There’s a nostalgic grin that crosses the faces of NHL players when you ask about their first linemates.
It’s like they’re opening up a pack of old hockey cards or thumbing through their high school yearbook. These are the teammates who were in the proverbial delivery room when they were born into professional hockey. Some have remained friends for life.
ESPN asked 25 current and former NHL players about the first linemates they had in the league: how they ended up together, what broke them up and everything that happened in between. The memories they shared ranged from humorous to downright poignant, and no two origin stories were alike.
Each of these players went on to experience other successful partnerships in the NHL. But you always remember your first line.
“First linemates, consistently? Michael Ryder and Chris Kelly. I played with [Patrice Bergeron] and Mark Recchi a little bit, but I was still kind of finding my way. So I stuck with Kelly and Ryder for most of the season, and then into the playoffs, and it worked. My job was to not make an 18-year-old’s decision out there in the Final. Just blend in a little bit, play your 13 or 14 minutes, and take your Stanley Cup. I had fun doing it.”
[Laughs] “My first game was with Alex Kovalev and Peter Mueller. Kovalev! I played three games with him. It was unbelievable. He was so skilled. I had never seen a guy like that who was so skilled. It was a fun time, the time we played together. I knew him because he played in Montreal and Pittsburgh all those years. But it was only three games. I don’t know, it just didn’t work out for him. He started on the first line, then he was on the fourth line, and I don’t know … after that, he just kind of left the team. Then I played with Mueller and Drew Shore. We actually had some success.”
“Oh god. I do remember, but it didn’t last very long. It lasted about three shifts. I had Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagne. And then I went right down [the lineup] because [coach Ken Hitchcock] didn’t let that one roll for too long. Playing with Peter was great. Every day, you’re just in awe of what he could do. That guy was on a different level, and that’s even back when he was battling foot injuries and stuff. But even then he was a magician with the puck.”
“I played with Yanic Perreault and Jason Williams for my first game, which was on the road. Then, my first game at home, I played with [Patrick] Sharp and Tuomo Ruutu. [Jonathan Toews] was out the first four, five games of the year. We were supposed to start together, but I think he had a knee injury or something, so he missed the first couple games. I got my first point on the Sharp-Ruutu line. Sharpie gave me the puck, and I passed it across to a defenseman named Magnus Johansson. He tried to shoot it on net, but Ruutu stopped it and put it in the net. I remember playing with Tazer and Ruutu, as well, we had some pretty good chemistry, then Ruutu got traded for [Andrew] Ladd. Those first couple years, I played with Tazer a lot. We got split up once [Joel Quenneville] came to the team, because he thought it would be better to have more depth throughout the lineup, so I started to play with a lot of different guys.”
“I want to say it was with [Patrick Kane] and Tuomo Ruutu. It was fun. There no pressure on us. Savvy, [coach] Denis Savard, was pretty lenient with letting us go and make plays. Ruutu was a pretty good linemate because he worked hard and was physical. He was a smart player with the puck, too. We were pretty good, to start.”
“That’s the best question for me. My first linemates in the NHL, sorry for them, were Luc Robitaille and Jeremy Roenick. [Laughs] I was thrilled. They were not happy. They were obviously towards the ends of their careers, and I was an up-and-comer. Andy Murray was the coach. And those guys were not happy to be on what might have been the fourth line at the time. Both amazing gentlemen, as you know. But unfortunately for them, I was their linemate. What a career I could have had if we had just scored at our projected pace.”
“Actually, it was the best line you could imagine: It was Burnsy [Brent Burns] and Jumbo [Joe Thornton]. So it was actually a really big line, really fun line, because we were all over 6-[foot-]2 and 220, so it was a big and fun line. Burnsy was still playing forward. For me, or like anybody who started with Jumbo in his prime, it was really fun. Both these guys helped me a lot during my NHL career. “
[Question: “Isn’t Jumbo still in his prime?”] “Oh, for sure! If you’re watching the game, the hockey sense and the vision are still one of the best. And being with him in the locker room is the best. Great guy, fun guy, I really enjoyed my time with him.”
“It changed a lot in my first year, because the lineup changed quite a bit. But I played with Alexandre Daigle. I was a right wing, he was a left wing. And Marc Chouinard at center. It kinda of switched off between Chouinard, Darby Hendrickson and Wes Walz. I was playing under Jacques Lemaire, so lines were changing quite a bit. Wes Walz was an unbelievable leader and taught me a lot. Really helped shape me quite a bit. Darby was an awesome, older vet. Really helped. Daigle was a great player who had a resurgence there, and he was really good for us at the start. I don’t know, I was just trying to survive.”
“Oh man. My first two games [with the Islanders] I played with Richard Park and Blake Comeau. It was the 2007-08 season, in March. I played the last nine games of that year. Park had been around for a while, maybe in his mid-30s. An all-purpose guy. Could play the point on the ‘peeps’ [power play], kill penalties, first line, fourth line … whatever was asked of him. [Comeau] had been there a couple of years, up and down, but we came up together. The line worked really good. I played most of the nine games with them. My first point and goal were with them. My rookie year, the following year, I played with Frans Nielsen.”
“Tommy Lysiak and Darryl Sutter, in my first game against the Red Wings. I was a rookie, 18 years old. Denis Savard, Steve Larmer and Al Secord were the best line. Troy Murray was on the second line. We were probably the third line. Darryl was my first roommate in Chicago when I came to training camp. Tommy Lysiak was one of my favorite players growing up as a kid. Actually, when I was 15 years old, I was starting to become a ‘known’ name, and my friend sent a birthday letter to Tommy Lysiak telling him that there’s this kid in Chicago who’s a big fan and he might make it to the NHL one day, and could he send me something. And sure enough, Tommy sent me a picture that said, ‘To Eddie, I hope someday we can play together, signed Tommy Lysiak.’ Three years later, I was playing with him. I shared that with him when he came back to Chicago a couple of years ago for the Blackhawk convention. That was when he was in and out of being sick. It was really emotional, to show him that. His wife, Melinda, was there. Tommy, being Tommy, asked me how many other hockey players I wrote letters to. And I told him I didn’t write the letter! [Laughs] When you’re 18 years old, and you watch these guys forever, and then you’re playing with them … it’s pretty amazing.”
“Oh, well … they changed them so often, you know? But my center in training camp [with the Flames] was Dan Quinn. It was great. He was a great player. It’s always good to play with a great playmaker. [Laughs]”
“I played with Keith Tkachuk and … who was with us? I don’t know. But when I scored my first point, I was with Brad Boyes and Andy McDonald. That was my second game. Everyone bounced around a lot. Playing with [Tkachuk] was pretty surreal. He was a lot older than me, so we didn’t really relate on too many levels, but he’s one of the legends of the game, so it was an honor playing with him. Being on the ‘kid’ line was hard. [Coach] Andy Murray would come up to us every day at practice, every day, telling us he was looking for our line to make mistakes so he could stop practice [and point them out]. He was an old-school coach. It was hard. But that’s your role as a rookie. Take the brunt of the abuse.”
“My rookie year, I was on a line with Sam Gagner and Robert Nilsson in Edmonton. A bunch of older guys got hurt [in 2007-08], so they put three rookies together. We ended up playing more than we probably should have. It was a fun, fun year. Probably one of my best. Three rookies, playing together, right? Nilsson was very skilled with the puck. Gagner was a good passer. I scored 18 goals in my first year and 18 in my second, so I was scoring at a pretty good clip. We played a little bit of the second year together, but then Bobby got sent down. But it was just a fun line of three young guys.”
“It might have been Dennis Maruk and Guy Charron, in Washington. It was an honor to play with Guy. One of the great statesmen of the game. Dennis was an unbelievable scorer. How many players score 50 goals one year and then 60 goals the next year? Dennis was an unbelievable player, that’s for sure. I ended up playing with Bobby Carpenter. I played with him the year he scored 53, and I scored 50, on the same line. Those were the good old days.”
“The first two guys that I played with were against Dallas, in their home opener in Winnipeg: Alexei Zhamnov and Igor Korolev. It was unbelievable! We scored two goals in the game. Igor was maybe one of the best guys I ever got to play with. Archie [Zhamnov] was just an unbelievable guy. I was so intimidated. I watched Archie score five goals against L.A. and now I had a chance to play with him the next year. It was pretty cool. They both spoke really good English. At that point, my job was to not touch the puck too much and try to, you know, do whatever they asked me to do. Igor and I hit it off in training camp, and we had been together on a couple of lines. I had played with a Russian the year before. With Archie, I just tried to keep up. They broke up the line because I wasn’t scoring enough. But Igor had 10 goals in his first 11 games.”
“I think it was Jordin Tootoo and Eric Desjardins. It was my first couple of games, I was thrown in with them. I was just excited to be there. Excited to play. Those guys are good guys. More hardworking, checking kind of players [than me]. Those two would be running guys over, and I was like, ‘Should I be doing this too? It’s not really my game.’ But you’re playing in the NHL, so you can’t really complain. Tootoo was in, I think, his last full year playing in Chicago and then went to the minors, where he unfortunately had an injury. I got to know him a little bit, but I was up and down that first year. Great guy. All the guys got along with him, too.”
“I was a fourth-line guy. It was probably Eddie Johnstone and Mike Allison. My first game was an NHL playoff game. I was with the Rangers and they were playing the Flyers. I had been in the minors all year. I got called up and was playing the Flyers. I remember Eddie Johnstone’s nickname was Ziggy. I kept saying his first name, and finally he comes back to the bench and tells me, ‘Stop calling me Ed! I don’t know who the hell you’re talking to! It’s … ZIGGY!'”
“I don’t even remember who my center was, but my left winger was Rob Ray. One of the funniest stories: I played a couple of games, and then I played one game in the playoffs against New Jersey that year. I was getting all energetic, that I was going to get on the ice. It was midway through the third period. I had only played five shifts all game long. And I remember [Ray] leaning over and saying, ‘Stop being energetic. There’s no f—ing way you’re getting on the ice. Not a f—ing chance. There’s no chance at all.’ And I’m thinking maybe there is, you know? So after the first overtime period, he had ordered pizza and chicken wings and all kinds of things. I remember going on the ice before the period, and I come to the bench and he says, ‘Hey … there are two X’s here. If we’re sitting in those spots, then everyone is comfortable.’ It’s my first playoff game in the history of my life, and I’m sitting here with BBQ sauce on my jersey, stuck on the bench. And I’m like, ‘Alright, hopefully this improves a little bit.'”
“I played with Kyle Chipchura and Steve Begin. Chipper was great because I was playing with him in the minors, and he got called up maybe a little bit before me, so I was used to playing with him. Begin was an older veteran. At camp, he had always gone out of his way to talk to me and make sure he said really good things and really positive things to me, so I always appreciated that. However, on the next game, I ended up playing with [Alex] Kovalev, and that’s when things got really nerve-wracking for me.”
“I got called up, and I played with John Mitchell and Brian Boyle against the Capitals, on Thanksgiving. First NHL game, and it was pretty sweet. I was playing with John Mitchell in the AHL, we got called up at the same time, which helped: You come up and play with a guy that you’ve already been playing with for 20 games. Plus, he played in the NHL before, so he could show me the ropes. Boyle was one of those guys that was fun to play with. Big body, very vocal out there. He was great defensively, so you wouldn’t spend too much time there. But in the offensive zone, he would just create space. Slow everything down so I could be quick and get on pucks. Things would open up from there. I played a lot with Boyler. First 10 to 15 games maybe, and then on the PK for a few years. He’s a good dude. Good to the young guys. Just a quality guy.”
“I played with Ryan Hartman and [Patrick Sharp]. It was pretty good, actually, Hartsy was pretty gritty and put the puck back, and Sharpie was obviously pretty smart and has a good shot. I was just kind of rolling around there, trying to make my way here. We played together for a lot of the year, and it was fun to play with those guys. I got my first point on Sharpie’s goal. First game, maybe it was like the sixth goal of the game or something. And I didn’t get credit for it, actually, until the next day, so obviously it wasn’t that good.”
“I think it was Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson. Two really good players. Me and Troy found a connection right away in a playoff series [against the Rangers]. We scored a couple of big goals and played really well together. Marcus, I mean, he really took me in when I came to Washington. Showed me around. Made sure that I had a good time and that I wasn’t alone all the time. Coming in as a rookie, it’s tough. It was easier for us because we’re both Swedish and grew up in towns that were close by. He was in that situation before. He was a big thing back home.”
“I was on a third line with centerman Ryan O’Reilly — who you may know of — and Daniel Winnik on the right wing. We were together for a couple of months. Good line, actually. O’Reilly was a stud, in my opinion. An awesome centerman that helped me come into the league and come into my own, I learned a lot from him. I think he was coming off back-to-back 30-point seasons, but he hadn’t come into his own yet. He was a dual threat, but his offensive numbers weren’t there at the time. But the rest is history. We know what kind of player he is today. Winnik was fun. A veteran guy that had been around for a few years. He played with a lot of speed and played the right way. He taught me a lot about how you create scoring chances in this league. About patience and taking care of your own zone first. Good guy, too. Well educated and liked talking to the guys around the room.”
“In [Pittsburgh], it was a bit of a sh– show. I only played 15 games. I couldn’t even tell you who I played my first NHL game with. I played four minutes on a good night. But when I was in Arizona, my first solid linemates were Vernon Fiddler and Daniel Winnik, who was a great skater and went on to have a great career. Fiddler kept me honest. I don’t want to say he was hard on his linemates, but he was professional. He’d show up 3½ hours before game time. [Coach] Dave Tippett loved him, which is why I loved playing with Fidds: He’d actually play him a decent amount. Fidds is hilarious, too. I told the story on the podcast that when I first got there, him and [Keith Yandle] hated my guts. I don’t think they understood my personality. I come in hot. Fidds eventually realized I was genuinely harmless, and that I’d do anything for anyone on my team when asked. Six weeks into it, they’d order a cot for their hotel room, and I’d sleep there instead of my own room because we’d be watching a movie and eating dessert.
Additional reporting by ESPN’s Emily Kaplan.