It's a bond that was forged on the roller hockey rinks of O'Fallon, Missouri.
It continued through high school, into juniors and college.
Now, Greg Amlong and Ryan McGrath are together again, this time as pros with the Quad-City Mallards, reunited after three years apart.
"It’s been a journey. ... We’ve been together since four or five years old, our first roller hockey team was that young," McGrath said. "You never pick and choose who you get to play with so to end up, even close to St. Louis like this, where our families can come up together, it’s special and never in a million years did I think we’d be playing pro hockey together."
Amlong and McGrath, both 26, were on similar arcs for most of their lives. They started playing inline hockey and both attended Fort Zumwalt West High School in O'Fallon. They both played junior hockey for Mark Carlson with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, then went on to college at UMass-Lowell.
It was there their paths finally split. Amlong transferred from Lowell to the Rochester Institute of Technology after his sophomore year while McGrath stayed in Massachusetts.
They both made pro debuts in the ECHL in 2016, Amlong with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits and McGrath with the Manchester Monarchs. The following year, Amlong stayed in North America, signing with the Wichita Thunder before getting traded to the Elmira Jackals, where he spent most of that season.
McGrath, however, signed overseas with the German EC Harzer Falken.
But that time apart didn't weaken the friendship. McGrath returned to the United States after his season was over and got married on June 16. Amlong was his best man.
"I can rollerblade to Greg’s house, that’s how close we live," McGrath said. "I think he kind of harped on me about (being best man) from Day 1. I had no better decision than to pick him as my best man, and I wouldn’t change that for anything."
When Mallards head coach Phil Axtell was putting together his team in the offseason, he knew of both players through their time in Cedar Rapids. He also remembered seeing Amlong when the now-defunct Jackals came to the Quad-Cities last year for a pair of games late in the season, a reunion between him and several of his Cedar Rapids teammates then on the Mallards.
"I just remember his former teammates from Cedar Rapids were chirping him from the bench, and it didn’t really affect him. It felt like he would fit in," Axtell said. "An old teammate, you really don’t chirp like that unless you really like him."
McGrath signed first, then Amlong joined him within two weeks.
"It’s just a coincidence it all happened this way, but obviously it’s a blessing in disguise when you get to play professional hockey with your best friend," Amlong said. "We’ve kind of just been following each other here and there, city to city, and it makes the transition so much easier to a new city, going with people that you know, it makes it awesome, makes it that much better to play, and it makes it fun."
The St. Louis area is gaining more and more notoriety for being something of a hockey hotbed in recent years. Along with McGrath and Amlong, Sam Warning and Kyle Novak are both from the area, as was Michael Parks, who led the Mallards in goals last year.
The growth of hockey in that area perhaps made its biggest statement in 2016 when five players from St. Louis were selected in the first round of the NHL Draft.
"I think a lot of it comes from the old pros," McGrath said. "You’ve got Al MacInnis down there, you’ve got Brett Hull, you’ve got Chris Pronger, so many old Blues players that are taking St. Louis hockey to the next level, and I think the entire world saw it firsthand with the draft. That’s just unbelievable."
Warning has been a fixture on the team for three years but McGrath and Amlong are starting to make their presences felt with the Mallards.
McGrath started the season off slowly, taking time to readjust to the smaller North American ice. In his first 11 games, he had just one goal and one assist, but he is becoming much more consistent, with five goals and nine assists for 14 points in his last 23 games. Amlong knew it was only a matter of time before his friend settled in and started producing.
"He’s had the speed forever. He’s obviously worked on his game, but you can see out there, when he gets confidence there’s no one out there that can beat him one-on-one in the corner," Amlong said. "He’s too quick, his hands, his vision, he’s just gotten better every year he’s played, and he continues to do so every day."
Amlong found himself in and out of the lineup through the first month of the season but made 22 straight starts before suffering an injury last week. He has one goal and seven assists in 28 games, and while blocked shots aren't officially tracked by the league or the Mallards, Axtell said Amlong is among the team's leaders in that category, if not the leader.
"His overall compete level, the guy can block shots. Nobody’s going to get down there and do what he does like that. He’s gifted in that department," McGrath said. "I knew the tough defense was always part of his game, and you don’t have to ask him to do that. He’s going to bring that every night."
The bond between Amlong and McGrath has helped the duo throughout a tough first half of the season that included a 13-game losing streak. The team seems to have turned the page on those struggles, winning two of their last three games and three of their last six.
The turnaround has come through the team's camaraderie, highlighted best by the two kids from Missouri.
"It’s always good to have friends by your side, especially when you’re having tough stretches like we are," Amlong said. "You want to have people around you who understand what you’re going through and fight with you through it."