For many young hockey players growing up, the Western Hockey League is the ideal stepping-stone on the illustrious dream path to the NHL.
There’s a long history behind this way of thinking: the WHL has been one of the world’s best junior hockey development leagues for decades, churning out tons of eventual NHL talent, including some of the league’s very best players.
But it’s not the only route.
A rising trend in Canadian hockey is the popularity of the NCAA route in the United States, following a stop in one of the Canada’s Junior A leagues.
The Alberta Junior Hockey League in particular drew a lot of attention during the 2016-17 season thanks to the jaw-dropping talents of Brooks Bandits defenseman Cale Makar, who was selected fourth overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 NHL Draft.
And now, for the second year in a row, the league has another NCAA-bound defender that is drawing the attention of scouts: Jacob Bernard-Docker of the Okotoks Oilers.
“When North Dakota came along it was just an opportunity that I couldn’t really pass down,” he said. “I think the whole college experience should be a lot of fun. Obviously it’s a really high-paced game with a lot of skilled players that are nowadays making the transition to the NHL.”
Bernard-Docker grew up in Canmore, AB and had the opportunity to go the WHL route after being selected in the fifth round of the 2015 Bantam Draft. But, instead, he committing to the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks in 2017.
The Fighting Hawks will certainly be getting a player that will fit Bernard-Docker’s high-paced style of hockey. Bernard-Docker, named the AJHL’s most outstanding defenseman this season, is an impressive skater who can push the pace of play at both ends of the rink.
“The biggest thing is his skating,” Oilers head coach Tyler Deis said. “His skating can get him out of a lot of trouble…and then his decision-making. He’s an all-around player: he’s a great defender, on the offence he’s got a great shot, he sees the ice really well. He’s just a really good, all-around defenseman.”
Bernard-Docker sees himself in a similar light.
“(I consider myself) a strong-skating defenseman that tries to move the puck north as best I can and isn’t afraid to join the rush and try to create some offense,” he said. “I’m a guy that you can put in any position and trust.”
He certainly is.
“He’s a big piece of what we’re doing here,” Deis said. “At the end of the day, because he’s good defensively and offensively, his minutes go up. We can rely on him in defensive situations. When you get a guy like that, forward or defense, then they start eating up a lot of minutes. That’s what Jacob is.
“For such a young guy, his professionalism is unbelievable. He’s just always wanting to get better, not just on the ice, but off the ice — his academics, his athletics. He’s a focused kid that, at the end of the day, he knows what he wants and he’s willing to put the hard work into it.”
Before he heads off to college, however, Bernard-Docker still has loose ends to take care of.
His Okotoks group recently toppled defending-champion Bandits in the Division Final and will now face off against the Spruce Grove Saints for the Inter Pipeline Cup. Bernard-Docker has 11 points in 10 playoff games so far, with one goal and two assists coming in a crucial Game 6 that eliminated Brooks.
There’s also the NHL Draft rapidly approaching in June, where he will be a very sought-after prospect.
Bernard-Docker, 29th in Future Considerations’ Spring ranking for the 2018 draft, is certainly a late-riser with his playoff performance endearing himself to NHL scouts.
For now, however, Bernard-Docker is falling back on some age-old advice he was once given and trying to live in the current moment as much as possible.
“Always play like it’s your last shift, that’s something I try to do,” he said. “Never take it for granted. (The draft) is something you try not to focus on all the time. You try to direct your attention more towards your team and try to succeed in the playoffs. (But) it’s something you occasionally think about for sure — it’s exciting.”