They were buddies almost at first sight.
David Pastrnak thinks he was still nursing a broken wrist and playing for the under-18 team in Södertälje, Sweden, when he popped over to watch the under-20 team practice. William Nylander was there taping his stick.
That’s when they met. Pastrnak spoke almost no English, only Czech. It didn’t matter. They clicked.
For parts of two seasons, Nylander and Pastrnak, two of the most electric players in the NHL today, both All-Stars this season, both No. 88s for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, were teammates and linemates as teenagers in the Södertälje program.
It was the first preview, an alluring one as you can probably imagine, of what was to come later.
“We were just kids living the dream, playing pro hockey,” Nylander said. “We were just having a blast.”
It didn’t even matter that they could hardly communicate in the beginning.
“I honestly think once we got together on the team and started playing together as a line it was like instant chemistry between us,” Pastrnak said. “I didn’t speak that much English so I think on ice — playing on the same line, the chemistry was the big part. We became good friends because we liked playing with each other and we understood each other on the ice. That was important.”
Nylander helped with English lessons. “He was always trying to help me,” Pastrnak said, “especially when I used a simple word instead of using the right word, he would try to tell me the right word for finishing the sentence.”
For a while though, Google Translate often had to suffice.
Nylander was still going to school in Stockholm, about a 45-minute drive from the city of Södertälje, where Pastrnak lived and both played. Nylander would often stay the night at Pastrnak’s place after a game if they had an early practice the next morning.
They would hang out and play video games — “FIFA” was king — communicating through their phones. Nylander would jot something down into Google Translate, translate it to Czech, and show it to Pastrnak and vice versa.
Pastrnak laughs at the memory. “That happened a lot during my time in Södertälje until I learned English,” he said.
He not only learned English, but Swedish too.
At that time, Nylander was the more advanced player in Pastrnak’s estimation.
Pastrnak remembers being a top-three player back home, but Czechia is a small country. In Södertälje, Nylander set a pace for him to chase.
“He definitely motivated me more at that time than I did him,” Pastrnak said “Back then in Sweden, I didn’t think of myself as a top player but I was hanging out and seeing him every day, and I knew he was a good player, so I was trying to pretty much keep in step (with him).”
Nylander was ranked second among European skaters ahead of the 2014 NHL Draft, three spots in front of Pastrnak.
Not surprisingly, their collective skill was mesmerizing even then, as teenagers at 16 and 17 years old. So was their work ethic.
“I just remember them being super talented already back then, really skillful players. But also, hardworking guys,” Jesper Frödén, a teammate in Södertälje, said. “You would always see them staying out late after practices and working on those skill things, working on their shots. You could tell right away that both of them really loved hockey.”
Pastrnak has since become a 61-goal scorer in the NHL, but at that point, Nylander had the bigger, harder shot. Both were similarly sized, but Nylander, trained by his former NHL-playing father, Michael, was physically stronger at that point.
“He had a really good shot — already,” Pastrnak said of Nylander, on pace for his second consecutive 40-goal season with the Leafs. “You could see he was built like a hockey player already at that early age. He was very strong. We were the same age, but I came there and I was a skinny guy. You could see he was so much stronger than me at the time.”
“He was a pretty similar player when we were younger as he is now,” Frödén concurred of Nylander, picked eighth by the Leafs in 2014. “Like, super skillful.”
Same deal with Pastrnak, a future Hart Trophy candidate, grabbed masterfully by the Bruins with the 25th selection.
“Maybe back then he didn’t have as good of a shot as he does now, with his one-timer,” Frödén said. “But I just remember his technique with skating and puck-handling was really, really good back then.
“One thing that he really improved on was his shot, for sure.”
Nylander said he and Pastrnak shared “unreal chemistry,” chuckling at the memories of their domination. “We could literally just know where each other was on the ice,” he said.
The chemistry was sorta puzzling to Pastrnak, “because we couldn’t talk to each other much.”
“But we liked each other, we had the same interests, we were having fun on the ice, we were trying to get better,” he said. “Sometimes you have it with other players, the chemistry just clicks. And for us, it was there.”
Pastrnak often played the part of setup man to Nylander in those days.
“On the ice, they were pretty similar,” Frödén said. “But back then, William had a better shot than David. But otherwise, they were good passers, really good on one-on-ones and could really make good plays. “
Though both now share the same No. 88 in the NHL, Nylander had it Södertälje. Pastrnak wore No. 96. He arrived in Boston in 2014 and suddenly had his pal’s number.
“I never picked 88 actually!” he said. “I actually asked (the team) one time, and they were like, ‘We felt like you should have a special number,’” Pastrnak said. “I had it for five years. It felt too late to switch it.”
Too late, he means, for Nylander grabbed the number once more.
Nylander went from 39 to 29 with the Leafs before finally settling on a more familiar 88 in 2019. “Whatever number he had before didn’t suit him,” Pastrňák said. “He was much better in double eights. Obviously playing much better with it too.”
The two former Södertälje prodigies rank among the NHL leaders in scoring this season. They still skate in the summer together.
“Any time we get in a game in the summer,” Pastrnak said, “you can still feel that the chemistry is there.”
“It’s just fun to see both of them having so far such great careers,” Frödén said. “It’s just fun to see that they came from the same place.”
(Top photos: Winslow Townson / USA Today; Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)