It started with a water-bottle prank and ended with another squabble.
Teammates Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat were getting into it at Erie Otters practice.
“Brothers fight sometimes,” said Strome, laughing at the memory from one of their nearly three seasons spent together in the OHL from 2014 to 2017. “We get in the odd tussle here and there, but usually it lasts about five minutes. I was squirting water on him and I undid his bottle, and he tried to take a sip and it went all over his face.”
Fast-forward to 2019, after being drafted by two different NHL teams halfway across the continent, the best friends and former linemates have been reunited in Chicago. Strome, selected third overall in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes, had struggled to carve out a role with the team and live up to his billing as the player taken after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The rangy center also went ahead of a slew of other young stars, including Mitch Marner (fourth), Mikko Rantanen (10th) and Mathew Barzal (16th). Strome collected 16 points in limited minutes across 48 games with the Coyotes between 2016 and 2018. DeBrincat, meanwhile, was selected by the Blackhawks in the second round in 2016, 39th overall, and locked down a spot in Chicago last season, turning heads with 28 goals and 52 points in 82 games.
Strome was off to another tough start with the Coyotes, notching just six points in 20 games, but an end-of-November trade sent the 22-year-old center and Brendan Perlini to Chicago in exchange for Nick Schmaltz. And now the two longtime buddies are thriving together on the Blackhawks. “I was pretty excited,” said DeBrincat, 21, recalling his FaceTime conversation with Strome after the trade. “It sucks to lose a guy like (Schmaltz), but I got my best friend back, so it was pretty good, and it's awesome to see him contributing every night and being one of the go-to guys.”
Since the deal, Strome has racked up 44 points in 47 games, many of which have come while centering DeBrincat, who is in the midst a fantastic sophomore season with 38 goals and 71 points in 71 games. In 537 minutes together, they've been on the ice for 61 goals for and 33 goals against, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton has been impressed with Strome: “Offensively, he's been a big part of the power-play success – a very important spot, net-front – but also five-on-five, whether it was with (Patrick) Kane initially or Debrincat now. He's done a great job of producing for us. And I feel like defensively, he's taken some strides since he's been with us, and if he can do that, then the sky's the limit, especially when you think about how young he is.”
Strome credited his longer leash under Colliton and his place back alongside DeBrincat for his recent success. “I'm averaging around 17 or 18 minutes here, and (with the Coyotes) it was usually 12 or 13, so in the extra seven or eight shifts a game usually you can make something happen. I'm playing with some different guys – some high-end, skill-type guys – and obviously, back with Alex now, I feel pretty comfortable.”
The chemistry they've developed on and off the ice dates back to their time together in Erie, much of which was spent on the same line. During that nearly three-year span, they combined for 271 goals with Strome capturing an OHL scoring title in 2015 and DeBrincat finding the back of the net a league-leading 65 times in 2016.
During his first year with Erie in 2013, Strome lived with Ron and Jen Santos, while DeBrincat spent his rookie season a year later with a different billet. It was a regular occurrence for the Santos family to invite DeBrincat over for dinner – and for DeBrincat to invite himself. “And then he just stopped even asking,” Jen said. “He was here for dinner…He would hang out here until it was time to go to bed.”
So it “made sense” for DeBrincat to move into their basement the following year because he was there all the time anyway.
Part of Strome and DeBrincat's ability to mesh so well comes from their differences. Strome is a 6-foot-3 playmaker from Mississauga, Ont. DeBrincat is a 5-foot-7 goal-scorer from Farmington Hills, Mich. “I guess they are kinda the yin and the yang,” said Otters associate coach B.J. Adams, who oversaw the duo for two seasons, including the team's OHL championship campaign in 2017. “One guy's the shooter, one guy's the passer. One guy's tall, one guy's short. But they make it work. They get along, and it works on the ice, that’s for sure.”
Off the ice, their contrasting personalities are striking as well. Strome is the outgoing one and always had a crowd around him. DeBrincat is more reserved and somewhat of a homebody. But some of Strome's gregariousness rubbed off on DeBrincat. “They really do bring out the best in each other,” said Ron Santos.
Like many siblings, however, they can also get on each other's nerves. “A lot of times, Dylan being the bigger one, he would always kind of pick on little buddy Alex,” said Ron. “But Alex is a kid that doesn't back down, and if you push him too far – well, you see how it is on the ice – he'll only take it so much, and for being small, he'll push back. There were a couple of nights…where there were little miffs with each other, but it never lasted.”
The pair are back together in Chicago with Strome living with DeBrincat for now while he works on getting his own unit in the same apartment complex – but even when they were on different teams, they never stopped rooting for each other. Jen Santos recalled a meet-up she had with Dylan after the Coyotes played the Columbus Blue Jackets only a few weeks before he was traded where he remarked on DeBrincat's “amazing” scoring ability.
“When Alex was doing really well with Chicago,” she said. Dylan never appeared jealous or upset…he was genuinely happy that Alex was doing well. And when Dylan has things, Alex is just as happy for him.”