TORONTO– In 2008 the Anaheim Ducks used their top-two picks in the NHL Entry Draft to select two defenceman.
They took Jake Gardiner, a native of Deephaven, Minnesota, 17th, and Justin Schultz, from West Kelowna, B.C., 43rd.
Before 2008 they were strangers, but they would eventually become close friends as both were committed to playing for the University of Wisconsin Badgers.
“I met him in Anaheim training camp our draft year,” said Gardiner about his first encounter with Schultz. “I was at Wisconsin already and he was just going in.”
Both born in 1990, Gardiner is the elder by only two days but, when Schultz joined the Badgers in 2009/10, Gardiner already had one season of college hockey under his belt; having been named to the WCHA All Rookie team in the process.
Schultz earned the same honour his freshman year and in 2010/11 they were paired together, becoming the best offensive back-end duo in the nation. Schultz lead all college defenceman in scoring with 18 goals and 47 points while Gardiner finished second with 10 goals and 41 points; both doing it in 41 games.
“Our coach was worried about playing us together because we’re both offensive minded guys,” said Gardiner about being teamed up on the blue line with Schultz. “He’s a really good skater and a guy who can run a power play; really smart with the puck. We’re similar hockey players.”
“I think hes five pounds lighter than me but were both 6’2″ and pretty much the same build,” he added.
On top of leading the league statistically, Gardiner and Schultz were both named WCHA All Stars; proving to the Ducks that their first two picks had a future in the NHL.
But with their games being so similar, Gardiner joking that the only difference is Schultz is right-handed, Anaheim could afford to move one. Gardiner became an asset to the Ducks and his rights were acquired by the Toronto Maple Leafs via trade in February of 2010; ending the chance of Gardiner and Schultz turning pro together.
“We talked about playing pro together,” said Gardiner. “People always asked us about playing on the same pro team, our answer was always were not there yet. We definitely talked about it though because we’re really good friends.”
Gardiner signed an entry-level contract with the Leafs that following March and left Wisconsin after his junior season to finish the 2010/11 season with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.
This year, as a member of the Leafs, Gardiner has had some moderate success and for the most part surpassed the expectations put upon him at September’s training camp.
Schultz is still at Wisonsin playing out his junior year and again leads the nation in defencemen scoring with 1.60 points per game. He is still unsigned by the Ducks but by this spring it will be clear if he will go back for his senior year or not.
Although they aren’t bolstering the same blue line anymore, they stay in touch and even make plans when possible.
“I was actually talking to him a couple of days ago and I’m going to go back to Wisconsin for the All-Star break to see him and get some skating in,” said Gardiner. “It”s good working with him because we teach each other little things.”
Even though they are part of two different organizations, being just 21 years old, both should have lengthy NHL careers ahead of them; which leaves the door open for a potential reunion one day.
“We’ve joked around that someday, maybe we’ll play together again.”