They were joined at the hip, a pair of charismatic and extremely talented young Winnipeg Jets wingers who formed an instant bond and never missed a chance to take a friendly shot at the other. And so Saturday's news that Patrik Laine had been traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets was an especially tough pill to swallow for Nikolaj Ehlers.
"He’s a guy that I’ve had a really good relationship with since my second year, since his first year. We were roommates together on the first road trip. We’ve been brothers since day one, so this is not very fun. It’s part of the business. It’s the way it goes," an emotional Ehlers said following his team's morning skate at Bell MTS Place.
They actually got a chance to say goodbye in person, as the injured Laine was down at the rink when the trigger was pulled.
"I found out like the other guys in there. Me and Patty are ones that we always joke around. You guys know that. We always chirp each other. So there’s a little bit of joking but we also know that we were roommates for three years. We’ve been really good friends for the last five years. So this is tough. This is not much fun. So he’s a guy that I’m for sure going to miss a lot," said Ehlers, who signed a seven-year contract extension with the Jets in 2017.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler was rather subdued as he fielded questions. There's no question Laine wasn't happy with the fit in Winnipeg, with Wheeler routinely skating on the right-side with Mark Scheifele — a spot Laine felt should be his full time.
"I won’t lie. It’s kind of sad. Just rewind four years ago and the excitement when we drafted Patty and the steps our organization has taken and he’s a big part of that. It’s disappointing to be having this conversation. It’s the nature of pro sports and for our organization, we move forward," said Wheeler.
"I’ll have nothing but good memories of the time spent on the ice with Patty, and some of the steps we were able to take as a team and an organization, they all included his time here. All real positive memories."
The veteran has admitted in the past he can be tough, especially on young players, and there's a wide-held belief that the two often clashed. Wheeler, asked directly if he took some responsibility, gave a candid response.
"Yeah, sure I do because you don’t sit in this situation and have teammates moving on to different places and not recap and recount all the steps taken and how you handled everything," said Wheeler.
"As a veteran player and a captain of this team, first and foremost my responsibility isn’t to Patrik Laine or any one player, it’s to our entire team. I try to do that with how I prepare myself, how I approach the game and, ultimately, how I compete on the ice. So, I try to set an incredibly high standard in doing so."
Despite their obvious differences in how they approach the game — Wheeler eats, breathes and sleeps hockey, while the laid-back Laine isn't quite so dedicated — Wheeler said he always had a positive relationship with Laine.
"Never any fighting, never any yelling at each other. More so just a player in his mid-30s has 20/20 vision. Looking in the past, as a young player I certainly had a lot of habits and things I needed to overcome. So, maybe I could have communicated a little better instead of just getting frustrated. That would be the extent of it," he said.
"Never once was I hard on Patty, far from it. If anything, I was very respectful and coddled a teenager and a young 20-year-old. I don’t regret that but sometimes I wish instead of my instinct is to get frustrated and maybe not say anything, whereas maybe if I could have communicated better, maybe it would have made things better. But, ultimately, I don’t think that would have happened."
There wasn't a whole lot of time to mourn, with the Ottawa Senators in town for a game Saturday night and another tilt on Sunday night against the Edmonton Oilers. And there's clearly an excitement about what Winnipeg is getting in return in the form of 22-year-old centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, a player Ehlers is familiar with from their time together on competing teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"Honestly, he was kind of the same player as he is now. He has the skill. He’s a smart guy and he has speed. That he’s been able to continue doing that and work on it and get better the way he has and become a really, really good player is exciting. So I remember him, a lot of people do. It’s going to be exciting to have him here and maybe we can talk about the Q," said Ehlers.
Wheeler said building up the middle is the key to sustained success in the NHL, and there's no question the Jets just got a lot deeper in that department.
"He really is a tremendous centreman. Definitely excited about what he brings to our team, and watching and playing against him — an incredibly dynamic player that we just added to our team," said Wheeler, who spoke briefly with Laine on Saturday before they parted ways.
"Nothing extravagant was said, I’ll keep our conversation private but there weren’t any smiles, put it that way. I think we were both sad we’re at this point. But he has nothing but a fan in me and that was kind of the gist of it. And don’t hesitate to reach out, don’t hesitate to call not that I know everything or anything, for that matter, but always willing and able and looking to help you. I’ll be cheering for him, there’s no doubt, no doubt about that."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.