Patrick Wiercioch's first memory his very best friend is one of burning envy.
He was 9 and playing minor hockey in Burnaby, B.C.; Kyle Turris was a year older and playing for New Westminster.
They were facing off in an atom tournament in Vancouver. Wiercioch knew the skinny blond kid opposite was supposed to be good, but he had no idea Turris was carrying a secret weapon until he looked down.
Wiercioch, like every other kid on his team, was using a wooden stick. Turris was carrying one of the new two-piece sticks – composite shaft, wooden blade insert – and not only that but … "he had his name on the blade.
"I was so jealous," Wiercioch says with a laugh. "He had 'Turris.' Everybody wanted their own blades with their names. This was before you could get them. I remember lining up against him on the faceoff and wondering 'Why can't I have this?' I'm stuck here with a one piece Sherwood something-or-other."
Wooden sticks became two-piece sticks became composite sticks. More than a dozen years passed and today when Kyle Turris and Patrick Wiercioch line up, it is on the same team, the Ottawa Senators, and both are early-season sensations.
They could hardly be different stories. Turris, Wiercioch recalls from their years together on various teams in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, "was already turning heads." Wiercioch not so much.
Turris, a centre, was an elite draft pick in 2007, selected third overall by the Phoenix Coyotes after the Chicago Blackhawks had taken Patrick Kane and the Philadelphia Flyers had chosen James van Riemsdyk. Wiercioch, now a defenceman, went 42nd in 2008, the Senators' second pick following their selection of last year's Norris Trophy winner, Erik Karlsson.
Both players had graduated from the Burnaby Express juniors. Turris went from a year playing college hockey in Wisconsin straight to the NHL and last summer signed a five-year, $17.5-million (all currency U.S.) deal with the Senators. Wiercioch played two seasons at the University of Denver, then joined the Binghamton Senators, Ottawa's minor-league affiliate. They brought him up for eight games two years ago but he did not impress. He stayed in the minors all last season. He makes $875,000 if he sticks in the NHL, falls to $65,000 if he's sent back to Binghamton.
That, however, is unlikely to happen.
Wiercioch knows he is fortunate to be with the big club. Injuries to Jared Cowan and Mike Lundin opened up a place on defence and he has filled it well. It will be a challenge to stick full-time, though, as the team continues to experiment with its defence prospects and Friday night in Tampa Bay elected to sit Wiercioch, despite his fine play, while they took a look at Mark Borowiecki.
And Turris, beyond doubt, has been the Senators' most impressive forward, scoring three beautiful goals in the first two games and showing more speed and responsibility in his first full season with the team (even if it's not truly a full season).
They played spring and summer hockey together in B.C. They were junior teammates. They work out together, often put through the paces by Turris's father, Bruce, who is a member of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. They are both engaged to marry this summer and both spent most of the lockout fall training together in Ottawa.
And both admit they have much to prove.
For Wiercioch, it is obvious: He has to show why he should stay. He set up goals in his first two games, the second a brilliant dance across the blueline and quick pass to Turris, who ripped a one-timer into the Florida Panthers' goal to launch what would become a 4-0 victory.
"It was a very special moment," Turris says. "That was a moment we won't forget for a very long time, to go from being 9 and 10 years old and playing together to playing together in junior in the BCHL with the Burnaby Express to be training every summer together for how many years, to be able to play not only in the NHL together but on the same team together. And to be on the power play together and connect on the power play together is just really neat."
For Turris, there is nothing to prove in his abilities. He is gifted. What he has to prove is his character for, unfairly or not, he carries the baggage of a privileged young man who feels entitled.
This is hardly uncommon in the pampered world of gifted hockey players, but Turris had compounded the image by falling out badly with the coaches and organization in Phoenix, sitting out on his second contract and demanding a trade, which the Coyotes finally granted him 13 months ago when they traded him to Ottawa for a young prospect and a draft pick.
Then there was his short stay this past fall in Finland, where he played 21 games for Karpat in the northern city of Oulu. Published remarks that he says made him "sick" and were a "mischaracterization" of what he said – though he did not specifically deny – showed a spoiled young man taking verbal runs at the country, its food and the rough lifestyle (travelling by bus, eating at truck stops) of professional hockey players.
Turris says the trade to Ottawa was "a breath of fresh air" and that he has learned from his experiences.
"I can't express how thankful I am for the opportunity to be here and be an Ottawa Senator. You're always trying to prove everybody wrong. I'm especially hard on myself, too. I'm always going to be trying to prove people wrong and show that I was worthy."
He has no need to convince Wiercioch, his B.C. buddy.
Wiercioch kept in touch with Turris while the young man was going through his troubled time in Phoenix. Turris more than returned the favour when Wiercioch, playing for Binghamton, took a hard slap shot in the throat during a game.
"When I had my injury," Wiercioch says, "he was the first one to call my fiancée – girlfriend at the time – and make sure she was okay.
"And he called me before the news broke that he was traded. I was just on my way back from Boston getting my throat checked out by a specialist there and preparing myself for the worst. You know, what's the X-ray going to read? What's going to happen?
"He called me and that was the best news of the day. I didn't really care what happened that day, just that he was going to be here and hopefully one day we'd be here."
And now they are – both with a great deal still to prove.