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Pickard, McIlrath reignite friendship with Griffins

Photo: Sam Iannamico

by Jason Pearson | AHL On The Beat

Inquire about their favorite memory as childhood buddies and they exchange looks at each other and laugh. The kind of laugh that only best friends share and the kind of laugh that convinces you there are plenty more good times buried beneath those deep-voiced Winnipeg boys’ LOL than what they elect to disclose.

With a friendship that started at the beginning of the millennium and in a hockey reunion years in the making, eight-year pros Calvin Pickard and Dylan McIlrath are sharing the ice for the first time in a long time while wearing Grand Rapids Griffins uniforms this season.

Born in Moncton, the largest city in New Brunswick, Pickard and his family moved west to Winnipeg in October 1999 and settled in the Linden Woods community, located about seven miles south of downtown.

McIlrath, meanwhile, a born and bred Winnipegger, was raised less than six miles east and just across the Red River in St. Vital. McIlrath started scratching the hockey itch at the age of five and Pickard at six, so it shouldn’t be any surprise they met playing Canada’s national sport.

Nearby areas, which included St. Vital and Linden Woods, merged to form the Manitoba Mustangs spring hockey team. Pickard and McIlrath always played with separate winter clubs, but come spring of 2000, when both were fresh off their eighth birthdays, they were wheeling and dealing with the Mustangs.

From 2000-05, the pair played on the same spring hockey roster; first it was the Mustangs, then the Jr. Moose, then the Jr. Bison.

“Yeah, we got close,” McIlrath said. “And it seemed like every year I would spend my birthday at his house.”

McIlrath is quick to note that several guys who shared those formative years still keep in touch via group texts. One of the notable names among that clan is Manitoba Moose captain Peter Stoykewych.

“We hit it off,” Pickard said of McIlrath. “We had similar personalities and it was just one of those things.”

Photo: Ross Dettman

Pickard’s home, tucked away on Baytree Court, had an “unbelievable backyard,” which included a pool that McIlrath estimates he and other team members frequented three times a week and was the source of many of their favorite childhood memories. One of the dads from the team would host a team-bonding pig roast at the pool, too.

Birthdays would just be the first of many parallels the two would share, or at least coincidentally experience, throughout their careers and lives. The two were born just five days apart, Pickard being the slight elder having arrived on April 15.

In 2008, both left for the Western Hockey League, with McIlrath heading for Moose Jaw and Pickard veering toward the States in Seattle. The Warriors and Thunderbirds were in different divisions, playing the other just once a season.

As the 2010 NHL Entry Draft approached, both were eligible and highly regarded. Several mock drafts had McIlrath going in the first round, and Pickard was rated among the top netminders.

“That summer we were training for the combine together and going through all the interview processes,” McIlrath said. “Both of us getting drafted pretty high was fun and special.”

Although they signed with different agencies, they both were at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for the draft.

“Watching the draft going through the first round and seeing him get called was awesome. It was a dream come true for him and great for me to be there to see,” Pickard said. “And then the next day for me it happened and I got drafted by a good team in Colorado.”

McIlrath was chosen 10th overall by the New York Rangers while Pickard was the third goalie chosen and went 39 picks later in the second round to the Avalanche.

Following the draft, each had two more years of junior hockey remaining but still one more chance to play on the same team.

“Last time we shared the ice was a prospects game. It was a world junior-like showcase where you play against another all-star team, and me and Mac just played awful together,” Pickard recalls with a laugh.

McIlrath was the first to debut, appearing in his first pro game with the AHL’s Connecticut Whale at the tail end of the 2010-11 campaign. Pickard followed suit at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season with the Lake Erie Monsters.

Pickard got his first taste of NHL action with the Avs on Oct. 16, 2014, making 23 saves against the Ottawa Senators. McIlrath had done so 10 months prior, facing the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12, 2013.

Photo: Sam Iannamico

With NHL dreams and a litany of newness -– cities, locker rooms, coaches, living arrangements –- in their lives, it could have been easy for each to just get absorbed into their own situation and grow apart. But that never came remotely close to happening.

“We were best buddies growing up,” Pickard said. “We were best buddies when we left for juniors and best buddies when we left for pros. You’re going to keep in touch with guys like that.”

The two exchanged texts frequently and Facetimed once or twice a week to keep tabs on each other.

“In the summers, we both call Winnipeg home so that wouldn’t change,” McIlrath added. “We were good friends to begin with.”

The 2012-13 season marked the first full pro campaign for both players, with McIlrath in Hartford and Pickard in Cleveland. To date, Pickard has over 100 NHL games and McIlrath an even 50, but the two had never faced each other as pros.

As only fitting, the two won Calder Cups in consecutive seasons –- Mac with Grand Rapids in 2017 and Picks with Toronto in 2018.

McIlrath’s dizzying 2016-17 season, during which he suited up for five teams, would only be nearly duplicated by Pickard two seasons later. McIlrath was assigned to New York’s AHL affiliate in Hartford before being traded to Florida and appearing in games with the Panthers and AHL Springfield and then finally being dealt to Detroit and ending up in Grand Rapids. The missing piece to the Griffins’ championship puzzle, McIlrath immediately provided physicality, sturdy blueline play and dependable leadership.

“Going through that that year was tough, but it just made you appreciate what you have,” McIlrath said. “Ending up in Grand Rapids at the end of it made it that much sweeter since we were able to win a Calder Cup. You just have to embrace the journey.”

Pickard and his creasemate in Toronto, Garret Sparks, posted the AHL’s best goals-against average during the 2017-18 season, which culminated in the Marlies defeating Texas in Game 7 of the Finals on June 14.

Pickard drew out the Cup festivities with teammates as much as he could, but another massive celebration was waiting for him at home. Calvin and his bride Courtney got married just eight days after the series concluded. Continuing the theme, Dylan and Melissa tied the knot three weeks later on July 14. Both stood up at each other’s weddings.

“We got a 2-for-1 wedding package,” McIlrath said sarcastically. “Every year we are the same age and we both got girlfriends at the same time, so it just kind of worked itself out that way. We were, what, three weeks apart? Coincidence, but we obviously kept in touch.”

Following Pickard’s wedding, his career went on a ride rivaled previously by McIlrath’s. He was put on waivers by the Maple Leafs only to be claimed by Philadelphia who subsequently ended up putting him on waivers for him to be claimed by Arizona.

“It’s not easy. It’s tough always meeting new people and going into different locker rooms and moving your wife around – and dog,” Pickard said. “It’s tough to get any sort of stability hockey-wise but you see a lot of people go through it. Mac’s gone through it and a lot of people I know have gone through it so it’s easy to talk to those guys about it.”

Pickard’s whirlwind season left him an unrestricted free agent this summer. He appeared in only 21 games total last season between Philly, Arizona and the AHL’s Roadrunners, and was seeking to get back into a rhythm and find team consistency. The Red Wings were searching for a third goaltender who not only had a proven NHL pedigree but would also be willing to help guide rookie prospect Filip Larsson, and Pickard fit the bill.

Among many common bonds between them, Dylan McIlrath and Calvin Pickard are both Calder Cup champions.

As they always do, McIlrath and Pickard returned to Winnipeg after last season to spend their summer and train. The two live 2-3 minutes apart in a newer residential development in their hometown, carpooling to the gym and/or rink most days. McIlrath, entering the first of a two-year extension with the Wings following re-signing last spring, is firmly entrenched in the Winged Wheel organization, especially after logging seven games in the NHL last season. But there was no “Hey, come play here solely because I’m here” sentiment from McIlrath. First and foremost, the two-year contract and outlook Detroit presented to Pickard was solid.

“In years past we were always talking about how we have to play together at some point and then this opportunity came up,” Pickard said. “Having him here aside, it was a great opportunity for me and a great organization. But to have him here is awesome.”

“Him ending up in Detroit, I mean I happen to be here too, but it was a great opportunity for him mainly,” McIlrath echoed. “Now it’s gravy that we’re on the same team.”

As NHL veterans on an uber-talented Griffins team that is chock full of future Red Wings, the duo’s importance to the club both on and off the ice can’t be understated.

“It’s a great locker room here, a lot of young guys,” Pickard said. “It’s good to talk to these guys because it seems like just yesterday we were rookies. Having an older guy talk to you about things is nice to have. It’s fun to go through the season with these guys and it’s going to be a very exciting team.”

Maybe a few more memories from this season can be added into their best friends’ encrypted laughter during this exciting time in the organization.