CHICAGO — Mitchell Marner and Dylan Strome have been competing against each other since they were 10 years old.
They are two kids from the Toronto area, and they are still competing even though there are no more hockey games to play this season. Marner and Strome are two of the top prospects available in the 2015 NHL Draft, which is June 26-27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.
They are also close friends.
"We used to hate each other growing up the whole time," Marner said Monday at United Center. "He was always playing for the [Toronto] Marlies and I was always playing for the Vaughn Kings or Don Mills [Flyers]. We were kind of the head-on-head match of the [Greater Toronto Hockey League] at that time. Everyone knew Dylan and I was kind of a smaller guy that no one really expected too much of.
"I remember at the U-17s, that's when we were first paired together on a line and ever since then we've been best buddies off the ice. Every time we have a chance to be on the same time, we want to be on the same line. Whenever we are at an event like this, we're always close and always joking around with each other."
Marner and Strome were two of the six prospects the NHL brought to Chicago to meet players from the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning before Game 3 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). Though Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are expected to be the top two picks in the draft, the intrigue begins with the third pick and the Arizona Coyotes.
If the Coyotes select defenseman Noah Hanifn, then it will be an interesting few minutes in the Strome-Marner friendship. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be on the clock at No. 4, and one of them would likely be the pick.
"We joke around about where we are going to go," Marner said. "I always tell him that he is going to AZ. We have a good relationship and we can joke about it so it is fun. We joke around a lot with each other. We like to give it to each other. We are good buddies off the ice and on the ice we have a good competition with each other. That's the type of friendship we want to have."
Added Strome: "We joke about a little bit now that the season is done. We just to play it cool with each other. [Marner] might tell you something different but that's him. Whatever happens, happens. I don't know what is going to happen. It is going to be interesting to see."
The Class of 2015 has been anointed as one of the best at this point in the process in recent memory. That, combined with a vast increase in coverage of draft-eligible prospects, has allowed fans to learn a lot more about these players.
The hype for "McEichel" has been tremendous, but fans also have way more access to information about Strome and Marner than, say Strome's older brother, Ryan Strome, who was the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft.
"It's alright. You learn to deal with it," Strome said. "I know there wasn't a lot of media attention around him, but it's just going to keep growing and growing with social media building up and everyone is into that stuff. It's just the way of the world now. Every year there is more and more scrutiny on players and more media pressure. You have to learn to deal with it and keep your cool."
There is also the Toronto element. Anything Maple Leafs related is going to have more coverage and more scrutiny, and a couple of Toronto area kids who might be selected by the hometown team is a big topic in the city these days. Media members and fans alike have gone back and forth on the two, and Hanifin, because of their differences as players.
"Social media has really taken off and people can tweet out whatever they want," Marner said. "It can go from one person seeing to a hundred in seconds. It is crazy how fast it moves around the internet and you have to be careful about what you say, but at the same time it is fun to read some of the stuff."
After speaking to the media Monday morning, the draft prospects met with members of each team and will be at The Madhouse on Madison to watch Game 3 of the Cup Final, with the best-of-7 series tied 1-1. Strome has spent time with NHL players through his brother, but said he hadn't met anyone on the Lightning or Blackhawks before.
For Marner, there were a couple players of particular interest. He has always been considered small, and his size is often a big focus when discussing his draft stock. Two of the top players in this Cup Final, Lightning center Tyler Johnson and Blackhawks wing Patrick Kane, have also dealt with the same questions.
Though Marner played for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League like Kane did, he had not met Kane before Monday.
"I look up to both of them," Marner said. "I didn't really know Tyler Johnson until these two last years. I didn't know much about him, but I've been watching him a lot. He's really surprised me. What he can do on the ice is special. I think he can grow up into a Patrick Kane, and be that kind of player.
"Patrick Kane, I've known about him my whole life. He's been my role model. He's a guy I've always wanted to image my game after. He's a special player. I love watching him. Every time he's on, I'm trying to watch that game and learn from what he does."