Apr. 15—The Ottawa Senators did not originally intend on having Jacob Bernard-Docker make his NHL debut Wednesday night.
The defenseman, just two weeks from being a college student at UND, only had practiced one time with the Senators after serving his mandatory seven-day quarantine.
But at morning skate, the coaching staff gave Bernard-Docker a heads up that defenseman Nikita Zaitsev wasn’t 100 percent and he should be ready to step in if needed.
“Honestly, early in the day, I really didn’t think I was going to go,” Bernard-Docker said. “For some reason, I thought ‘Z’ was going to be able to play.”
An hour before puck drop, things changed.
Zaitsev was scratched. Bernard-Docker was in.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s defensive defenseman of the year and second-team all-league performer notified his parents and scrambled to get ready to play in his first game against the Winnipeg Jets.
Then, Bernard-Docker delivered the type of performance that was so typical of his three years at UND. He was simple, solid, efficient and mistake-free in Ottawa’s 3-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in Canadian Tire Centre.
Bernard-Docker played 15 minutes, 33 seconds. He wasn’t on the ice for any goals — for or against — and tallied one hit and two blocked shots.
“It’s a game I prepared my whole life for,” Bernard-Docker said. “Obviously, I’m going to be a little bit nervous, whether I find out an hour before or I find out a day before. It was a little weird, obviously, finding out that close to the game, but like I’ve said so many times, the guys did a great job making me feel comfortable.
“We didn’t come out on the winning end there, but everyone was nice enough to come up to me after the game and say, ‘congratulations,’ and take a picture with me. All day was a really special moment for me.”
Bernard-Docker, wearing No. 48, was able to keep most of his shifts short. Only four of his 18 lasted more than a minute.
“He played well for us,” Ottawa goaltender Matt Murray said. “He never looked out of place. I thought he played a good, hard, simple game. It’s cool to see guys get their first game like that. I remember my first game. It’s an awesome, awesome moment, an awesome feeling, so it was nice to be able to share that with him.”
JBD’s moment#GoSensGo pic.twitter.com/VZgU9qHCmL
— Ottawa Senators (@Senators) April 14, 2021
Ottawa coach D.J. Smith liked Bernard-Docker’s debut.
“Very good,” Smith said. “He had one practice with the team, then to go right in against a team like Winnipeg. . . he made some smart plays, he’s a really smart defenseman. It’s a tall order to come in on short notice for your first NHL game, but a lot of bright spots, not only with him but the rest of the team as well.
“Those couple times on the point there, he made good offensive plays with his head up. He’s a real smart player. He sees what’s going on. As he learns the pace and adjusts in practice, he’ll continue to get better.”
Bernard-Docker, Ottawa’s first-round pick in 2018, said there were some adjustments from college hockey, where he played 95 games over three seasons, tallying 15 goals and 60 points.
“There are parts of the game that are a lot different,” Bernard-Docker said. “I felt like going back and getting pucks, their forwards were really quick on the forecheck and extremely physical, so I didn’t have a lot of time with the puck. It’s obviously something I’m going to have to adjust to and figure out here as we go.”
The Canmore, Alta., product said he felt better as the game progressed.
“One hundred percent,” Bernard-Docker said. “I think the first few shifts were just trying to keep it simple and communicate with Murray and communicate with whoever I was playing with on ‘D.’ The second and third period I felt a little more comfortable and just tried to settle in and play my game.”
Bernard-Docker became the 106th UND player to suit up in the NHL and the third to make his debut this season, following Cole Smith (Nashville Predators) and Matt Kiersted (Florida Panthers).
“He played great tonight,” Senators forward Nick Paul said. “Good first game. He fit right in. He’s going to keep building and building. We’re excited to have him in the lineup and see him progress.”
Former UND forward Shane Pinto will soon make his NHL debut with Ottawa, too. The Senators play at Montreal on Saturday and at Calgary on Monday. Pinto, who signed after two years with UND, is currently with the Senators, but was scratched Wednesday night — like Bernard-Docker was supposed to be.
“I wish I would have left a few other people know, but it was just one of those things where it just came up so suddenly,” Bernard-Docker said. “I had a blast out there. Definitely a real exciting time for me and so many people who helped me get to this part of my life. It’s a pretty special moment.”