Former Wisconsin Badgers Joe Pavelski, Brian Elliott on opposite sides of Cup chase

ByPierre LeBrun ESPN logo
Thursday, May 19, 2016

As each game of the Western Conference finals between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks plays out, a group of about 15 guys is texting each other like crazy, analyzing everything Brian Elliott and Joe Pavelski do.

It's a win-win for the members of the 2006 NCAA national championship team from Wisconsin -- no matter what, one of their bros is headed to the Stanley Cup finals.

"We have a 10-year reunion coming up this summer; most of the guys are coming back to Wisconsin for it," Montreal Canadiens defenseman Tom Gilbert said over the phone this week. "It would be nice if one of those two guys had the Cup with them, too."

Gilbert, Elliott and Pavelski were all part of that 2006 Wisconsin team, along with Robbie Earl, Davis Drewiske, Jack Skille, Joe Piskula and the captain of that squad, Adam Burish.

They're all dialed in to this series.

"Everybody's watching, texting each other, we've got group texts going," Burish said over the phone this week. "We've got probably 15-20 guys who are all in a text."

What's clear as you talk to members of the '06 squad is that this was a special team; they formed a bond that remains as strong as ever.

"We're a really tight group," Skille, a forward with the Colorado Avalanche, said over the phone this week.

"It's cool -- so many of the guys have settled down in Madison, too," added Burish, a Cup champion with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. "We all live by each other, we all train together, we play golf together, we go fishing together. I'm sure some guys' wives get tired of it because we're always together, we're always hanging out. It's pretty cool."

Even amid perhaps the most important series of his career, Pavelski was able to smile Monday when asked about his '06 Wisconsin team and the ties that still bind those guys. The West finals, tied 1-1, resume Thursday at 9 p.m. ET in San Jose.

"It's pretty special. It's grown over the years because everyone has had a lot of success," said the Sharks center and captain. "We're pretty happy for each other. We get together every summer and work out, the group of us.

"It's amazing how many guys off that team are still playing, whether it's in Europe or wherever. It's pretty exciting to see that."

Pavelski and Elliott have to put that friendship on hold. After this series, the handshake line will be a special moment, to be sure, as the two former Badgers teammates talk again.

"Hopefully, at the end of the day, you can have a little extra to take back on your side, I guess," said Pavelski, smirking. Elliott, through a team spokesman Monday, declined to talk furtherabout his Wisconsin pal. It's not surprising if you know the Blues goaltender. He's all business.

"Our group in the offseason, we tend to push each other," Skille said of the Wisconsin workouts. "Els [Elliott] is right in that mix; he works hard on and off the ice all summer long. Over the course of the years, I think you've seen Els become more levelheaded. He's a real, true pro now. He doesn't get up, he doesn't get down, he's even-keel. He's turned into a steady Eddie when it comes to his confidence, and I think that's the golden key for any goaltender in the league. I'm just as proud of him as I am of Joe. They've put in the work."

Oh, but the bragging rights to bring back to Madison? You better believe that's on the line.

"I know Pav's going to want to score 10 goals on Elliott, and Elliott is not going to want to come home and show up in the gym and have us making fun of him for having Pav score 10 goals on him," said Burish, chuckling. "He's competitive that way. I actually think it's going to raise their levels of them wanting to beat each other and show each other up."

That Pavelski has gone on to become one of the NHL's top scorers, year in and year out -- well, that doesn't surprise anyone from that '06 Wisconsin team.

In fact, one can picture a few of them rolling their eyes.

"I'm sure everybody has this guy in their group; he's just good at everything he does and it's so annoying," said Gilbert, laughing. "That's the best way to put it. It's so annoying. We could be playing pingpong, and all of a sudden he's got, like, his own pingpong paddle and he's beating us all. Or in golf or fishing. He catches every single fish you can think of. He's just that guy, you throw him in anything and he's just good at it."

Added Burish: "He's good at everything, it's frustrating. But Tom [Gilbert] shouldn't be complaining, because we have a big golf match every week and Tom is Pav's partner. Tom gets to live off the scratch golfer all the time; he's making money off this guy. So he shouldn't be complaining."

In a more serious tone, however, there's a clear pride for what Pavelski has accomplished.

"The best part about it is that he's so humble," said Gilbert. "He's a nice guy; you would never know that he was a superstar. That's probably what also makes him such a good player, too. He's so good on the ice. Just watch the game other night, he finds the open ice. When we play against him, I can't tell my D-men enough, 'Listen, if he's on the ice, take away his stick.' He gets his stick on everything."

It starts in the gym in Madison every summer, Skille said.

"[Pavelski] leads by example. Every summer he's one of the first guys in the room working out," said Skille. "He's always doing the right things. It's paying off for him. I'm proud of him; he's a former teammate and he's a friend. He's put in a lot more work than I think most people realize. He studies video. He just puts in so much time and effort on and off the ice in the offseason, and certainly I've heard stories of what he does during the season. So I'm excited for him."

There's that word again: "proud." The former Badgers are all proud of both Pavelski and Elliott.

"The thing about Brian is that I don't know a lot of goalies that work as hard as he does," said Gilbert. "You see him in the summer here -- he comes in and he works his ass off. You don't see that very often from a goalie. I think that's driven him from the time he was in college to now. His season this year has just been great. He's always had it, but it was just finding the perfect opportunity. He's playing in front of a really good team in St. Louis. It's nice to see the opportunity come out for him, and he's now proven he's a top-end goalie. I'm proud of what he's done, for sure."

If only one of these two guys could show up June 16 at the 10-year reunion in Madison with Lord Stanley's mug in tow.

"That would be cool," said Pavelski.

"We're hoping one of these two guys wins it all," said Burish, who brought the Cup to Wisconsin in 2010. "We've got all 25 guys from the national championship team coming to Madison."

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