SUNRISE, Fla. - Mark Pysyk has had the same haircut his entire life.
At least, that's what Alex Petrovic said after a recent practice at the BB&T Center, making sure that Pysyk, unlacing his skates two stalls down, could clearly hear the subtle jab aimed in his direction.
"We call him Lego head," Petrovic said, eliciting a hearty laugh from nearby teammate Mike Matheson. "It honestly looks like he just has a piece of Lego stuck to his head."
Asked to comment on this observation, Pysyk quickly fired back.
"When he was eight years old, he was more mature than he is now, probably," he said of Petrovic, holding back a laugh. "He's got the same terrible jokes, but we have to laugh because we feel bad for him."
This lighthearted back and forth continued for some time, as what started out as a straightforward one-on-one interview quickly evolved into an open forum of back-and-forth banter between the two quick-witted defensemen in the far corner of the Florida Panthers dressing room.
Of course, these tongue-in-cheek remarks are nothing new for the two Edmonton, Alberta natives, born less than two months apart and subsequently attached at the hip throughout a good portion of their youth hockey careers in Canada.
"We've known each other since we were young," Petrovic said of his relationship with Pysyk. "We played U-18 and U-17 together. We didn't partner up all the time, but growing up we had lots of chances to play with and against each other. We also did some summer hockey together as well."
It was at the 2009 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, Petrovic says, that the duo shared what currently stands as their greatest moment together as teammates. In the tournament's semifinal game, Petrovic scored the game-winning goal off a pass from Pysyk in overtime to give Canada Pacific a thrilling 6-5 victory over the United States - a team that beat them 11-0 in the pre-tournament round.
"It was a sick pass," Petrovic recalled. "He skated behind the net and then found me at the top of the circle. I teed it up and, well, that was it."
Flash forward to June 25, 2016, seven years after connecting on that unforgettable goal, when Petrovic and Pysyk, unbeknownst to one another, were both spending their weekends celebrating separate bachelor parties in Las Vegas.
It was the second day of the NHL Draft and Pysyk, who had spent his entire career with the Sabres up until that point, had just received word that he was being traded to the Panthers. As he sat poolside at his hotel, still processing this sudden and impending move from Buffalo to South Florida, his jaw dropped as a familiar face strolled past him - of course, it was Petrovic.
"It was nuts," Pysyk said of the chance encounter. "I was definitely excited. I think he was one of the only guys I knew on the team, so it was good to know that I would have a familiar face when I got here."
In the early goings of the 2016-17 season, the reunion of Petrovic and Pysyk has already begun to pay off for the Panthers, as a lifetime of chemistry continues to mold the duo into an extremely reliable bottom pairing on the team's blue line.
For as much as they like to drive each other crazy off the ice, the duo has proven to be even better at driving possession on it, resulting in a team-high SAT% of 58.09 percent for Pysyk and an equally impressive 56.08 percent for Petrovic at even strength.
"I think we both take pride in keeping it clean and keeping it solid defensively," said Pysyk, who scored his first goal of the season on Tuesday against Pittsburgh. "That's definitely been our focus starting here. The points will come, the offense will come, but we've got to take care of our end first. That's the focus right now.
"We are definitely different players, but it works. Like I said, we're always laughing, joking around. We're pretty comfortable playing with each other, so we're not nervous to make mistakes. I know he's not going to yell at me and I'm not going to yell at him. It's been pretty good."
As for Petrovic, the 24-year-old rearguard is confident that the addition of players like Pysyk, also 24, as well as other newcomers like Keith Yandle and Jason Demers, will go a long way in solidifying a Panthers defense that currently ranks eighth in the league in goals allowed per game (2.43) and seventh in penalty kill percentage (86.7).
"I think that was the main goal of the summer," Petrovic said of the team's new defensive mindset. "We've got some guys that can move the puck. I think it's going really well and [the changes] definitely go well with everyone that we have already. It's kind of what the Eastern Conference is like now, you have to have speed and it also helps to be a big team, too. From last year, it looks like we're just getting better and better."