MINNEAPOLIS — Strange how Joseph LaBate and Cullen Hurley, close friends and teammates since they met in grade school, have joined forces again as members of the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team.
They grew up in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of Eagan and always seemed to find themselves on the same team.
“We became best friends that way,” Hurley said.
They attended Academy of Holy Angels High School in Richfield, Minnesota, typically played on the same line and served as co-captains as seniors in 2010-11.
“He’s always been there for me,” LaBate said. “He’s like a brother that way.”
There was a three-year void as LaBate, a fourth-round NHL draft pick of Vancouver, became an instant fixture in the UW lineup and Hurley, an undrafted free agent, bounced from the North American Hockey League with Aberdeen to the U.S. Hockey League with Muskegon.
But the two buddies reunited at UW this season when, in an odd twist, Hurley was part of an 11-member class of true freshmen overseen by a leadership corps that includes LaBate and fellow senior co-captains Chase Drake and Brad Navin.
“It’s crazy now because it’s all come full circle,” Hurley said.
The roots LaBate and Hurley share will come under closer scrutiny tonight and Saturday when the Badgers face 16th-ranked Minnesota in a Big Ten Conference series at Mariucci Arena.
The spotlight will be much brighter on LaBate, who skates at left wing on the top UW line that’s filled out by freshman center Adam Rockwood and sophomore right winger Grant Besse, who grew up in nearby Plymouth.
Meanwhile, Hurley, a reserve defenseman, will watch from the stands as the Badgers (2-12-2, 0-2 Big Ten) try to get some traction in the conference race.
If that’s to happen — the remaining 18 regular-season games are against Big Ten opponents — then UW will need a lot more from LaBate, who has more career games (131), goals (27) and points (72) than anyone else on the roster but has been unable to get going this season.
In 16 outings so far, LaBate has two goals — one on the power play and one into an empty net — and is tied for third on the team with seven points. He ranks second with 41 shots but is minus-eight.
“I thought this year was going to be pretty difficult; I had no idea it would be like this,” LaBate said. “I thought there’d be a learning curve; I didn’t know it would be this significant.”
The numbers may not be glowing, but UW coach Mike Eaves believes LaBate, listed at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, has acquitted himself well.
“He’s doing a good job for us right now,” Eaves said of LaBate, an economics major. “I wish he was rewarded more offensively with points and goals and stuff. But he’s doing good things.
“I’m happy where his game’s at. I think he’s on the rise.”
LaBate knows what it’s like to labor through a difficult season with a young team at UW. That was the case in 2011-12 when he was one of nine freshmen on a club that spent most of the season under .500 en route to a 17-18-2 overall record.
“I remember looking back on that and feeling like you’re in the depths and it’s hard to swim your way out,” LaBate said. “I think that kind of helps me relate to (the current freshmen) a little bit more. They’re young, and I know what they’re going through.”
It helps having a good friend like Hurley in that mix because he can provide insight both ways.
“He really understands hockey for me — how serious I take it,” LaBate said.
“He understands that we’ve got a lot of young guys,” Hurley said of LaBate, “and he’s just always looking to help anyone whenever they need it.”
This series with Minnesota (10-7-1, 1-2-1) is always an emotional one for UW players coming home. While the matchup has been close since LaBate came aboard — the Badgers are 5-6-1 — he has but one goal in six games played at Mariucci Arena, where UW is 1-4-1.
According to Eaves, LaBate was “too intense” facing the Gophers earlier in his career.
“It’s a very emotional game,” LaBate said. “You’re playing against guys you grew up playing with. I know every single guy on that team very well.”
Now, according to Eaves, LaBate “goes with the flow a lot more than he used to.”
With his best friend in tow, LaBate will try and get the Badgers moving in a more positive direction. He’s buoyed by two recent games — a 2-0 win over then-No. 5 Michigan Tech and a 3-3 overtime draw with second-ranked Boston University — and sees good things ahead.
“We’re starting to believe in ourselves,” LaBate said.