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Bond of Brothers

Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers have forged a close friendship on and off the ice

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick / WinnipegJets.com

From the moment they met five months ago, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers have been inseparable.

"He's like a brother to me," said Ehlers who - at 20 years of age - is the older, more seasoned of the two European 'siblings.'

"You build some good chemistry, friendships and bonds with everybody in here, but with some you just click a little bit better, both on and off the ice. He's 18, I'm 20, we're men, but we're still kids. He's a great guy and super fun to hang out with."

On the ice and in the room, before, during and after practice, the rapport is obvious. They chat and laugh it up between drills, crack jokes at the other's expense, and talk glowingly about how the other has helped make them a better hockey player and above all else, a better person.

After all, they're more than just two of the most offensively gifted members of the Winnipeg Jets; that we've come to expect, and marvel at on what seems like a nightly basis these days. But doing it at such a young age, halfway across the world, has demanded the support of someone who understands theirs better than anyone.

"I know what it's like," Ehlers said. "Everything's new. You're so young and you've really only been focused on one thing (hockey) for so long, you kind of forget about the fact that you're moving so far away and will learn so many new things. I went through it when I was a little bit younger, so I try to help him with whatever I can, whenever I can. The thing is, he doesn't need much help, or so he says. He just handles everything so well."

Video: WPG@BUF: Ehlers goes skate to stick off Laine's feed

Including the media, which is something Head Coach Paul Maurice has rarely seen from someone so young in his nearly three decades of coaching.

"We're all still learning about Patrik," he said. "He has great humility in parts of his game and he has very high expectations of himself on every shift. At the same time, I don't sense that he's a player that would easily lose his confidence. He's had a great amount of success and has great confidence in his ability."

The same can be said about Ehlers, who does have the advantage. Before being drafted and eventually joining the Jets last year, he spent two years with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. There, he had (mostly) Canadian teammates and a billet family helping him adapt to life in North America from the age of 16, before being cast on the big stage, and under the microscopic media spotlight known as the National Hockey League.

On the other hand, this is all new for the 18-year-old. You'd think he would have had trouble adjusting to his new life somewhere along the way, but that just hasn't been the case. He's already played pro. Tampere - his hometown some 200 kilometres from the Finnish capital of Helsinki - is a lot like Winnipeg, too; a smaller community of about 200,000, it's cold in the wintertime and the people there are nuts about their hockey.

Sound familiar?

That isn't to say it's been easy, but the shock of a new culture had mostly worn off (except for these darned one-way streets he made mention of in a previous interview) by the time training camp wrapped up in early October.

"Everything was new when I came here, but it's been really good. The city is great, the people are nice and my teammates - Nikolaj, especially - have been really helpful. I've enjoyed it so much and am very grateful for how everyone has treated me here. It's a great place to live, play hockey and make great friends like Niki."

The two live apart when they're home in Winnipeg, but room together on every road trip, or about 85 nights a year. They pack light and bring an appetite, but never - and we mean never - forget the Playstation and their two favourites, Call of Duty and FIFA '17.

Like the many sleepovers they had with their buddies when they were younger, these two haven't changed a bit.

"Sometimes we go out for dinner with the rest of the guys, but when it's cold outside we like to stay in, play video games and get some room service," Ehlers said. "It's fun every single time we hang out and I'm lucky to have such a close friend on the team."

'Men, but still kids,' all right.

"He's an OK player, too, so I guess that plays a part in our friendship as well," the sophomore said, grinning at his buddy just three stalls over.

"Not as OK as you," Laine, overhearing this, replied, smiling right back before confirming their evening plans.

Asked whether or not Ehlers had any bad habits on the road, Laine could only name one: "Just playing too much Playstation, maybe, if you call that a bad habit," he said, rolling his eyes as if the very idea was out of this world. "We certainly don't think so, but other guys might have some opinions on that."

Ehlers isn't the only one helping Laine's transition to the Manitoba lifestyle. His mom, Tuija, moved here and will stay throughout the season to help her son around the house and around town - a luxury Laine says has been invaluable, as it has allowed him to focus on hockey, and not the little things that can otherwise consume a person's day.

"When I come home, dinner is always ready, so I don't want to worry about those things," he said. "It's also nice not to always be alone, to have someone to talk to in Finnish, and give my English a break for part of the day, even though I think it's pretty good.

"She's great. She loves watching me play and hasn't missed a game yet. It's a good thing I've scored all these goals at home this year, just for her."

On the ice, Maurice doesn't involve himself in their offensive abilities. They're learning the ropes like anyone else, but as he explains, they have to be left alone to help discover the best way to make the most of their impeccable talent.

"Even though they're both really young, there's lots in their game that's still developing," he said, "but they have a really clear idea of who they are as players and that makes it a lot easier to play off.

"There's very little offensive coaching when it comes to those two, especially. I don't want to tell them when to shoot, I don't want to tell them when to make plays…except we tell Patty to shoot all the time. "We want them learning the offensive game in their own minds, because they're special offensive players."

Learning the game, and life, together is exactly what makes this duo so special.

Kids. They grow up so fast.

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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