It started with two friends having a conversation.
A young Jake Slaker and his father, Dirk, were in Toronto for a summer hockey tournament. Jake’s passion for the sport was surging and Dirk wanted to nourish it — he just needed the right advice from someone who’d been there, done it before.
Dirk turned to Al MacInnis, who happened to be at the tournament, to talk about Jake’s enthusiasm for hockey and ask for advice on how to help his son live out his dreams. MacInnis, a longtime NHL player, made it clear.
“He says, ‘OK. If you’re hockey crazy, the first thing you have to do is not let anybody else tell you that what you’re doing is wrong, insane. You just have to stay the course,’ ” Dirk recalled. “I said, ‘Well, where would Jake have to go?’ ”
Back then, there was an elite midwest hockey league known to be one of the top youth conferences in the country. MacInnis told Dirk that if Jake truly was serious about hockey, he needed to get in that league.
With that conversation, Jake’s hockey career embarked on a path of twists and turns. But even before then, his past was one of many depths. It’s a story about a boy and his love for the game, a profound father-son relationship and journeys across the United States.
Jake’s introduction to hockey came on cement rather than ice. Born in Georgia, he started playing roller hockey at an early age. Dirk had been a team doctor for the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League. Jake’s two older brothers, Kurt and Zach, were around the players often and caught the hockey bug. They became skilled roller hockey players in Georgia. Jake followed.
“I was always around hockey players and the sport of hockey,” Jake said. “So it was pretty easy for me to fall in love with it.”
Along with some of the Knights’ players, Dirk built an inline hockey facility with a fitting name: Hockey Southern Style. His boys spent considerable time at the rink.
Jake has two sisters, Kristin and Lauren, and is the youngest of the five. There is a considerable age gap between him and his siblings — for instance, Kurt is 11 years older than him. Always around older people, one of Jake’s early experiences with hockey was as a team mascot, skating around in a whale suit.
Though training against his bigger, stronger, older brothers was difficult, Jake’s skillset began to flourish because of it. At around seven years old, when he moved west to California, it was already clear he could play. He was so good that he started playing on two teams in San Diego. Between games, Jake would keep his pads on, hop in the backseat of the car and head to the different rink. Dirk would sling Jake over his back and carry him into his next game. Father and son.
Jake’s high level of commitment was already evident before then, though. Back in Georgia, playing ice hockey required early-morning practice times. Understandably, Kurt and Zach decided to stick to roller hockey. But the hours never discouraged Jake and he began playing ice hockey a bit before moving from Atlanta.
“The skating is definitely different,” Jake said. “Stopping, your skating stride, kind of everything is just a different type. I mean, it’s still skating at the end of the day but there is a different stride for sure.”
Every February, youth hockey teams from all over head to eastern Canada for the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament. The tournament was created in 1960 and is one of the top youth competitions. Dirk knew about it and decided that if Jake was going to play hockey, he should be able to go all out. Dirk wanted his son to experience the special event. Prior to that realization, Claude Lemieux — the four-time Stanley Cup winner — had seen Jake play at a tournament in Toronto and had expressed interest in having him join his youth team in Phoenix.
Putting the two together, Dirk was convinced to let Jake play for the Lemieux Hockey Academy. He housed and homeschooled two of Jake’s teammates, too. Every Thursday, the four of them would head to Phoenix, stay for hockey, then head back to San Diego at the end of the week.
“It was probably the most incredible experience of my life other than the birth of my children,” Dirk said of the journeys. “We went everywhere, man. We went everywhere in North America. We traveled everywhere. … It would blow people’s minds”
Living on the West Coast and playing hockey at a high level presented challenges. Dirk and Jake found themselves constantly on the road, covering sizable distances to places like San Jose and Las Vegas for games. They couldn’t find consistency in the opponents they faced, couldn’t find the adequate competition. They’d drive far away, only to either win or lose by a lot. It added up.
“It was a grind,” Dirk said. “And I thought, you know what, if this is what he wants to do, then we need to go find where those people are.”
After the year in Phoenix ended, Dirk and Jake were looking for the next step. Meanwhile, they traveled to Toronto for a summer tournament. There, Dirk chatted with MacInnis and realized he and Jake had reached a crossroads and needed to move.
Just like that, the Slakers packed up and set out for the Chicago area. They had friends nearby and stayed in their basement while Jake tried out for two Chicago clubs as well as the Junior Blues. Jake made the Chicago Mission of the Tier 1 Elite Minor Bantam league, and with that, the Slakers were settled into their new town.
Some kids whine about moving. There’s always a certain uneasiness that comes with a new environment. Jake never complained, though, despite the unconventional nature of his lifestyle. To him, each move presented a chance to keep pursuing his passion and he never took that for granted.
“I’ve never seen this kid negative,” Dirk said. “He has the perfect personality to be doing all the craziness that we did. He has always kept his eye on the prize.”
Regardless, Chicago gave Jake a structure and normalcy he hadn’t had before. He spent three years there, attending a regular high school. He got to do the things all kids that age should do.
“I think it helps to be normal for those three years, because those are kind of difficult years,” Dirk said. “I’ve seen other kids derail that didn’t have some form of normalcy in their life. They went to prom and they did all sorts of cool things during those three years. Chicago is kind of a normal midwestern city. That was a good setting to kind of reground him before the rest of the craziness started again.”
From there, Jake went off on his own for the first time. He moved to Bloomfield Hills to play a season for Belle Tire, while taking online classes to complete his senior year of high school. During that season, he elevated his game before making the transition to juniors. Taking online classes gave him more time outside of scheduled practices to get stronger and log more time on the ice.
For Jake, Bloomfield Hills was one of the favorite places he has ever lived. He lived with seven other kids and created some of his most meaningful friendships there. They all stayed with Steven Merl, one of Jake’s teammates at Belle Tire. Steven’s family had originally been in Florida but headed north and billeted the teammates.
Though playing for Belle Tire, Jake had been drafted by the Fargo Force of the USHL. Around Thanksgiving he got called up and played two games for the Force, before returning and finishing the season at Belle Tire.
Over the off-season, Jake got traded to the Bloomington Thunder, where he and Steven eventually reunited. The trade involved many strings behind the scenes. Dennis Williams was entering his first season as head coach in Bloomington, and it was also his first season in the USHL. He knew very little, if any, about Jake. But Williams’ new assistant coach, Jesse Davis, had spent the prior four seasons as an assistant with the Force. Davis knew Jake well and convinced Williams to try and acquire him.
Williams remembers his first impression upon meeting Jake.
“Very professional, very mature, very driven,” Williams said. “ … He was there on a mission, he was there with a purpose of wanting to win a USHL championship and then play Division I hockey.”
Red Berenson was in a tough spot. It was spring of 2016. Michigan’s season had recently ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, and five players had decided to leave school early to pursue the professional game. Berenson was surprised by some of the early departures.
Recruiting typically happens well in advance — not the spring before one’s freshman year. But Berenson was fortunate. Jake was originally committed to play at St. Lawrence in upstate New York. But following a coaching change, he was looking for a new destination.
Berenson’s staff got in contact with Jake and had him take a visit. It just so happens that Steven was already committed to play for the Wolverines, too. It was only fitting that for Jake’s visit, Steven drove him down to Ann Arbor from Bloomfield Hills.
The two were teammates for just one season, as Steven left the team after his freshman year. But they still live together and will always be best friends. When a friendship has lasted through so many phases, nothing can break it.
Jake transitioned to college quickly and earned Berenson’s trust right away. Berenson realized early that he had great chemistry on the ice with Will Lockwood, so they played together and found success.
“I just remember he’s a forthright kid, he’s a clean-cut kid, he speaks well,” Berenson said. “You can tell he’s sociable, he’s confident, and … that turned into being coachable as well. And he was eager, too. He was eager to prove that he could play here and help the team. When the smoke cleared, it was a good move for us and a good move for Jake.”
When Berenson retired and Mel Pearson took the reigns following that season, it marked a monumental turn for the program. But it wasn’t all that unfamiliar for Jake. Back when he decommitted from St. Lawrence, Pearson tried to get him to join Michigan Tech. Arriving in Ann Arbor and meeting Jake was a pleasant surprise for the new head coach.
The team nominated Jake to be an alternate captain as a sophomore. Pearson trusted his guys, but since he was new to the group he chatted with Berenson to get his thoughts on the leadership. Berenson had seen enough positive evidence in that one year.
“We were going to do this drill and he would be one of the first ones in line to do it and do it well,” Berenson said. “He was already setting a good example for other players even though he was a freshman. … He was like another coach, to a certain extent, for a young player.”
Now, Jake can reflect on his successful career at Michigan. Over his four years with the Wolverines, he missed just four games. He was an alternate captain for three seasons, played in the Frozen Four and has had a remarkable impact on those around him. But what Pearson likes most about him is his outgoingness.
“You ask him a question, it’s not yes or no,” Pearson said. “You can engage in a good conversation with him. And he’s usually pretty upbeat. He’s got a positive way about him.”
Last weekend, Jake tallied his 100th career point for the Wolverines. He was the first of his senior class to do so, and will most likely be the only one.
But before he could chase 100 points, he had to chase hockey.