Bruins

Junior hockey teammates Chris Wagner & Charlie Coyle are finally back home – and not leaving anytime soon

(Courtesy of Wagner Family)

Charlie Coyle knew one thing for certain on the afternoon of February 20, 2019. 

He wasn’t going to step aboard the Minnesota Wild’s chartered plane to New York. His new destination, however, was still up in the air.

Paul Fenton, then GM of the Wild, relayed the news to Coyle as he made his way to the airport just a few miles out from Minneapolis-St. Paul. The trade whispers that the Weymouth native had heard for months were finally confirmed — as Coyle’s equipment was taken off the team plane. Still, while Coyle was on the move, Fenton could not divulge more details until the club dotted the T’s and crossed the I’s. 

Coyle paced around his home in Minnesota while waiting for the other shoe to drop. A valuable mid-season coup for any team looking to put itself over the top, perhaps Coyle was going to join a bonafide Cup contender? Maybe a return to the East Coast, where he could be closer to friends and family?

Hell, perhaps he’d get the best of both worlds in the Bruins — joining a loaded roster while relishing the perks that come with donning the spoked B as a local product.

Later that evening, Coyle got the news. He was indeed heading home.

The text messages started flooding in. It was the deluge that Coyle expected — receiving well wishes and from a sizable South Shore contingent, pals, former teammates, and many others.

One of the first ones to reach out to him was his former teammate Chris Wagner — well, former as of that February morning. 

“(Wagner) texts me — he's like, 'Hey, you’re coming? You're coming?’ Coyle recalled.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I can't believe it all.’

“And he’s like — ‘Oh man,  I'm pumped!’"

Given that Wagner and the Bruins were just a few hours away from puck drop against the Golden Knights in Vegas, Coyle wanted to keep things brief. Wagner, happy to add another Mass. native to the B's locker room, did not oblige. 

"I was like — 'Alright, well I know you're playing tonight — go get your nap,'" Coyle said. "And he's like - 'No, no — I can't nap now. I'm fired up!' I remember those texts. So right there, that made me feel like, 'Alright this is going to be awesome.'"

Rather than meet his new club at the final stop of their road trip in St. Louis, Coyle hopped on a plane the following day to Vegas to get an early start towards ingratiating himself with a new crew of players.

Even as an outsider, Coyle had heard plenty of the culture permeating from his hometown team's locker room and what it meant to put on a black and gold sweater. Most of it was relayed from Wagner, who first met Coyle over a decade ago as teammates on the South Shore Kings — a junior hockey club based out of Foxboro.

A memorable 2009-10 campaign started a long-lasting friendship for a pair of forwards looking to raise their stock as tangible NHL prospects. But for all the daydreaming and chatter expended at the Foxboro Sports Center of a future life spent as a pro hockey player — Coyle remained realistic.

Both him and Wagner had all the tools, skills and moxie to carve out careers for themselves in the top hockey league in the world. But to imagine a scenario in which they found themselves playing together up in the NHL ranks — potentially for the hometown Bruins?

Well, such daydreaming can only go so far before reality jolts you awake.

“I remember talking to (Wagner) before when he first signed here and I asked him how it's like (to play for Boston)," Coyle said. "He’s like, ‘It's awesome,’ you know, he just loves it.' In the back of my mind ... I was still in Minnesota, but ... I was still like, ‘Huh, must be pretty cool to play there, wonder what it's like?’

"Just hoping one day it could happen. But you just never know.”

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Coyle had a decision to make in the summer of 2009. A year away from entering the collegiate level at Boston University, Coyle needed to find a club to continue to elevate his already lofty profile ahead of the 2010 NHL Draft. Looking to take the next step after standout stops at both Weymouth High School and Thayer Academy, Coyle assessed his options.

The USHL was an option — with the Indiana Ice holding his rights if he was to take such a route. But Coyle opted to remain local, joining the Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League under the tutelage of  Scott Harlow, who previously coached Coyle alongside his father, Chuck Coyle.

"We think this is the best move," Coyle said of the conversations he had with his family when it came to committing to the Kings. "I know the coach, I know the area. I'm still at home. I can still go to high school and be with my friends and do this."

Coyle's decision to play with the Kings might have kept him in familiar territory, but he did have a new crop of teammates to get acquainted with, headlined by the club's captain — a dynamic forward from Walpole also looking to orchestrate a strong season ahead of the Draft.

"I don't think I really knew him at all," Coyle said of Wagner, who tallied 20 goals and 34 points over 38 games with the Kings during the previous year.

Harlow had high expectations for Wagner in what was going to be his second go-around against EJHL competition. The center had a nose for the net and all the offensive tools to do some damage whenever he hopped over the boards. The key to put it all together for the physical forward? 

"Before the year started, (Harlow) pulled me in and is like — 'Hey, you don't have to, you know — you can actually look at the puck instead of trying to run around and hit people the whole time," Wagner said. "So, I definitely did that."

Wagner and Coyle may not have had much of a history ahead of the 2009-10 season, but the Kings captain had heard plenty about Coyle and his standing as one of the top U.S. prospects in the 2010 Draft class. A first-round selection seemed to be in the cards for Coyle, who was expected to make sizable contributions to an already skilled SSK roster.

[caption id="attachment_545343" align="aligncenter" width="655"] Photo Courtesy of Wagner Family[/caption]

But Coyle didn't exactly hit the ground running upon joining his new team late in the summer of 2009. In fact, Wagner's first impression of his new teammate was not his evident skill and size out on the ice. Rather, it was his baptism by fire while trudging through the conditioning drills conducted by Kings assistant coach and strength coach Brian McDonough.

"We had to go out and run three of these three-hundred (yard shuttle runs). And this was before (Coyle) was as good a shape as he is now. And I was doing it all summer," Wagner said with a smile. "On the third 300 — you're supposed to (finish) in under 60 seconds. I think he got like a 1:10 and he just had his legs up on a big tire we had for about 30 minutes. Everyone was just trying to feed him Gatorade and Snickers — trying to get that blood-sugar level up."

Coyle closed his eyes and folded his arms when said anecdote was brought back up.

"I knew that'd he'd bring that up," he said with a laugh. "That was a rude awakening."

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Fair to say,  Coyle found out in short order that junior hockey was "a different animal," especially in the early going as the forward sized himself up against opposing skaters sometimes two to three years his senior. Thankfully, Coyle received a bit of a crash course in terms of what to expect at game speed during Kings' practices, especially when matched up against Wagner.

"He's a powerful, powerful kid," Coyle said of Wagner. "In the gym, on the ice. I remember having practices where we'd put the nets at center ice — kind of like what we do here sometimes when we play three-on-three. And I remember one time, him just coming up and just flattening me on my back in practice. So then I'd have to get up and I go after him, and just like going back and forth like that.

"But that's just Wags — he's just a competitor and you can tell right away. That's how he practices and that's how he led our team. It kind of gets everyone else to practice that way and play that way."

Wagner admitted that he didn't think he'd be in the same boat as Coyle when it came to his status as potential NHL draft pick, but he didn't feel much pressure in Year No. 2 with the Kings, especially after earning a full ride to Colgate in August. For Wagner, the 2009-10 season was primarily tailored towards his development ahead of making the jump to college, while setting the tone for the rest of his club.

But, with multiple NHL scouts in the stands to keep tabs on Coyle, it was Wagner that established himself as the most dynamic forward in the EJHL. With Wagner anchoring the top line and Coyle solidifying the top-six unit as South Shore's second-line pivot, Harlow put together a 1-2 punch that few rival clubs could contain.

Even though Coyle and Wagner played on the same line very sparingly that year (save for reps on the power play), both forwards etched their names on the box score early and often. During a year in which the Kings advanced all the way to the EJHL championship game, Coyle lived up to the hype, winning League Rookie of the Year honors after ranking fifth in the league in scoring with 63 points over 42 games.

And yet, it was Wagner that stole the show for a South Shore club that went 33-5-2-2 with an absurd plus-73 goal differential. In just 44 games, Wagner tallied 34 goals and added 49 assists for 83 total points, tying the EJHL record for most points in a single season. Better yet, the EJHL Offensive Player of the Year and MVP suddenly found himself inserted in the conversation when it came to legitimate NHL Draft targets.

"I didn't really think I would get drafted to begin with," Wagner said. "Then the first pre-scout rankings or NHL rankings came out. I was like a B player and I remember running up and telling my parents at like eleven at night that I might get drafted in the third to fifth round."

Sure enough, in June, Wagner joined Coyle on the next step towards the NHL. The Weymouth product was selected in the first round by the Sharks (28th overall), while the captain of the Kings was taken by the Ducks in the fifth round (122nd overall).

Just as quick as their memorable season came together, the South Shore stars' paths were split apart once again.

[caption id="attachment_545346" align="alignnone" width="1600"] Both Coyle (second from left) and Wagner (far right) were selected during the 2010 NHL Draft. BC products and Massachusetts natives Bill Arnold (far left) and Kevin Hayes (second from right) were also drafted in 2010. (Courtesy of Wagner Family)[/caption]

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In total, Wagner and Coyle only played some 40-odd games together in 2009-10. But for as much as their career trajectories branched them out to different waypoints across the U.S., both players always remained in contact. Whereas Wagner earned reps in the AHL in both Norfolk, Virginia, and San Diego, Coyle spent half a season with the Houston Aeros before carving out a starting role in the NHL with the Wild, who acquired the forward from the Sharks in a 2011 deal centered around Brent Burns. 

But every summer, both Coyle and Wagner would often find themselves in the same spot — training with McDonough down at Edge Performance Systems in Foxboro. By the time Wagner cracked the Ducks lineup as a regular, he'd often set aside time to chat with Coyle in the brief window they had either before or after the three contests scheduled between Anaheim and Minnesota every year. The meetings with Wagner might have been few and far between during the fall and winter, but they were still cherished between a pair of local kids that had finally realized their dream of playing in the show.

"It was always cool just to play with a guy in juniors before and then now you're playing in the NHL and you're stepping up and playing in the best league in the world" Coyle said. "You look back at that year with the Kings — kind of how you grew up, grew up together and pushed each other and played to get to that level in a way. It's pretty cool to think back on that stuff."

These days, the meetings between Wagner and Coyle are a bit more frequent.

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It's only been eight months since Coyle had his life turned upside down with one phone call, but you'd think the Bruins' forward has been a mainstay in the lineup for years based on how he's been received since returning back to Boston. Whether it be his involvement in the community or his role in the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final (nine goals last postseason), Coyle hasn't been weighed down by the pressure that usually manifests with players of his profile — homegrown talent looking to live up to the hype in front of the fanbase that they cut their teeth with growing up.

He's apparently taken a page out of Wagner's book, who's transformed from fourth-line grinder into "The Mayor of Walpole" among the Bruins' faithful, with the forward earning the 7th Player Award — given annually to the player who performs above and beyond expectations — in his debut season.

The praise that Wagner relayed to Coyle last fall of the Bruins' culture has been validated ever since Coyle stepped on that plane to Vegas on February 21. And it's that buy-in from the former Kings teammates that prompted the duo to sign off on contract extensions with the B's on Wednesday.

"My agent is probably mad how many times I said I wanted to stay here," Wagner said after inking a deal that will keep him in Boston for another three years. "It’s the truth."

Perhaps you can chalk it up to fate. Maybe it's just plain dumb luck. Regardless of the powers that be, both Coyle and Wagner knew one thing for certain on the afternoon of November 27, 2019.

As improbable as it might have seemed years ago — through all of the grueling shuttle drills, long bus rides and painful losses — they found themselves exactly where they always wanted to be.

In the NHL? Of course.

No, even better.

Home.

"I didn’t know it was going to work out like that," Coyle said of signing his six-year extension with Boston on the same day as Wagner. "It makes it a little more special. You think back to when you were playing juniors together nine, ten years ago, playing together and hoping one day that you can maybe play in the NHL, never thinking you’d be on the same team, never thinking you’d be on the same team back home.

"I love this team. I love this city. And I want to win here."

[caption id="attachment_545345" align="alignnone" width="1600"] (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)[/caption]