On the day they were both drafted by the New York Rangers, prospects Marc Staal and Tom Pyatt already had a lot in common.
|Close friends Tom Pyatt, left, and Marc Staal have been either teammates or opponents throughout the past eight years.
The were both from Thunder Bay, Ontario. They were both younger brothers of NHL players. They were also both heading into their second year in the Ontario Hockey League and top candidates for Canada's World Junior Championship team.
But the strongest bond they shared -- one which Rangers scouts didn't even know about during that fateful NHL Entry Draft in Ottawa on July 30, 2005 -- was a close, personal friendship. Soon after they first met playing hockey as kids in Thunder Bay, Staal and Pyatt became buddies -- and remain the best of friends to this day.
"We're from the same town and we hang out all the time back home," said Pyatt. "I've known him for years now, and over the last few years we've gotten even closer."
Born 32 days apart in early 1987, Staal, a defenseman selected in the first round, and Pyatt, a center taken in Round 4, are among the very best prospects in the Rangers organization. They have spent the last three seasons in the OHL -- Staal with Sudbury and Pyatt with Saginaw -- and have been teammates on two Canadian gold medal-winning World Junior Teams, earning back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.
Now, at age 20, Staal and Pyatt are getting set to play their first full professional seasons as members of the New York Rangers organization. When they arrive at the Rangers' training camp in September, both will be gunning for a spot in the NHL. Should they not crack the Blueshirts' roster, one or both might open the season in Hartford, where Staal spent the end of the 2005-06 season and Pyatt closed out 2006-07.
"It's definitely nice coming here and having a close buddy like that," said Pyatt. "It makes things easier coming here and hopefully pretty soon we'll be playing with each other."
Even if they weren't such good friends, the similarities between Staal and Pyatt would be striking, particularly in terms of their family backgrounds.
They grew up playing on the outdoor rinks in their Thunder Bay backyards – rinks built by their fathers, who pushed multiple sons into hockey at an early age.
Staal's father, Henry, and Pyatt's dad, Nelson, already know what it means to have a son in the NHL. In Henry Staal's case, it's two sons, because Marc's older brother Eric has been a regular in the league since he was drafted by Carolina in 2003, and younger brother Jordan hit it big last season as an 18-year-old rookie with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Marc's road to the NHL was always expected to require more time than his brothers', because he is a defenseman rather than a forward. While forwards sometimes make the leap to hockey's top level in their draft year, defensemen can take up to four years to be ready for NHL action. Staal has a chance to make the Rangers' roster in just his third season after the draft.
For Pyatt, there is not just an older brother to emulate, but a parent as well. Brother Taylor Pyatt, drafted eighth overall in 1999, has been an NHL regular for six seasons, and father Nelson Pyatt played 296 NHL games with the Red Wings, Capitals and the old Colorado Rockies team that later became the New Jersey Devils.
"It was pretty neat to have a dad that played in the NHL, and then I got to see my brother grow up and make it to the NHL," said Pyatt. "My dad put me into it (hockey) when I was pretty young. We had a backyard rink, too, just like the Staals. So I was there all the time."
Nelson Pyatt played both left wing and center during his six-year NHL career. That proved to be a foreshadowing for the next generation, since Taylor plays left wing, and Tom plays center.
Both of the Pyatts were drafted by the same scout. Gordie Clark, who has been with the Rangers since 2003, had scouted Taylor during his days with the Islanders and later was part of the scouting team that drafted Tommy.
Clark was also at the table when Staal was drafted 12th overall in 2005 -- a pick the Blueshirts traded up for on draft day. When Pyatt was taken three rounds later, all of the Rangers scouts were pleasantly surprised to find out that these talented young players already had a connection.
"It certainly was a coincidence (that we drafted both), because that's oftentimes how the draft works," said Rangers head coach Tom Renney. "You've got certain people identified, and when they fall into your lap, naturally, you're happy about that. We knew where they were from, so we wondered if maybe there was an acquaintance there, but not to the depth that there was."
Renney said if the Rangers representatives at the 2005 draft hadn't taken time to inquired about the Staal/Pyatt friendship, they might not have known about it until much later.
"If you know these guys at all, you know they're pretty low-key guys," said Renney. "They're very respectful, humble people, and they certainly were that day to the point where you wouldn't have known it if you didn't ask."
While the Rangers scouts were unaware of their close friendship, both Staal and Pyatt immediately appreciated that the draft gave them a special opportunity to be teammates again.
"Two years ago, we were so young coming into training camp," Staal recalled. "It was nice to have someone that you know around. It makes you that much more comfortable around other guys."
Staal still remembers the first time he met Pyatt.
"We were on the same team when we were 13," said Staal. "It was a Triple-A Kings team, and then we played together when we were 15, so we were on a few teams together."
Even before that first year as teammates, Staal and Pyatt were well aware of each other as top talents in their age group. Pyatt remembers playing against Staal as a 12-year-old, and they wouldn't regularly face each other as opponents again until they both reached the OHL in 2004.
"It's fun to go against him (Pyatt) in the OHL," said Staal. "It's funny to see him on the other side. It's always a little bit different going against someone you know and someone you are friends with. The last couple of years, he has won the games against us. I don't know why that is. He usually does pretty well against Sudbury, ... but one time I caught him pretty good. I don't know if he remembers, but he came just inside the blueline and I hit him pretty well."
While they both hope to raise the Stanley Cup as Rangers teammates in the near future, Staal and Pyatt already have shared the thrill of victory at the World Juniors, and their performance on that international stage helped raise both players' stock as potential NHL stars.
"It was definitely the best experience I've had in hockey so far, winning two gold medals like that," said Pyatt. "The first year it was a little different because I was more of a defensive forward in that tournament. My second year I was more of an offensive player on the top two lines and got some power play time. So I had a chance to play two different kind of roles for that team, and that's good experience for me."
Staal, named the tournament's top defenseman in 2006, said one of the things he will remember most about his World Junior experience was having Pyatt on his team.
"It's been fun to share the experience with one of your friends," said Staal. "We get to be around one another a lot, so to win something like that with someone like that, it's fun."
Renney agreed that Staal and Pyatt are fortunate to know each other so well as they begin their professional careers.
"If nothing else, they start this journey together. So they have each other to talk to about it. To share thoughts on how this day is going and how this is going for them," said Renney. "They can reference that together because of the depth of their friendship, and I think that is important because there will be tough times as they go through this thing, too, and to have each other to lean on and talk that through is critical."