For baby boomers growing up in the early 1960s, the name Jay North was associated with the actor who played the lead role in the television series “Dennis the Menace.”
But for hockey trivia experts, Jay North was the first American high school hockey player drafted when the Buffalo Sabres made him the 62nd player selected in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft.
“Jay was an outstanding high school hockey player,” recalled Scotty Bowman, who was coach and general manager of the Sabres at the time. “He could really control a game on the ice. He had the skills and the talent. He could have made it in the NHL.”
As it turned out, North never played in the NHL. In fact, he never attended a Sabres training camp. His pro career was limited to a handful of games for a team in Los Angeles of the now defunct Pacific States Hockey League.
What could have derailed what seemed to be such a promising hockey career? How could he turn his back on a promising NHL career? Better yet, whatever happened to Jay North the hockey player?
“Jay North had the potential to be a great hockey player in the NHL. He had great skating ability, as well as great stickhandling ability,” said Hobey Baker Award winner and former NHLer Tom Kurvers, who played against North in the 1980s on the Minnesota prep circuit.
“He had it all. In fact, I envied him as a player because of the amazing way he played the game. But I just don’t know what happened to him.”
North was born and raised in Bloomington, Minn., playing his high school hockey at Bloomington Jefferson High School, one of the top prep programs in the country.
One person who knew North better than most was his high school hockey coach, Tom Saterdalen.
“Jay was an extremely intelligent person, as well as hockey player,” said Saterdalen, now retired from the coaching ranks. “I think he had perfect or near perfect scores with his SAT and ACT scores. He had a dry sense of humor. He was a very humble person as well.
“As a player, he always seemed to be happy at the level he was playing at. He was an extremely talented player, but simply moved along at his own pace. He was your typical playground hockey player.”
Saterdalen went on to explain why North excelled as a player when he got to the high school level.
Jay North was one of the most talented hockey players to ever come out of the Bloomington, Minn., area.
“Jay was a tall boy, with very long arms. He could strip opposing players of the puck with his long reach,” he said.
“I believe he was the fastest player in the state at the time I had him. He had lightning speed. Jay was the type of player who could elude the opposition with that speed. He was a tough player to hit.”
Opponents were equally impressed with North’s mental and physical skills.
“Jay was extremely smart in school and did very well academically,” recalled Kurvers, now director of Player Personnel for the Phoenix Coyotes, who was a close friend and teammate of North in high school.
“He was one of the best players in the state of Minnesota at the time. He had a full ride to go to the University of Minnesota-Duluth to play hockey. Instead, he accepted a scholarship to go to Harvard. From there he went to Europe. After that I lost track of him.”
North’s life and travels look like a giant road map. After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Physical Sciences he went to Austria. From Austria it was back to the United States where he has lived and worked in New York City, Los Angeles, Sedona, Ariz., Coconut Creek, Fla., and Connecticut.
Today, North lives in Houston, where he works for a nonprofit interactive math teaching company called Reasoning Mind, Inc.
“I really didn’t think I was this famous,” joked North laughingly when told that the writer had been tracking him down for over two years and that many of his hockey friends from years ago were equally interested in what had happened to him.
“Actually I’ve played hockey wherever I’ve been. I just never turned pro.”
The reason why is because the rigors of the game just caught up to him.
“When I was in high school, I played pretty injury-free hockey,” said North, a Minnesota High School All-State First Team player in 1980. “I guess everything seemed to come easy for me.”
As the competition continued to improve, the injuries began to take their toll.
“[During my time at Harvard], for the first time in my life, I got hurt playing hockey. The injuries seemed to occur almost every year,” said North.
“Not that I consciously decided to walk away from the NHL. It’s just that my four years of college hockey were not productive due to the series of injuries I had.
“Those injuries hurt my playing confidence, so I doubted my NHL readiness at that time.”
In 1984 North walked away from any possibility of an NHL career and went to Austria to teach and travel around Europe. He did sign a pro contract to play in Salzburg, but when the team’s financial backing fell through, followed by the Chernobyl nuclear accident, North decided it was time to return home.
As he recounts his travels, North is quick to point out that he never quit playing hockey.
“Any place I’ve ever lived, I always played some form of pick-up hockey,” said North, who lives in Houston with his wife Lynn and still follows the game on TV.
“But I have no regrets. I was born to be a teacher, which is what I’ve done all my life since leaving college.
“As for hockey, I really enjoyed the game, and still do. But it never was a matter of life and death with me.
“It was a game that I enjoyed.”