For a pair of best friends whose hockey journeys have been nearly identical, it’s only fitting they were both selected just five picks apart at the 2020 NHL Entry Draft in October.
When Jake Neighbours and Ozzy Wiesblatt were drafted 26th overall and 31st overall by the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, respectively, it was not only a tremendous moment for each athlete, but a chance to celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
The two have been nearly inseparable since first hitting the ice together with the Calgary U18 AAA Buffaloes in 2017, and have been a big part of each other’s hockey experiences. Getting to share in each other’s big moment was a familiar, but welcome feeling.
"To go through all these experiences with your best friend is definitely something you cherish," Neighbours said during a recent interview where he and Wiesblatt joined the Centre Ice Podcast.
Whether it was suiting up together for Team Alberta at the 2017 WHL Cup in Calgary, for Team Canada at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, or for Team Red at the 2020 CHL/NHL Top Prospects game, Neighbours and Wiesblatt have spent plenty of time together on hockey’s biggest stages.
But, they’ve also been on opposing sides of centre ice a number of times, including at the 2017 Alberta Cup, the 2018 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and for the last two seasons in the Western Hockey League, with Neighbours a member of the Edmonton Oil Kings, and Wiesblatt with the Prince Albert Raiders.
Although they both admitted there was a bit of a competition to see who would be selected first, the pair agree that it was just a minor detail.
"I was lucky enough to see Jake get picked ahead of me," Wiesblatt said. "I’m happy for him, and it just about brought a little tear to my eye seeing him get picked, it was a special moment for him and his family. We’re competitive, but also very supportive at the same time."
Neighbours echoed that sentiment, adding that he and his family were almost more excited to hear Wiesblatt’s named called by the San Jose Sharks a few picks later.
"I think both of us were kind of hoping we’d be the one to (be drafted) higher, but we knew going into it that we’d probably be pretty close in terms of numbers and where we were going, so we were happy for each other," Neighbours said. "I remember when I found out Ozzy was going, it was almost a bigger reaction from my family and I than when I went, so we have very supportive families, and obviously going in both directions we’re happy for each other."
Although the two have only been close friends since first playing together for the Calgary Buffaloes as 15 year-olds, they’ve leaned on each other heavily for support, a relationship they both point to as a major key to their success both on and off the ice.
"It’s special," said Wiesblatt. "We’ve been through basically everything together with hockey. If it’s Team Alberta events or Team Canada events, we’re going through it together, so it’s definitely made it easier to have someone to talk to and go through it with."
Neighbours said the two maintain a close relationship during the season, but there are times where their competitive nature outweighs their friendship.
"We lean on each other for support, but we are competitors," Neighbours said. "After every game, we’re always texting each other, seeing how each other did. But, I don’t think (Prince Albert) versus Edmonton’s been the friendliest of games over the past couple of years, it’s been two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference going at it, so it’s always a good game with a lot of intensity, and we tend to lean towards our intense and competitive sides more than our friendship during those games."
But, Wiesblatt adds that the competitiveness between the two is a welcome addition, and is a big reason for his success.
"Having a best friend and someone you train with every day that pushes you, I think we can both say we’re very lucky to have that," said Wiesblatt. "It’s been awesome. I haven’t really had a friend that is as competitive as Jake is, and that wants to beat me in every single thing, so it’s fun, and it’s definitely shaped me into the person I am today."
While the two have been through more together in the last few years than many friendships will see in a lifetime, Neighbours looks back fondly on when it all started, and said he can’t wait to see what the future holds.
"We started talking when we were about 13 or 14, I think, and we finally got to meet each other at the Calgary Buffaloes tryouts, and I guess the rest is history. We just kind of hit it off right away, and basically did everything together, and I became this guy’s Uber. Proud to be it though, and I’m looking forward to more Uber rides."