CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - After sharing the blue line for the past two seasons while playing for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program, Max Gildon and Tyler Inamoto believed they'd finally be going their separate ways.
The defensive duo had not only broken into the United States Hockey League (USHL) together during the 2015-16 season, but also teamed up to help Team USA win gold at the 2017 IIHF U18 World Championship in Slovakia.
But as they prepared to head to separate colleges in the fall, both expected the 2017 NHL Draft in Chicago would be the place where the memories stopped, a fitting end to their fortuitous friendship and the start of new, separate chapters on their respective journeys to the NHL.
The Florida Panthers had other plans.
On the second day of last weekend's draft, the Panthers selected Gildon in the third round (66th overall) and Inamoto in the fifth (133th overall), ensuring that the careers of both players would remain intertwined for the foreseeable future.
"It's unbelievable," said Inamoto, who is committed to play at the University of Wisconsin. "I had the opportunity to play with Max for two years and we became pretty close. I think from now until then we're going to continue to be great teammates and great friends. We're going to do our best out there and try to contribute to the Panthers the best we can."
As the first one to be drafted, Gildon had already been through the post-selection media gauntlet (interviews, photos, etc.) by the time the Panthers were on the clock in the fifth round. Watching all of the draft action from Florida's suite at the United Center, the Plano, Texas native admits to letting out a huge sigh of relief after hearing Inamoto's name called.
"I was really excited," said Gildon, who is heading to the University of New Hampshire. "It was definitely a little bit of a relief knowing that I'll have a familiar face with me while I experience all this. I was actually waiting for him up at the suite. He came up and I gave him a big hug. I was really happy for him."
On Tuesday, Gildon and Inamoto were on the ice together again, suiting up for their first-ever NHL development camp at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs.
"We're just excited for what the future holds," Inamoto said after his first day of on-ice drills. "We've been teammates for the past two years and it was really fun getting to know him. He's going to UNH so we're not going to be able to see each other much now. But when we do play for the Panthers, it's going to be a great reunion and we're definitely going to keep in touch."
With an imposing 6-foot-2, 196-pound frame, Inamoto takes pride in his physical approach to the game of hockey. The 18-year-old rearguard tallied 13 points (2-11-13) in 51 games with the USNTDP while also posting seven points (2-5-7) in 17 games with the club in the USHL in 2016-17.
"Ever since we've been able to start hitting, I've just really taken to that part of my game," said Inamoto, grinning. "If the other team's scared of you, it's easy to play against them. I think intimidating the other players is part of my game and I really like to do it.
"Really, it's just an honor being drafted by this organization. I think their team is going to be really good soon. I'm going to try my best to develop as a player and as a person and come in and hopefully contribute to the team one day."
For Gildon, who stands 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, offense is nearly as important as defense. In 2016-17, the 18-year-old had 25 points (7-18-25) in 53 games with the USNTDP and 14 points (5-9-14) in 26 games with the club in the USHL.
"I'd love to develop my defensive side even more," Gildon said. "I want to be someone coaches can rely on, an all-around defenseman. That's what I kind of strive for."
At the U18 World Championship, Gildon was easily one of the tournament's most-productive players, amassing six points (4-2-6) in seven games to help ensure that both himself and Inamoto would be taking home the gold.
"It was unbelievable," Gildon said of the tournament. "After two years of hard work together we finally got to accomplish our goal. It was really fun."
As for future goals, Inamoto and Gildon can now look forward to reuniting every summer throughout their collegiate careers at Florida's development camp, with the hope that one day they'll have the opportunity to once again patrol the blue line together as teammates.
"You can kind of share the burden a little bit," Gildon said of his relationship with Inamoto going forward. "You share the same experiences, the same problems and the same rewards."