HAZELWOOD, Mo. - It has never been easy for Jacob Doty.
He began his life with a three-month hospital stay in Denver, Colorado, after his mother gave birth to him two-and-a-half months premature.
He grew up in the one-rink city of Billings, in a state, Montana, that has never produced an NHL player.
He wasn’t blessed with the natural talent that often accompanies hockey’s elite players, and thus, he wasn't drafted at any level of his career.
So how does a kid go from the modest youth hockey system in Billings to signing a professional contract with an NHL franchise? Well, it wasn’t easy.
His passion for hockey was sparked at an early age, when he would accompany his dad, an avid hockey fan, to watch the Tier 3 Junior A Billings Bulls at the 550-seat Centennial Ice Arena.
As a youth player, Doty made the typical climb through the incremental age levels - from mite to bantam - while experiencing some identifiable hurdles along the way. For example, he broke so many $200 sticks as a kid that his parents could no longer afford to replace them, requiring him to use the traditional and less-manageable wooden Sherwood Feather-Lite – a model that can still be found in small quantities in the shadows of your local hockey outlet.
During his final year in Bantams, he tried out and earned a spot on the Junior A Yellowstone Quake, where he started to develop the style that would lead him to the professional ranks.
His game wasn't as sexy as the 30-goal scoring winger’s or the 60-assist playmaking centerman’s. His focus was excelling in doing the simple things well. Sound positional play, smart decision-making in all three zones, and physicality became the pillars of his game.
“For me, there is zero confusion in my role,” said Doty. “I truly enjoy and take pride in my game. It’s simple, but I try to focus mostly on the things I can best control.”
His progression in Yellowstone caught the eye of the next level. During his first season with the Quake, Doty was offered an in-season trial with the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, and after posting 11 penalty minutes in his five-game stint, the Thunderbirds offered Doty a contract the following offseason.
He went on to spend four seasons in the WHL between Seattle and Medicine Hat, racking up 27 goals, 38 assists and 467 penalty minutes in 270 career games. However, his NHL draft year came and went and Doty was once again in need of an opportunity in order to advance to the next level.
That opportunity knocked in the 2013 offseason, as the Blues invited him to tryout alongside their prospects at the 2013 Traverse City Tournament. Once again, Doty capitalized.
“We targeted him because we loved his combination of physicality and smarts,” said Blues Director of Player Development Tim Taylor. “He did everything possible to grab not only our attention, but the attention of the seven other teams at Traverse.”
Doty skated in four tournament games for the Blues while serving 14 penalty minutes, including his most attention-grabbing moment – a fight with Dallas’ Jamie Oleksiak. A heavyweight himself at 6-foot-3, 220-pounds, Doty was shadowed by the Dallas defender, who stood 6-foot-7 and tipped the scales at over 240 pounds. For most of us, logic would prevent our participation in a fight that carried such a disadvantage, but for Doty, there is no time to analyze.
“I think you just need that switch, and I have it,” explains Doty. “I don’t think about a guy’s size or track record before we go, I just react. It’s part of the job.”
He held his own in that bout and in his tournament play overall, earning an invitation to the Blues’ NHL camp a week later.
Though he was an early cut from camp, the organization wasn’t ready to discard Doty. After being sent to finish camp with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, Blues GM Doug Armstrong told Doty’s agent that the team wanted one more look at him before making a decision on his potential future with the organization. That look came in the Wolves’ final 2013 preseason game, and Doty made the most of his opportunity.
The following day, he rushed off the ice after practice to check his phone for the final decision. Still fully dressed in his equipment, Doty frantically sifted through text messages when a call came through – it was Armstrong, who offered Doty his first professional contact.
“The first thing I did was call my dad,” remembers Doty. “Then I called a lot of my close friends from back home. It was definitely my most exciting moment in my hockey career.”
After his first professional season, which included 49 games with the ECHL's Alaska Aces and 15 games with Chicago, Doty currently finds himself in a familiar situation – having to prove himself and earn an opportunity at the next level. But the Blues are confident in his trajectory.
“He has tremendous work ethic,” said Taylor. “He understands exactly what it will take to get to the next level with his game.”
While he possesses the ability and mentality to be a prominent enforcer, Doty acknowledges that the one-dimensional brawler is a dying breed in the NHL.
“I enjoy the ‘enforcer’ role but I know I need to be more than that,” said Doty. “First and foremost, I need to be a smart and reliable player in all three zones. Fighting and protecting my teammates is definitely an element to my game but it can’t be one that completely defines me. I have to bring more to the table.”
This offseason, Doty has made strides in acclimating himself to the franchise and its personnel, spending the majority of his summer in St. Louis working with the Blues’ Strength and Conditioning Coach Nelson Ayotte.
The Blues’ probable 2015-16 roster is virtually full, littered with NHL veterans and exciting young talent.
Cracking the lineup won't be easy, but for Doty, it never has been.