As Blake McLaughlin readied to jump over the boards for his next shift against Bemidji State, linemate Sammy Walker turned to him.
“This is your time,” Walker said, in a spot-on imitation of Herb Brooks’ iconic “Miracle” speech.
Moments later, McLaughlin scored an unassisted goal that broke a 2-2 tie and led to an eventual 5-2 victory. Not to say that a well-timed movie reference turned around the Gophers season, but before that late December game, the Gophers were 5-9-4. Now, they’re 14-12-6.
Heading into their final regular-season series against Michigan, the Gophers are tied with Ohio State for second in the Big Ten, four points behind idle Penn State. They need at least a regulation and an overtime win, combined with at least one Ohio State loss against Wisconsin this weekend, to take first.
McLaughlin and Walker’s special connection is a big reason for that. From movie quotes to pregame rituals to sensational goals, the sophomores have weathered the ups and downs of their Gophers careers at each other’s sides — literally.
Before every game, the two fist-bump in the locker room after taking off their skate guards and can’t touch again until they fist-bump before skating onto the ice for the game, McLaughlin first and Walker right behind him.
“Now it’s, like, weird not being with him,” Walker said of McLaughlin, whom he plays with, hangs out with, has every class with and very nearly lived with, too.
They weren’t always so attached. Gophers defenseman Ben Brinkman, a childhood friend of McLaughlin’s and Walker’s teammate at Edina, knew how Walker never liked playing against Grand Rapids’ McLaughlin growing up, how the two would always get into it on the ice.
The two first played together at a model camp around age 15 and ended up leading the camp in points by a wide margin thanks to Walker’s speed at center and McLaughlin’s deft passing at winger. McLaughlin could put the puck in places he knew Walker could reach. Walker never had to worry if the puck would be there.
It only took Gophers coach Bob Motzko eight games into last season to realize the two had chemistry.
“When they got put together, it just worked, like, from birth. They belong together,” Motzko said. “It’s like a magnet. You try to separate them, and they end up right back together. And I’m not going to mess with it.”
As freshmen, the two were among the team’s top scorers, with Walker’s 10 goals and 16 assists and McLaughlin’s five goals and 15 assists.
This season hasn’t quite been as free-flowing as when they were unknowns. As top-six forwards, they’re often matched against top lines and defensive pairs. Adjusting to that made for a frustrating first half of the season. While Walker has a team-high 28 points and McLaughlin has 22, the bulk of that production came after the Bemidji State game, 17 points for Walker and 13 for McLaughlin.
Going through those struggles together, though, made it easier.
“Versus the spotlight’s only on one person, it was kind of on Sammy and I,” McLaughlin said. “I’d just be like, ‘We need to step it up.’ And we could always say it to each other because we’re in the same boat the whole time. He’s kind of my pressure reliever because I get more anxiety than he does, he loves it. But I always have to calm him down if he gets slashed, so it kind of balances out. He’ll freak out if he gets slashed, and I freak out before the games.”
When those breakdowns happen, movie quotes lighten the mood. Movies are how the two built their strong bond, after many marathons in the dorms and trips to theaters for new releases.
They’ve developed a sort of secret language pilfered from various scripts. Skating past each other in warmups, they’ll toss out a line from “The Campaign.” When an opposing player chirps, McLaughlin might respond with a line from “Dumb and Dumber,” Walker adding another, all while the opponent looks very confused. Any time there’s a whistle, there’s a quote.
Their motto is “shake and bake” from “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” “Happy Gilmore,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Kicking and Screaming.” All part of the repertoire.
“We keep it loose,” Walker said. “… That’s why we work so well together. And that’s why we have so much fun.”
Or to put it in their vernacular: Did they just become best friends? Yep.