There was no way the kids could’ve known. They were barely teenagers back then, far too preoccupied by typical teenage stuff—school, sports, friends, and so forth—to predict where life might dump them a decade down the road. As members of the Chicago Mission program, Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak spent the better part of four seasons terrorizing opposing teams before heading their separate ways. A nice run, they figured, and that was that.
“A lot of fun looking back,” Schmaltz says. “But it’s pretty crazy that we’re reunited.”
Even in the incestuous NHL, where deep-rooted connections are plenty commonplace, the current Arizona Coyotes roster beggars belief. It is strange enough that four alumni from the same American youth hockey outfit wound up together at the sport’s highest level; in addition to Schmaltz and Dvorak, who were born exactly three weeks apart in February 1996, forwards Vinnie Hinostroza (1994) and Christian Fischer (1997) were also reared through the Mission. But what are the odds that two former teammates would not only find themselves sharing the same locker room again, but skating on the ice as linemates once more too?
“It was never really part of the calculus,” Coyotes GM John Chayka says. “It wasn’t like we said, ‘Hey, this is a philosophy, let’s go after this.’ But it’s a nice bonus, that’s for sure.”
As the Coyotes seek to end their eight-year postseason drought—a streak that stretches to ‘11–12, coincidentally enough the last time that Schmaltz and Dvorak were together for the Mission—the team is enjoying the benefits of this childhood connection. Heading into Wednesday night’s 4–1 loss to Montreal, the pair had logged more than 75 minutes at 5-on-5 in ‘19–20, controlling 54.61% of total shot attempts and outscoring opponents 5–3. “There’s chemistry between them,” Fischer says. “Maybe that goes all the way back to the Mission days.”
It is hard to argue otherwise. Once Schmaltz entered the program and began schlepping more than two hours to Chicago from his home in Madison, Wisc., he and Dvorak were virtually inseparable as linemates. “If they weren’t together, it wasn’t for long,” says Dvorak’s agent, Kevin Magnuson. (In another sign of their shared paths, Schmaltz is represented by Magnuson’s partner at KO Sports, Kurt Overhardt.) “They’re different players, but they both think the game at such a high level. They were always on the same page.”
Schmaltz and Dvorak were far from the only highly touted prospects at the Mission; the third member of their trio in ‘10–11 was current Maple Leafs right winger William Nylander, who bashed a team-high 34 goals across 29 games. Competing in the Tier I Elite Hockey League bantam major division that season, Chicago narrowly missed out on capturing the national championship against its rival, a loaded Belle Tire squad from Michigan headlined by current Red Wings center Dylan Larkin and Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski. Even so, Dvorak says, the Mission won the state title every year that he and Schmaltz were teammates.
Under the tutelage of then-coach Anders Sorensen, now an assistant with the Blackhawks organization, Schmaltz and Dvorak were drilled in modern-day possession principles from an early age. “All he wanted us to do was never dump the puck and make plays and be creative and hold onto it,” Schmaltz says of Sorensen. “You can see that in both of our games now.”
As it did back then, the right-handed Schmaltz’s natural playmaking skills mesh well alongside Dvorak’s 200-foot acumen and nose for the net; the former tops the Coyotes with 11 points through 12 games this season, and both are tied for second on the team with four goals. “One fills in the blanks for each other,” Chayka says. “They’re both selfless players, they like to share the puck, play a give-and-go game. What’s really freed up both of them is they like playing center, but it’s tough at a young age to step in and play that position for 20 minutes a night. So those guys can lean on each other.”
The same was true away from the rink. “Ping-Pong, floor hockey, a lot of fun stuff like that,” Dvorak says. Sure, hangout time was somewhat limited thanks to Schmaltz’s lengthy commute across state lines. But the Mission was always hitting the road for tournaments in Detroit or Toronto, leaving plenty of time for bonding. “Pretty good memories,” Schmaltz says. “I think we were close when we were in the Mission, then we went our separate ways, so we didn’t see each other for a while, but it’s been great being back with him.”
The band was officially reformed when Schmaltz was traded from the Blackhawks in November 2018, although they didn’t log a single second together at 5-on-5 thanks to a season-ending knee injury suffered by Schmaltz and a torn pectoral muscle that required surgery for Dvorak. After grueling rehabs—the Coyotes sent Schmaltz to Philadelphia, where he spent 10 weeks with specialist Bill Knowles—both players reported to training camp eager for a fresh start.
No, it wasn’t the Mission ties that led Arizona coach Rick Tocchet to stick Schmaltz and Dvorak together during the preseason, deploying them for a healthy dose of exhibition games. But it certainly didn’t hurt. “It’s been so long,” Schmaltz says. “Chemistry goes away after, what was it, like nine years? It’s been a while. But I think we still can rebuild that. We can play similar games [as] when we were younger. Put two guys like that together, there’s a good chance of success.”
Of course, no line lasts forever. Thanks to a recent injury suffered by center Brad Richardson, Schmaltz and Dvorak were separated amid a larger reshuffling of the forwards. Surely, though, it doesn’t hurt to have an established tandem ready to reunite at a moment’s notice. “Certainly as we talked about building a team here,” Chayka says, “one of the competitive advantages is, if you can get people who grow up with one another and clearly have a care for one another and go through a process together, it allows for synergies and a lot of team-building opportunities.”
The quartet of Mission alumni haven’t taken many deep trips down memory lane, far too preoccupied by the typically demanding NHL schedule, aside from a group locker room picture that Hinostroza texted Sorensen after Schmaltz was acquired. “But every now and then on the bus we’ll talk about those days, or a game or a tournament that we were at together,” Fischer says. “Think about it: We were all at the rink together eight years ago, practicing with our parents there. And now we’re all here. It’s weird. But I love it.”