Whitefish native Jake Sanderson is making waves on international ice.
With 76 seconds left on the clock during the World Junior Championship semifinal game in Edmonton against Finland on Jan. 4, the University of North Dakota freshman defender sent the puck around the boards and started off a play that culminated in a last-minute game-winning goal.
The U.S. was tied 3-3 with Finland after blowing a 3-1 lead. Sanderson passed to teammate Alex Turcotte, who fed the puck to Arthur Kaliyev. Kaliyev found the corner of the net, giving the Americans a 4-3 win and a spot in the championship game. Both Sanderson and Turcotte picked up an assist on the goal.
Just a day later, Team USA scored two goals to take the gold medal in a win over Canada in the championship.
The game was the fifth time the U.S. faced its northern neighbor in a World Junior gold-medal game. The U.S. has now won the last four matchups, the last a 5-4 shootout victory in 2017.
Sanderson had two assists over the course of the tournament in Edmonton and appeared in all seven games for Team USA, racking up more time on the ice than all but two of his teammates.
Team USA went 6-0-0-1 throughout the tournament, with its only loss a 5-3 defeat at the hands of Russia in the first matchup.
Sanderson is a Whitefish native, and grew up playing hockey as a member of the Glacier Hockey Association (GHA) through the Peewee level. He comes from a family steeped in hockey tradition — his father, Geoff, played 17 seasons in the NHL, and two cousins also played in the league.
“Jake’s worked very hard to get where he is,” Geoff said. “He’s sacrificed a lot and this year has been a lot of very emotional moments for the family.”
Sanderson made history in October as the first Montana-born player to be drafted by an NHL team, when the Ottawa Senators selected him with the fifth overall pick during the 2020 virtual draft. He was the first collegiate player, American and defenseman selected.
GHA president Clint Muhlfeld has been closely following Sanderson’s success for years, and says the youth look up to Sanderson as the pinnacle of what’s achievable.
“Jake played super solid and unflappable defense throughout the Junior Worlds tournament,” Muhlfeld said. “But not only is he an amazing hockey player, he’s an outstanding person and mentor to our youth.”
Sanderson spent part of his summer training in Whitefish and was able to interact with younger players, which is “very rewarding from a youth hockey perspective.”
“These kids have a great role model to aspire to, and it’s a realistic goal,” Muhlfeld said. “They can go to college and play in the NHL. It’s really inspiring for our players and the overall hockey community in Whitefish.”
Sanderson, a 6-foot, 185-pound defenseman for the University of North Dakota, missed several weeks of his first collegiate season in order to participate in the U.S. junior training camp prior to his selection for the national team, and then again for the 10-day world tournament.
Along with fellow UND and world junior teammate Tyler Kleven, Sanderson had no time to rest on their golden laurels following world junior, immediately flying to Colorado Springs to play a two-game series against Colorado College over the weekend.
Sanderson is expected to be a key player for the team as it advances towards the NCAA championships in April.
The Fighting Hawks started the season as the top-ranked college team in the county but currently sit second in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Men’s College Hockey Poll behind the University of Minnesota. North Dakota is currently 8-2-1 on the season.
No matter what rink Sanderson is playing on, national or international, his hometown will be rooting for him.
“We’re just so proud that Jake grew up here playing hockey for GHA,” Muhlfeld said. “It’s a testament to the level of hockey players that Montana is producing now. His success represents a huge step forward for Montana hockey and his team’s gold medal win is a definitive statement for USA hockey worldwide.”
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