Lifelong friendship leads Poulin, Légaré to Wilkes-Barre

Photos: KDP Studio

📝 by Nick Hart | AHL On The Beat

Nathan Légaré sat nervously in his seat at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, B.C., as the big draft board in front him changed. The 74th overall selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft switched from belonging to the Arizona Coyotes to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Still too anxious to process the potential implications of the pick swap, Légaré sat stone-faced until he heard the words that he had waited all weekend to hear.

“Pittsburgh selects Nathan Légaré from Baie-Comeau.”

Elated, the 18-year-old forward leapt from his seat, met the management of the team that drafted him, donned his black and gold jersey, then turned and looked back at the stands. There, he saw an old friend cheering him on. Légaré locked eyes and extended a knowing point to his friend.

That friend in the stands was Sam Poulin, drafted by Pittsburgh the day before at 21st overall.

“It’s funny, but I had a little feeling when I heard that trade, I don’t know, like I just felt they were taking him,” Poulin said. “As soon as I heard his name, I was really happy.”

Nathan Légaré was a third-round draft pick by Pittsburgh in 2019. (Photo: Kevin Light/Getty Images)

Poulin’s happiness derived from the fact that he and Légaré had known one another since they were seven years old. Fast-forward more than a decade later, and not only were they both drafted by the same team, but they’re both beginning their pro careers together as Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Poulin and Légaré first met with Sam’s father, former NHL and AHL winger Patrick Poulin, was assembling a spring league team in Québec. Légaré was one of several players Patrick brought on to, well, run roughshod on the area’s youth hockey scene.

“I think around 10 players on that team went on to play in the QMJHL,” Légaré says. “So we were pretty good. I think his dad made a pretty good choice.”

That spring/summer team would take different shapes over the years, but Poulin and Légaré were always on the squad. Their skills were evident from a young age. So was their tenacity in puck pursuit. Many of the attributes that were so attractive to scouts later in life were on full display while they shared the ice together on that juggernaut club.

Eventually, the duo went their separate ways once they entered the junior hockey ranks. Poulin became a star in the QMJHL. Ditto for Légaré. The former produced at an impressive 1.19 point-per-game pace, while the latter amassed over 100 career goals.

As fate would have it, they reunited during the 2020-21 season as trades sent them from their original junior teams to Val-d’Or to chase a QMJHL championship. During that playoff run, Légaré led all players with 14 goals. In second place: Poulin, with 11 goals.

Now they’re traversing the world of pro hockey and one another’s sides. For many players, the adjustment is difficult. No longer do you have the support system of a billet family, plus on-ice expectations rise while competition only gets tougher.

Having a familiar face with you at the start of this journey is more important than one could realize. Just ask Penguins assistant coach Kevin Porter.

Porter became good friends with Chad Kolarik when they were teenagers. While Porter was from Detroit and Kolarik from Philadelphia, they were often invited to United States Selects Tournaments and international events for USA Hockey. Naturally, Porter and Kolarik were both drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004. They both spent four years together at the University of Michigan, and then turned pro together in 2008.

“At that point, we were best buddies,” Porter said of he and Kolarik. “It was huge to have him there, because you go to your first training camp and you don’t know anybody. It’s pretty nerve-racking, so to have your best buddy there made it a lot easier.”

Sam Poulin was taken 21st overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. (Photo: Derek Cain/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That’s exactly Poulin and Légaré’s relationship at this point. On their own, a 20-year-old, highly touted forward prospect with a lot expected of them could easily struggle with the pressures of pro hockey. But two 20-year-old, highly touted prospects who have a near-lifelong friendship with one another can withstand the pressures and pratfalls together.

Légaré admits that he and Poulin will immediately seek help from the other if they are having trouble working through a drill at practice. They sit next to one another in the locker room, absorbing video study and team meetings in tandem. They often time their game day routines to stretch and warm up together too.

Away from the rink, they like to get together with the Penguins’ other Québécois and have watch parties of their favorite reality dating show, Occupation Double.

“We’re just glad that we’re there for one another,” Poulin said. “We’ve spent a lot of time together, and we still get to do that as players, in the room, and off the ice.”

They’ve been right there for one another’s big moments as pros, as well. When Poulin notched his first AHL goal late in regulation on Oct. 29 to force overtime, guess who was on the ice at that same time to immediately join the celebration? You probably don’t need more than one guess. It was Légaré.

One night later, Légaré scored his first AHL goal, an overtime game-winner. One of the first players to mob Légaré was his old buddy, Poulin.

To this point, their careers seem inextricably linked. Whatever milestones come next in their pro journey, chances are they’ll be right next to one another when it happens.

Just like they were for their first goals.

Just like they were on draft day.