The two families gathered in the backyard along the cul-de-sac in West Edmonton, like they had done many times before. Burgers cooked on the grill, s’mores toasted over a fire, laughter sliced through the smoke. It was the final night in June, but also the early hours of something both unexpected and magical. At one point, a glass was raised. “To the Minnesota Wild,” the group cheered. At long last, Jared Spurgeon and Tyler Ennis would play for the same NHL team.
A few hours earlier, smack in the middle of squatting and deadlifting during an offseason workout at a local gym, their phones had started to buzz. Rumors were already bubbling that Ennis might get dealt from Buffalo, where he had spent all seven-plus seasons of his NHL career. This at least prepared the 27-year-old winger for some change. But the prospect of joining forces with his childhood best friend—the top-pair defenseman and emerging start—in Minnesota? “A dream come true,” Ennis says.
As agent Eustace King broke the trade news over the phone—Ennis and forward Marcus Foligno to Minnesota for defenseman Marco Scandella and forward Jason Pominville—the workout abruptly halted and turned into a celebration. “They both fell over onto the ground,” King recalls, “and started jumping on each other like little kids.” That afternoon, they hit the ice for their first skate as NHL teammates. Spurgeon wore Wild gear. In solidarity, Ennis sported his Sabres stuff inside-out.
Since age 5, Tyler and Jared were inseparable. They dyed their hair blonde together for ball hockey tournaments, hooked walleye on summer vacation near a lakeside cabin owned by Spurgeon’s grandfather, even went on double dates together to movies at West Edmonton Mall. When they were 14, Spurgeon’s family moved into a house located a few hundred yards from the Ennises, making sleepovers a regular weekend occurrence. As were neighborhood contests of tennis, football, and FIFA on Xbox. “His basement was finished, so we played hockey in mine,” Ennis says, “then we’d go hang out on his computer and talk to girls.”
Their hockey lives have followed eerily parallel tracks, too. Born less than two months apart, they were cut as teenagers from the same bantam AAA team in Edmonton, each tagged with the (ultimately foolhardy) reputation for being too small and facing an uphill climb against first impressions. “Ever since that moment,” says Spurgeon, who like Ennis is currently listed at 5'9", “we’ve been trying to prove people wrong.” Since then, each won championships in the Western Hockey League—Ennis with Medicine Hat in ‘07, and Spurgeon for Spokane in ‘08. That June, both were selected at the NHL entry draft in Ottawa, and both have logged more than 400 games.
And now, with their paths converging once again...
“All of our friends are like, ‘Holy crap, this is unreal,’” Ennis says. “As kids we dreamed of making the NHL and winning a Stanley Cup. If we could win a Stanley Cup together, if he could pass me the Cup or I could pass it to him, that would just be the craziest thing ever.
“Of course, it’s already unbelievable.”
Upon hanging up and resuming the workout, Ennis’ mind quickly darted into the future. Luckily, the perfect guide stood nearby.
He began asking Spurgeon for neighborhood recommendations, about Bruce Boudreau and the Wild’s coaching staff, practice drills and breakout systems. Training camp won’t open for more than two months, but Ennis couldn’t wait. “Right now, we’re coming to the gym every day and going, ‘Man, this is awesome, I can’t believe we’re playing together,’” he says. “But I know I can’t just be excited and expect things to be okay. I want this to work. I’ve got to bear down, work hard, and not just be happy that we’re on the same team.”
For all their similarities, Ennis and Spurgeon’s paths have also undulated at different—sometimes opposite—wavelengths. Whereas Spokane picked Spurgeon in the 10th round of the 2004 WHL draft, Ennis went unselected. The roles reversed four years later, with Buffalo calling Ennis’ name 26th overall and the Islanders nabbing Spurgeon at No. 156. (Spurgeon didn’t attend the festivities in Ottawa, but Ennis nonetheless procured an Islanders jersey to bring home for pictures. “So my buddy’s not forgotten,” King recalls him saying.) In 2009, Ennis then made Team Canada’s roster for the under-20 world junior championships; Spurgeon was cut.
“We’ve been through everything together,” Ennis says, “but we’ve also been up and down at different times, and we’ve been there for each other to pick the other guy up.”
Now, Ennis finds himself on the receiving end again. A three-time 20-goal scorer and alternate captain for the Sabres, he only appeared in 74 total games over the previous two seasons, the combined result of a lengthy concussion recovery and groin surgery from a double sports hernia. He welcomes the change of scenery, but with a new GM (Jason Botterill) and head coach (Phil Housley) coming onboard this offseason, it also seemed inevitable.
“He didn’t feel like the same player he was,” Spurgeon says, “but he looks really good on the ice now, like the player he’s always been. Some people had written him off in Buffalo, and I don’t believe that’s the case at all.”
Spurgeon, meanwhile, has blossomed into Minnesota’s most dynamic defenseman. Last season, he led all regular Wild blue-liners in even-strength goal differential, shot differential,and points. Today, Ennis still remembers how furious he was that Spurgeon wasn’t chosen for the under-20s. “It wasn’t fair,” he says, “but it’s just another fork in the road. People think he can’t handle big guys down low, but if you watch Jared, and he’s been like this his whole life, he’s been the best defender. He’s awesome at boxing guys out, tying up sticks, getting in front of pucks, and he’s been like that since he was 10. It just took people so long to realize that.”
The common denominator at every turn? Each other. A picture that occasionally makes rounds on Twitter, submitted by their mothers for a Minneapolis Star Tribune article in 2011, depicts young Jared sporting frosted blonde tips and an Oilers T-shirt at his grandfather’s cabin, one arm wrapped around Ennis’ shoulders. “Looking back now, I’d never get those tips again,” Spurgeon says, “But you should ask him about the bowl cut he was rocking.” Ennis poses a different question: He stood for Spurgeon’s wedding, but didn’t earn godfather status for either of Spurgeon’s two children. “What the hell’s up with that?” Ennis jokes. “I’m due. Give me a middle name or something.”
Instead, he will simply settle for, “Teammate.” Not counting summer shinny games in Edmonton, Ennis and Spurgeon last played together during the abbreviated ‘12-13 lockout, when they signed together (of course) with the Langnau Tigers in Switzerland’s top league. On off-days, they vacationed to Rome and Paris, not quite the lakeside cabin in Alberta. Rather than rent a single apartment for three months, Ennis also squeezed into the Spurgeon family’s extra bedroom. Sleepovers, just like the old days. “I’ve known him for so long,” Spurgeon says, “it feels like having another sibling in the house. Pretty easy to get along.”
As the agent for both Ennis and Spurgeon—and Jared’s older brother, a European-based forward also named Tyler—King understands the power of unbreakable bonds. His best friend since age 6, Matthew Oates, became his teammate in junior hockey and at Miami (Ohio) University. Now they are partners with O2K Management, which originally stood for Oates 2 King.
“A medical impossibility,” King calls Ennis and Spurgeon’s reunion. As in, how in the world could two undersized kids, separated at birth by 54 days, hailing from the same West Edmonton street, wind up employed by the same Western Conference contender? “They’re going to be grumpy old men together,” King says. “They’ll be together forever.”
Perhaps this made King the perfect messenger to tell his clients about the trade. When Ennis hopped onto the phone at the gym, he asked, “This isn’t a time to joke around. Are you serious?”
“Yeah,” King replied, and all he heard next was screaming.