LAS VEGAS — Eleven months ago, Erik Haula was vacationing along the picturesque beach coves of Capri, relaxing beneath some smooth Italian sunshine and celebrating the new contract he had just signed with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. Thousands of miles away, though, his close friend was fretting over FaceTime, uncertain about whether he was coming too. “I just have a feeling that you’re going to end up in Las Vegas,” Haula said.
“Yeah,” replied Nate Schmidt. “We’ll see.”
Contrary to popular belief, the scrapheap roster that assembled for training camp last fall—long before the Golden Knights reached the Stanley Cup Final as the wildest success story in sports—wasn’t entirely filled with faces unfamiliar to everyone involved. Small reunions dotted their inaugural roster, from winger James Neal and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (Pittsburgh, 2010-14) to future top-liners Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith (Florida, 2016-17). But no castaway couple had known each other longer, or established tighter bonds, than these summer training partners and fellow softball sluggers, teammates for three seasons with the Minnesota Gophers, junior-year roommates inside Apartment 110 at 1301 University Avenue.
“Absolute chaos, is what that place was,” Schmidt says. “I’m pretty sure no one ever cleaned it, either.” Bequeathed from generation to generation of men’s hockey players, the layout resembled any standard college pad: sticky floors, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, three TVs in the common area for maximum multi-screen experience. Parties were common, video game tournaments even more so. Five Gophers lived there in 2012-13, coincidentally comprising their entire top power-play unit: Schmidt, Haula, triggerman Nick Bjugstad, center Kyle Rau and winger Zach Budish. This made for a roller-coaster postgame ride around the ol’ homestead.
“If we scored a bunch of goals, we’d be all happy,” Schmidt says, laughing. “If not, we’d come back and be like, ‘COME ON! YOU’VE GOT TO MAKE THAT PLAY TO M!’ Which was always really fun. You could always sit back and poke the bear a little bit, especially if it was Haula versus Bjugy. Or Haula versus the world, against everyone.”
Five years later, they still make for an unusual match. “Maybe opposites attract,” former Gophers assistant Mike Guentzel says. On the one hand Schmidt acts like skating rays of vitamin D, a no-bad-days defenseman with all the body language and general life zest of a Muppet baby. He is a cosmopolitan soul who listens to jazz and takes swing dancing classes; who briefly forayed into a college business selling tea beer; who broke the campus record for most tacos consumed on Taco Tuesday. “It was like 17 or 18,” Haula says. “We couldn’t believe it.”
Standing across the Golden Knights dressing room at their suburban practice facility, Haula recalls how he occasionally clashed with Schmidt’s personality as freshmen at Minnesota. “I’m intense,” he says flatly, an attitude that more than once spilled into shouting matches with teammates at practice. “He’s just always having fun. We’re different.” Haula pauses. “I obviously love him for it. It puts a smile on my face being around him now.”
And why not? They are helping Vegas shatter history now, Schmidt as the No. 1 blueliner averaging almost 25 minutes per game in the playoffs, Haula as the second-line center who finished one shy of 30 goals during the regular season. They live less than five minutes from one another now, not quite within shouting distance across the hall, but still close enough for regular dinners and poolside afternoons. And when Schmidt was busy house-hunting upon moving to town last fall, Haula opened his doors (and spare upstairs bedroom) like old times.
Rung by rung, they have slowly climbed hockey’s ladder together. Both were sought-after recruits as teenagers out of the USHL, though Haula had been drafted 182nd overall by the Wild in 2009 while Schmidt went unselected altogether. A multisport athlete from St. Cloud, Minn., Schmidt endured a tougher freshman season under coach Don Lucia, flipping between defenseman and forward, struggling with both conditioning—“a little roly-poly,” Lucia says—and overzealous instincts while carrying the puck. “It’s like a quarterback,” Lucia would tell him. “You can’t always throw in double coverage, it’s okay to check down to a different receiver.”
Schmidt buckled down before the following fall, eventually blossoming into an All-American best known for clinching the 2011-12 WCHA title with a dazzling toe-drag in the third period against Wisconsin. Originally hailing from Finland and delightfully nicknamed the Finnesotan, Haula meanwhile led the Gophers in points as a sophomore and junior before leaving to join the Wild. That same spring, Schmidt agreed to terms with the Capitals, staying loyal to an organization that had invited him to several development camps; Bjugstad still remembers him signing the contract at the kitchen island inside Apartment 110, a massive grin spread across his face.
The good times are rolling again with the Golden Knights, four wins away from the Stanley Cup entering Monday’s Game 1 against none other than Schmidt’s former team. Upon finally receiving word that he was leaving Washington, Schmidt quickly dialed Haula in Italy. They spent the summer around Minneapolis as usual, working out with fellow Gophers alumni and wreaking havoc on the softball diamond (Bjugstad reports that Schmidt is especially dangerous). All the while they looked ahead to Vegas, wondering what their reunion would have in store.
“Maybe someday we’d talk about we’re going to have such a great time together and start over and see what we can do,” Schmidt says. “No one would’ve ever thought this would be where we’re at.”