Forever friends: Even professionally, Watson, Eick still love playing together
Editor’s note: The following story is the first in a series of stories about two former Michigan Tech hockey players who spent three weeks in July teaching the next generation of young players the fundamentals of the game at the Michigan Tech Hockey School.
HOUGHTON — It is not every day that one gets the opportunity in sports to play with their friends. It is even rarer that two friends who grew up playing together get the chance to do so in college. Rarer still is the opportunity for two lifelong friends to get to play together in the professional ranks.
Cliff Watson and C.J. Eick have had the chance to do all of that. They met playing hockey together on a team in Green Bay, Wisconsin, several years ago, and as they say, they have never looked back.
“We were teammates for the first time in sports on a team in Green Bay,” said Eick, when asked how long the duo have been friends and had a chance to play together. “Yeah, right around eight years old and his dad was one of the coaches for the team. It was like a travel team.
“So, we were both from Appleton. We would carpool with the other kids from Appleton, so we all got to be pretty good buddies.”
Eick is a year older than Watson, but that just meant that they would play together for a year and then be separated for a year before finding themselves back on the same team the next season.
“We basically did almost an every other year sort of thing, since he’s a year older than me, and I’m a 93,” said Watson. “So I would play with him for a year and squirts, and then he would move up to the peewee team. Then I played another year in squirts, and then I’d catch up with him again and he would play a second year sort of thing.
“So we kind of bounced back and forth like that.”
The pair did split up in juniors, with Eick splitting time between the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers and the NAHL’s St. Louis Bandits while Watson’s career took him to the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL for two seasons.
REUNITING IN COLLEGE
Eick, being a year older, made the jump to college hockey in 2012 at Michigan Tech. His freshman year saw him on a squad that featured future NHL players Jujhar Khaira and Pheonix Copley along with several others who have played professionally in players like Blake Pietila, Tanner Kero, Steven Seigo, Riley Sweeney, Malcolm Gould, Alex Petan and Jamie Phillips.
The speedy winger scored three goals and seven points that season for a team that went 13-20-4 that season, taking North Dakota to three games in the WCHA playoffs.
When things fell through for Watson with Ohio State, the defender found himself looking for a new place to play through his college eligibility. He was also drafted by the San Jose Sharks in the sixth round of the 2012 draft, so he was looking to figure out how to make sure he was working on what they wanted him to focus on.
When then assistant coach Damon Whitten came calling to discuss Michigan Tech as an option for Watson, the future Huskies captain called his good friend to see what he thought of the job that then head coach Mel Pearson was doing with his rebuild.
“He called me and said that Damon Whitten had just called him,” Eick said. “Cliff wanted to know how I liked it, because I had a year under my belt and what I thought of the staff and everything.
“I had nothing but good things to say and thought it would be a good fit for him to come up here with it being so close to home for us. It was great for our parents. They could come up on the weekends.”
ROUND THREE IN THE PROS
In 2017-18 the pair found themselves reunited in the ECHL on the Utah Grizzlies. This time, it was Eick who was serving as team captain. Former Michigan Tech goaltender Angus Redmond, and defenseman Chris Leibinger were there as well.
Watson thrived with the Grizzlies, where he scored nine goals and 25 points in just 36 games. By comparison, he had just eight goals and 42 points in 162 games in NCAA action.
The pair would get traded by the Grizzlies before the season ended, but were brought back together in 2018-19 as part of the Kansas City Mavericks.
For a pair of kids from Appleton, Wisconsin, playing college and professional hockey together is something they will treasure forever.
“Most guys didn’t even make it into juniors, so to think that we would be playing college together would have been kind of a stretch, you know?” said Eick. “We were just hoping, because nobody from the area was making it to college.
“And then, you know, that first year that we both ended up in, in Utah together, still playing after college in and one of the funny things is in Utah, we got traded on the same day, yeah, to two different teams. He went to Colorado, and I went to Kansas City. Then, just with how things worked, he was traded there.”
“It’s pretty weird,” said Watson. “We just, over the years, we just keep finding a way. It wasn’t even in our power the whole time. So it is kind of crazy how it all happens and how it all keeps, you know, winding up with each other and all that.
“I mean, who knows? Probably again next year, you will see us together again, at some point. Yeah, most likely. So far, we’ve been really fortunate, I would say.”