Jasper Weatherby is an anomaly. The University of North Dakota senior was the only Oregon-born player in NCAA Division I hockey (by comparison, Mississippi and Hawaii also have one apiece) last season, according to College Hockey News. He’s also just one of seven players from Oregon who have been drafted by an NHL team, according to Elite Prospects.
On their own, those distinctions set Weatherby apart from most everyone else. He also boldly uses his platform as a high-performance athlete to draw attention to social justice issues in a manner that’s unusual for most hockey players.
Taken in the fourth round of the 2018 draft by the San Jose Sharks, Weatherby has decided to play out his upcoming senior season at UND instead of turning pro. His decision was made more difficult by the fact the Sharks are a team dear to his heart and nearest geographically to his hometown of Ashland.
“I’d drive down there six hours, my stepdad had season tickets since they were (an expansion) franchise, and I’d go to games. I think that it was an unbelievable opportunity, and at the same time I think that another year in college is only going to benefit me and maybe leaves me entering, hopefully, an NHL roster that much more prepared,” Weatherby, 23, said during a phone interview last month from his father’s home in Bend, Ore.
Completing his college eligibility and not signing with the Sharks could allow him to become a free agent next year, but he said that didn’t really influence his decision because of his attraction to the team and respect for general manager Doug Wilson and others in the organization.
“It was obviously a really tough decision,” Weatherby, a marketing major, said. “I really respect everything San Jose does from their GM to their player development coaches and even some of the younger prospects on the team. They’re great guys, but at the same time I was kind of thinking about my development and trying to get that degree. Just trying to build on my on-ice things that I can do well and trying to improve so when I do hopefully make that jump, I’m the best prepared I can be.”
As one of the top college hockey programs in the country, North Dakota is accustomed to having some of its best players turn pro before completing their NCAA eligibility. Fighting Hawks head coach Brad Berry is excited to have Weatherby back, especially after losing eight seniors and seeing junior defenseman Jacob Bernard-Docker and sophomore forward Shane Pinto leave early to sign with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators.
“To have a player like Jasper come back four years, that says a lot about him,” Berry said by phone last month. “You know, I’m sure there’s probably opportunities for him to sign a pro contract with San Jose, but just talking with him and how mature he is (it’s great for UND) knowing that he wants to continue to round his game out and get better.”
After improving his production each year at North Dakota, including 14 goals and 24 points in 29 games last season, Weatherby is poised to continue his progression in 2021-22. In addition to training and watching his nutrition this offseason, he said he’s making sure to be mentally prepared so he shows up refreshed and feeling good for the start of the hockey season.
“He’s a big-bodied centerman, extremely smart, competitive, can make plays and also finish plays scoring goals,” Berry said of the 6-3 and 212-pound Weatherby. “So you know when you get players in college, when you recruit new players it’s sometimes tough finding big-bodied centermen that have all those attributes that I just described to you, and we’re very blessed and fortunate to have him in our group here for another year.”
Chasing a college hockey dream across a continent
Weatherby’s cross-continent hockey journey began in Ashland, which is better known for Shakespeare than slapshots. Weatherby was born in Portland, grew up in Ashland, and played his minor hockey 13 miles away at The Rrrink in Medford.
“In high school I kind of knew I was serious about the game, (so) I was going to have to leave the Rogue Valley in Oregon. There just wasn’t quite enough there to fulfill the dreams of trying to play college hockey and then hopefully pro hockey,” Weatherby said.
At 13 he enrolled in the Canadian International Hockey Academy outside of Ottawa where he played Bantam AAA in 2012-13 and Minor Midget AAA the next season. Weatherby had been in a spring league in Vancouver, B.C., in eighth grade, but immersing himself in the Canadian prep school hockey environment took things to another level.
“They’re unbelievable. I wouldn’t be here without them,” Weatherby said of the academy instructors at the boarding school in Rockland, Ontario. “It was an eye opening experience for sure.”
Weatherby had seven points in 29 games in his first season, and 18 points in 32 games in 2013-14 at CIH. The big jump in the quality of skills from Medford – “Oh my gosh these kids can really play,” he recalled about his introduction – greatly helped his hockey development.
While many classmates at CIH were eyeing the Ontario Hockey League route, Weatherby was focusing on playing college hockey instead of major junior. He moved to Nebraska where he finished high school and played two years for the Omaha AAA Lancers program in the North American Prospects Hockey League where he scored 23 points in 25 games for the 18U team in 2015-16.
After Omaha, Weatherby returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2016-17 to join the Wenatchee Wild of the British Columbia Hockey League. He said he “didn’t play a ton” in the first season, scoring 12 goals and 32 points in 46 games, but he learned a lot from veteran players and head coach Bliss Littler and his coaching staff.
“I think you can’t really go to Wenatchee without being a good human being,” he said. “They would rather have somebody who’s a good human being and maybe not as good a hockey player. But they want that team environment and everyone’s growing and looking to go and play college.
A painful longest game
Nearly three months after North Dakota lost a five-overtime epic to Minnesota-Duluth in the longest game in NCAA tournament history, the wounds were starting to heal for Fighting Hawks forward Jasper Weatherby.
“I think that as time goes you will look back on that as more of a positive memory. It’s just such a unique game to be a part of,” he said. “It was a lot of fun, and you learn a lot about the guys in that locker room, and you definitely think about it. Just happy and excited to be part of something kind of special like that.”
After falling behind 2-0 in the third period, North Dakota scored twice in 47 seconds with the goalie pulled for an extra attacker to even it up at the end of regulation. The teams had played an NCAA record 142 minutes and 13 seconds when the Bulldogs scored to win the game.
“You just kind of go back into your locker room and just kind of almost collapse in there,” Weatherby said. “They were just bringing us in all the food from the concession stand, and everything, you know, protein bars and anything that could get us calories.
“It’s pretty crazy. We have an intermission clock in the locker room that’s ticking down and (I’d) be like ‘all right, you know, two more minutes I gotta stand up here.’ I stand up and you’re just like kinda going into the zone and you’re like ‘all right, I’ve got a job to do.’”
That 3-2 loss March 27 in the Fargo Regional final cost the Fighting Hawks a spot in the NCAA Frozen Four and will provide Weatherby and his teammates with motivation to make it further next postseason.
“The big thing is you want to win those last four games of the season, if you were lucky enough to get in the tournament. So for us, my goal is always to win a national championship,” he said.
“So that was a great experience. My first year we ended up losing in the playoffs the second round. And then the second year I came back and a lot of the guys, better players, had moved on to college, and I just kind of got given some opportunities and tried to put the work in that summer. Luckily they gave me some opportunities.”
In his second year he seized those opportunities, leading the league in scoring (74 points) and tying for the lead in goals (37) en route to winning the Vern Dye Memorial Trophy as the league MVP. Weatherby then led the BCHL playoffs in goals (15), assists (23), and points (38) as the Wild won the Fred Page Cup as league champions.
Weatherby’s successful stint in Wenatchee almost never happened, however. He wasn’t someone who was a top recruit guaranteed to get a roster spot. Weatherby got there with some hard work and good fortune.
“Not a lot of people know this, but I didn’t make a lot of junior teams and I think I must have been cut from like eight junior teams throughout those two years in Omaha and even before Omaha,” Weatherby said. “So Wenatchee was kind of like my last chance to make a good junior team. And I came in, there was I think five guys, and there was one spot. You know, I just played well and got lucky, and they ended up giving me that last spot.”
Oregon was not one of Wenatchee’s territory states from which it could recruit, but fortunately Weatherby’s mother was living in Lummi Island at the time. She had been filing his taxes from Washington state, so he was considered a resident and could compete for the Wild’s one opening for a Washington local (which explains why hockeydb.com lists his birthplace incorrectly as Lummi Island).
“It’s kind of funny how sometimes the stars align in that way,” Weatherby said. “I look back, if I hadn’t been from Washington, I wouldn’t have ever been able to play for Wenatchee because they did not have an opening for another import slot.”
A leader on and off the ice
Weatherby was an assistant captain last season and has a chance to become captain this year. Although the players vote to decide who wears the C and the A’s, Berry said he expects Weatherby to be wearing a letter again this season.
“I think he’s one of those guys that he doesn’t say probably a whole lot, but when he does it resonates in the locker room,” Berry said. “But you know the good leaders are the ones that back it up on the ice, or in the weight room, or in the community. They always do things at the highest level and every day. We call those guys ‘everydayers.’ And he is an everydayer, and guys follow that. And your bar is only going to go as high as your leaders, and he’s been an outstanding leader for us, especially over this last season. We’re really looking for great things for him and his leadership this year.”
Weatherby’s leadership extends beyond the dressing room and the ice rink. He’s one of three National Collegiate Hockey Conference representatives on the College Hockey for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion task force, and he’s a member of the UND Student-Athlete Inclusion and Diversity group.
After George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, Weatherby and Bernard-Docker took part in a Black Lives Matter march in Grand Forks, N.D. Before the Fighting Hawks’ 2020-21 season opener, the two players knelt during the playing of the U.S. national anthem to protest racial injustice.
Believed to be the first Division I hockey players to kneel during the anthem, Weatherby wasn’t afraid of anyone’s criticism or trolling on social media. He said he and Bernard-Docker, who is from Canada, expected the mixed responses they received.
“So we kind of talked that summer, and I said I was going to do it. And he took his time … and decided that this was something he wanted to do,” Weatherby said of his close friend and former roommate of three years. “So we came out with an article beforehand kind of explaining why we’re doing it.
“The positive stuff for us really outweighed the negative stuff. We had minority people messaging us on campus saying, ‘Thank you for that; sometimes we feel that North Dakota isn’t the most welcoming place for people like ourselves.’ And for us that’s all we needed to hear. If we can make UND and North Dakota welcoming for one person who doesn’t feel like it’s welcoming then we’ve done our job, and we’ve done the best we can.”
Preceding that season opener was a team meeting where everyone had a chance to share their views while others respectfully listened. By the sounds of it, a good percentage of our society could take a lesson from how the Fighting Hawks players from various parts of Canada and the U.S. learned about each other’s perspectives.
“It was really powerful to hear people’s opinions of what they believe in. And at the end of the day that’s kind of what makes these two countries so great is that people can have different opinions and still fight for the same cause,” Weatherby said. “I wasn’t gonna tell anyone that not kneeling is a bad thing, and I wasn’t gonna, hopefully, wasn’t gonna hear from my teammates that kneeling was a bad thing either. So we came to a mutual respect, and it brought our team a lot closer, which was a great thing.”
Family history of standing up against injustice
Weatherby’s grandmother and step-grandfather’s activism for social justice issues had significant influence on Weatherby and his family. Ann Macrory took part in the Selma to Montgomery, Ala., civil rights march in 1965 and was a civil rights lawyer. Ralph Temple, who was Jewish, moved to the United States from London at 7 because of Nazi advances across Europe, and he went on to become a civil rights lawyer who worked at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU. (Read the Grand Forks Herald’s coverage to learn about many more examples of Weatherby’s family’s passion for social justice.)
To those who make knee-jerk complaints that socially conscious athletes should be quiet and “stick to sports,” that’s not how Weatherby was brought up. To his critics, his response is, “educate yourself.”
“I’m a human being first, I have beliefs and feelings, and I’m an athlete second,” Weatherby, whose adopted brother is Black, said. “I think that sometimes in this world we like to put athletes on a pedestal and say just because you can shoot a ball through a hoop … that’s the only thing you are. And that’s so not true. I think that when you look at athletes who are able to voice their opinions and really become the people that they want, they’re just going to flourish in life. So I challenge those people and I say that my sport does not define who I am. Being a human being defines who I am and making choices for myself.”
Berry suggests Weatherby also developed his maturity, empathy, and some worldliness from moving around North America, living in different places, and being around different people.
“He’s a very deep thinking person. He’s a guy that is very sensitive, and he has a lot of care for everybody, and a lot of care for his teammates, and a lot of care for the people around him,” Berry said. “You know, he always approaches his day with kind of a deep thought process and that’s great to see.”
Being unafraid of standing out and drawing attention to yourself is quite unusual for hockey players. The culture of the sport has historically forced individuals to conform to certain restrained behaviors as a group. Being outspoken or drawing attention to yourself would be breaking one of those old “codes” that discourage actions that some might consider as individualistic.
Unfortunately it took awful events such as the killing of George Floyd, the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, racism directed at former NHLer Akim Aliu, and other incidents to prompt more players to change old habits, but it’s a start.
“I think for a long time it has kind of been a sport that’s been so stoic maybe, and not in a bad way, but hockey players are tough and they’re good people. I think that sometimes that can be misled for staying in line and don’t step out of the boundaries, but I think what we’re realizing now is that it’s good to be unique,” Weatherby said.
Becoming the seventh Oregon-born player to skate in the NHL would be unusual. Courageously standing up against racial injustice, trying to make college hockey more inclusive, and working to improve diversity on UND’s campus are proof that Weatherby isn’t just an anomaly in hockey; he’s someone truly exceptional.
Jim Wilkie is a longtime Northwest journalist, former NHL editor and NHL Insider writer for ESPN.com, onetime GSHL All-Star, and SJHA hockey dad. Follow him on Twitter @jimwilkie.