Jacob Docker’s last three years have been surreal. Since being drafted to the NHL 26th overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2018, the now 21-year-old defenceman has won Gold at the World Juniors, Gold in the World Championships, played 5 NHL games, and has finished a degree in kinesiology.
Currently, Docker is playing with the Belleville Senators, but says his brief stint in the NHL helped him to see just what it takes to play at the pro level, and he’s ready to continue to make waves in the AHL in the 2021-2022 season.
We caught up with Jacob to discuss his life growing up in Alberta, his gold-medal highlights, and his thoughts on the upcoming season.
How big of a role did hockey play for you growing up? What are some of your earliest and fondest memories of playing the sport as a kid growing up in Alberta?
I started playing at 4 years old, with Timbits Hockey. I was born in Banff, so I have great memories of playing hockey on the pond, and that’s where it all started for me. I was 5 years old when I moved to Canmore.
Who were some of your favourite players growing up or the teams that you liked?
When I was really young, I always liked the high-end guys like Sidney Crosby. As I got older, and mou lded into a D-man around 12, I started to like Morgan Rielly. I watched him and modelled my game after him.
How did you know that you wanted to be a defenceman?
As a kid, you’re kind of thrown around into every position, and my mom wanted me to play goalie. She thought I’d be safer not being hit all the time, that there was less chance of injury. But I think she’d have been more stressed if I was a goalie (laughs). I always liked defence, because you can see the whole game in front of you. You can be the eyes out there, and you have the chance to jump up in the play when you can.
Tell us about your NHL Draft Experience. Leading up to the Draft that year in Dallas, what was the experience like for you? Did you already have an idea of what was going to happen?
I had my whole family there on draft day, which was very special. Most of the rankings had me going from the second to the fourth round, somewhere in there. So I didn’t really expect to be picked on that first night. I think it was a Friday night, and we thought we were just there for the experience. I remember my sister went to grab a pretzel at pick 23, and she got back one pick before I went. We always joke about how she almost missed it. It was an unreal experience for me and my entire family.
We re-watched the video of you being drafted, and when your name was announced one of the analysts mentioned that you wanted to pursue a career in medicine. What fascinated you with medicine?
I took Kinesiology in North Dakota, and I am actually finishing up my degree now. I should be done by next summer. I am taking classes this year, obviously a lighter load because I want to focus on hockey, but I think just having something to do away from the rink is always awesome. I have always liked the training aspect of hockey, and being in the gym. So I thought that taking Kinesiology would teach me a little bit more about that, and maybe after my hockey career, I’ll go into strength and conditioning and hopefully train with elite athletes.
Tell us about winning the World Junior Championship in 2020. What was a highlight of that experience for you?
There were so many highlights, it’s hard to choose just one (laughs). Winning is of course the highlight of the entire trip. Being over in Czech was also pretty cool. That was my first time in Europe. It was a beautiful place to be around Christmas time with all of the lights.
I think one of the coolest parts of that trip was our training camp in Vienna, Austria. We trained there for a week before the tournament. That was a beautiful city too, and definitely a place that I want to go back to.
After your college year ended, you got to play your first NHL games last season. What was it like to find out you were being called up to the Senators?
It was a dream come true. Obviously it was a bit of a tough ending to my college career, the way it went down was not what I had hoped for, but I was so pumped to get the call from the Sens and sign a pro contract. I mean, that’s every kid’s dream.
I wasn’t supposed to play the night of my first game, but I had just come off my quarantine and had 2 or 3 practices under my belt. Zaitsev was questionable for the night, so I showed up for the game not really knowing if I was going to play. An hour or so before warmups, DJ tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘kid, you’re in’.
How was it playing your first game in the Canadian Tire Center with no fans? Was it odd?
A little bit. I came out for my solo lap and it wasn’t exactly how I had watched them on TV, because there was no crowd (laughs). But it was still an amazing experience, and if there were fans there, I probably would have been even more nervous.
What are some lessons that you have learned from your first stint in the NHL that will make you a better player moving forward?
I now know a bit more of what to expect going forward. I’ve seen how strong guys are in the corners. The puck battles and puck protection is on another level from college and Junior. The speed is something that you adjust to, but as a D-man going back to get pucks and retrievals, I’ll try to use the middle of the ice as much as I can. It’s tough to get off the wall in the NHL, guys are so good at forechecking and being right on you. Those are my main takeaways.
You were also in the World Cup with Nick Paul and Connor Brown. What’s your relationship like with them?
That was an awesome experience too. I wasn’t actually supposed to go. I got a call from Roberto Luongo when I was on my connecting flight home from Ottawa, going home for the summer. He asked me to come over. I remember being so excited to have another experience like that under my belt, playing with pros. Playing with Brownie and Paulie over there was really cool too, they’ve always made me feel really comfortable, both in Latvia and in Ottawa.
What are you most excited about for this upcoming season in Belleville?
I think just the chance to play 72 games, and to have a pro schedule. It’s going to be new, and a lot more games than I’m used to, but I’m just so excited to be here and to help Belleville win as many hockey games as they can.
This interview will be going in our Holiday issue. Do you have any family traditions that you look forward to every year?
We open pajamas on Christmas Eve, and we usually go sledding on Christmas Day. Last year I didn’t get home for Christmas because of COVID, but I’m hoping to this year to see my family.
What is your favourite holiday movie?
It’s gotta be Home Alone.
And your favourite non-holiday movie or book?
One of the movies that I think is really funny that I don’t think gets enough recognition is The Watch. It’s with Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill and Vince Vaughn, it’s unreal. For books, I am reading a book right now called The Champion’s Mind that is pretty cool. It gives insight into how a lot of elite athletes think. I think that keeping mentally sharp is important when starting out in a pro career, because of the adversity you have to go through to get to the top level.
What is something that people would be surprised to hear about you?
I’m a pretty boring guy (laughs). But something that I don’t do is play video games. I can’t stand them. I pass my time either watching Netflix or hanging out with buddies. Or even doing a bit of school work (laughs).
What is your best advice for young athletes who are looking to follow in your footsteps?
That you’re probably closer than you think. A lot of people grow up thinking that the NHL is really far away. You have to believe in yourself and know you can get there, with hard work. There are stepping stones to get to that level, but never think that it’s too far out of reach.