foosball in the lobby, and with guys getting competitive away from the rink,” he said, “So it was honestly a really cool experience.”
Even with the current bumps in the road, Bernard-Docker is optimistic that that the season will be played to its rightful conclusion. Though he acknowledges that it’s out of his hands.
“I think you’ve just got to come to the rink with a smile on your face every day, and just try to get better,” he said.
Sens fans have gotten to know many of the team’s budding stars by way of the Fighting Hawks program. Shane Pinto, Jake Sanderson, and Tyler Kleven have all become household names in Ottawa, along with Bernard-Docker himself, and one couldn’t so much as glance at Twitter in December without seeing “#NoDakSens”. It seems apparent that fans are as excited about the crew playing together as the players themselves are.
“It’s been really cool,” smiled Bernard-Docker, “I don’t have Twitter, but some of my buddies have kind of shown that to me, and we’re just thankful for all the support that we’ve been getting from fans.”
“It’s been a fun ride with those guys, so far.”
Though his focus is squarely on helping the Fighting Hawks win, Bernard-Docker makes no bones about the fact that he intends to compete for a spot in Ottawa next season.
“I think that that’s got to be the goal,” he said, “Obviously, they’ve got a lot of really good prospects, and a lot of veterans that have earned spots there. But I think, as a young guy coming in, that’s got to be the goal, to try and earn a spot.”
“Obviously, there’s a lot of good players, so I’m going to have to put a lot of hard work in, and see where I end up.”
Based on his history, Bernard-Docker working hard should be exactly what we can expect.
Catch the full interview on the Internal Budget podcast, tomorrow morning at 10amEST.