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Continued: Best of buds can say, 'We made it' with Wild, Sabres

  • Article by: KENT YOUNGBLOOD , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 7, 2011 - 5:47 AM

It's hard to pinpoint when a dream that comes true Sunday really began.

Fifteen years ago maybe? That's when Tyler Ennis and Jared Spurgeon became teammates as youngsters in Edmonton. That's when they started hanging out together. Hockey in the basement, sleepovers, boot hockey, summer fishing trips.

"I could see his house from my house," Ennis said. "We were on the same team ever since."

Four years ago? That's when the two finally split, Ennis played junior hockey in Medicine Hat, Alberta, while Spurgeon went to Spokane, Wash. Each one would look around at his teammates, the kids who were getting drafted by NHL teams, and think, "I could get there, too."

No matter what anyone else thought.

Today both are undersized, overachieving NHL rookies. The 5-8 Spurgeon is a defenseman for the Wild, the 5-9 Ennis a left winger for the Buffalo Sabres and a Calder Trophy candidate. When the Sabres face off against the Wild at Xcel Energy Center, the 21-year-olds will fulfill a dream they formed together, well, let's say a long time ago. With a twist -- their dream was always to be NHL teammates.

Well, this will have to do. Two rookies, one dream, one big statement: There is a place in the game for smaller players.

"We always thought we could go far, deep down," Ennis said. "We thought we were better than a lot of people. When we started to realize size would be an issue, that we were going to have to battle that adversity, it was easier to have someone to go through it with."

Short guys?

Ennis' and Spurgeon's fathers helped coach the boys' teams growing up. One year Barry Spurgeon would be the head coach and Bruce Ennis the assistant. The next year they'd switch. The parents grew close, too. Bruce and Diane Ennis will take the short walk over to watch the game Sunday with Barry and Debbie Spurgeon.

"Here's what's incredible," Bruce Ennis said. "Both are undersized kids who constantly were afterthoughts. These were two very sound hockey players. All they did was score and play good hockey. But, as things went on, as more scouts were hanging around, they were always stuck in the back of the bus."

Both were cut from the same AAA bantam team on their first try. When it came time to go to junior hockey, Spurgeon was a late-round draft pick and Ennis wasn't picked at all; he had to try out for Medicine Hat. Yet both became big-time stars. Spokane won a Memorial Cup as Canada's junior champion, and Spurgeon was the top scoring defenseman and the best plus-minus player on the team. Ennis' team finished runner-up for a Memorial Cup, with Ennis scoring 50 points.

When Ennis wasn't drafted by the juniors, it lit even more of a fire. When Ennis went to the World Juniors and Spurgeon didn't, it was the same thing. Ennis was a first-round pick by Buffalo in 2008 while Spurgeon was drafted in the sixth round by the New York Islanders, but wasn't signed. After another year of juniors, Spurgeon hooked up with Ennis' agent, Eustace King, who arranged a tryout with the Wild in 2010. Spurgeon got an invite to training camp. He made enough of an impression there to earn an actual contract, then a late-November callup. He made his NHL debut on his 21st birthday.

Ennis was the American Hockey League's rookie of the year last season before getting a late call-up. He has 38 points in 64 games this season. Spurgeon is a plus player for the Wild.

"All we wanted to do was play hockey and make the NHL," Ennis said. "Every day, all day, we played hockey. I think this is a pretty cool story. A couple kids who grew up together, to make it. We always thought we could."

Meeting at last

Both kids had unfinished basements, meaning basement ball hockey. The games are legendary in that neighborhood. Current NHL players Theo Peckham and Troy Bodie also were involved. Ennis' mom sometimes paid the price. She cut hair in the basement. One day an Ennis shot caromed off the wall and hit her in the jaw.

"I ended up getting four root canals," Diane Ennis said. "That's the sacrifice you make."

Barry Spurgeon recalls taking Ennis with his family to the cabin every summer, the kids tubing together, driving together to watch Spurgeon's older brother play.

Barry also remembers two kids determined to beat the rap that they were too small to play.

"It made 'em want it more," he said.

And now, finally, they meet in an NHL game.

"He's doing well, and he's only going to get better," Ennis said of Spurgeon. "He's going to flourish. He's got the best vision I've ever seen."

Said Spurgeon of Ennis: "He's a very shifty player, very good with the puck. He looks a bit skinny, but he's very strong on his skates. He's like a waterbug out there."

When asked who would win that first battle in the corner, Ennis predicted a tie. When asked if he'd take his first chance to check Ennis, Spurgeon said, "If I went to hit him, he'd probably do a pirouette around me."

Nice, politically correct answers. But you have to know this is a dream matchup for both.

"Growing up, we always had the competitive edge to make each other better," Spurgeon said. "So we could never let those critics who said we were too small be right."

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