SPOKANE — Patrick Holland and Blake Gal have been best friends since they were 2 years old.
Growing up in Lethbridge, Alberta, the two aspiring hockey players played on the same team for years, were coached by their fathers and both were drafted by U.S. Division teams in the 2007 Western Hockey League bantam draft.
Holland was a sixth-round pick of the Tri-City Americans, while Gal went in the second round to the Spokane Chiefs. On that draft day, neither player knew of the rivalry that existed between the two teams, and to this day, neither has let it affect their friendship.
"I didn't know there was a rivalry," Holland said. "I didn't even know where Tri-City was until I got drafted. The big thing we looked at was we played each other 12 times a year. Our friendship doesn't add to the rivalry. I'm able to keep the competitive aspect away from the personal aspect."
The longtime friends are in the middle of a heated Western Conference semifinal playoff series that is tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 tonight at Spokane Arena.
"They beat us last year (in the Western Conference semifinals) and nothing was said," Holland said. "We cross paths and we make the most of it. It's pretty cool to see him out there, it doesn't create any bad blood. Your first goal is to win as a team, but it's still nice to see him play well."
Gal agreed, "I had no idea about the rivalry and what playing in these two cities would be like. It's pretty fun to be part of that. I don't think anything can get in the way of us being friends."
Even a Tri-City-Spokane rivalry.
During the 2010 playoffs, the Chiefs were ousted in the first round, and Gal decided to catch a Tri-City game before he headed home.
"Blake went down to a game, bought a Tri-City Americans T-shirt, sat in the stands and watched the game," Deb Gal said of her son. "They are so supportive of each other. Patrick got drafted and Blake didn't. There is no competition that way, which is nice."
Holland was drafted by the Calgary Flames in the seventh round of the 2010 NHL draft, and the players celebrated together.
"When Pat got drafted, we were in Strathmore (Alberta) helping my dad (Rick) coach my sister Mackenzie's hockey team," Gal said. "He got the phone call there. I was excited for him."
The winner of the Tri-City-Spokane series will move on to play the winner of the Portland-Kamloops series in the Western Conference finals. The Winterhawks have a 3-0 lead over the Blazers.
If the Winterhawks should come out on top, either Holland or Gal would go up against Portland's Brad Ross, another highly skilled player from Lethbridge.
"Brad moved to Lethbridge in Grade 4," Holland said. "We played summer hockey with him before he was part of our crew."
Holland and Gal first met when their parents put them in ice skating lessons as toddlers.
"He was my first friend," Holland said. "Maybe I had other friends before him, but they were probably stuffed animals."
Drs. Lynn Shaw and Dave Holland met Deb and Rick Gal through the Lethbridge Figure Skating Club, and their friendship has grown from there.
"We really like the Gals," Shaw said. "Dave and Rick coached the boys when they were little and we encouraged their relationship. They were yin and yang. We didn't have any family in Lethbridge and Blake's family kind of adopted Patrick. We've maintained that friendship -- us as well as the kids."
"The boys are made of the same cloth," Deb Gal said. "When they were 4, they were in a spring production of a One-Eyed, One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater at the Lethbridge Figure Skating Club Carnival. They went out and skated as fast as they could to the corner, got into a little fight and didn't even do the routine."
Figure skating turned to hockey when the boys were 5, and their fathers coached them to an Atoms title when they were in Grade 5.
"Until midgets, we played together," Holland said. "When we reached midgets, he played at a higher level, then went to the Dub. Then I played at that level and came here a year later. I was happy for him. You want to see your friends be successful."
In four seasons with the Chiefs, the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Gal has 57 goals, 69 assists and 185 penalty minutes. This year, he had 15 goals and 23 assists in 68 games.
On the flip side, Holland (6-0, 175) has 63 goals, 144 assists and 86 penalty minutes in three seasons with the Americans. He had 109 points this season in playing all 72 games, and led the WHL with 84 assists. He was one of three Tri-City players with 100 or more points (Brendan Shinnimin 134, Adam Hughesman 116).
"Pat always had more points than me," Gal said. "He's definitely a lot more skilled than I am, for sure."
"Blake is more physical than I am," Holland added. "If someone is going to get hit, it's me, but I wouldn't expect us to have a fight in this series."
Unless a One-Eyed, One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater is involved.