Mr. and Mr. Smith
Brendan and Reilly are Brothers Playing in Opposite FF Semis
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
One is emerging as a star forward on the nation's No. 1 team. The other, a Hobey Baker finalist, is arguably the best defenseman in college hockey.
But that, of course, is now — far removed from a time 15 years ago when they first learned to skate and hold a hockey stick at the same time. Back then, they were just another pair of hockey-obsessed kids living southwest of Toronto in Mimico, Ontario, the hometown of NHL great Brendan Shanahan.
And while they are busy preparing with their teams for this week's NCAA Frozen Four at Detroit's Ford Field — where perhaps at the expense of the other they will try to win a national championship — it wasn't too long ago that their primary concern was simply winning late-night battles against one another back in Mimico.
"We always played in the basement," recalled the elder Brendan. "When we'd have friends over, they'd end up leaving the games with bruises, but we wanted to keep playing because we just loved to win. My dad always reminds us of that — when kids would come up crying and not wanting to play with us because we were too competitive.
"I owe all of my competitive nature to my brothers because if it weren't for them, I probably wouldn't be in the place I am now."
Added Miami's Reilly, "I kind of followed in [Brendan's] footsteps. We had a lot of competitive games against each other while we were younger, and he always seemed to get the better side of me."
Flash forward to the present, and the brothers, who constantly text and call one another for updates after games, are on the verge of facing each other in the national championship game — their semifinal showdowns with RIT (Brendan and Wisconsin) and Boston College (Reilly and Miami) notwithstanding, of course.
But it's an exciting thought nonetheless.
"He's always been my best friend," said Brendan of Reilly. "Our relationship has been great. We text and call each other almost every day. We always talk about who has the better team and stuff, and we may have a chance to find out at the Frozen Four."
This season, fans at Wisconsin's Kohl Center and Miami's Steve Cady Rink have seen their respective Smith brother emerge as one of their team's most trusted players. For the RedHawks, Reilly now finds himself as the left winger on Coach Enrico Blasi's top line, playing alongside Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele, two of Miami's 40-point scorers this season.
For the Badgers, Brendan is the nation's top-scoring defenseman, on the strength of 15 goals and 32 assists in 40 games. Eleven of his tallies have come while playing on Wisconsin's potent first power-play unit.
For his efforts this season, the elder Smith was named the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
Said Badgers head coach Mike Eaves, "There's a great growth spurt that happens with college players between their sophomore and junior year — both physically, and for Brendan more importantly, mentally and emotionally. It's been fun to watch. I think as a hockey coach that may be the thing we relish the most — to see these guys grow up.
"What most people will not see beyond the numbers is [Brendan's] play without the puck. I think there's been greater growth there. He's got natural ability. The things that he does, a lot of that stuff we don't teach as coaches. But his understanding of the game without the puck has improved dramatically as well."
Added Brendan, "I think I've come a long way on my defensive positioning. It's a weird thing to say that. The better I've been playing defense, the better my offense has been."
Indeed, it's a lesson that Brendan has learned through experience, and he's been able to impart some of his added maturity and wisdom to his younger brother at Miami as well.
"He told me a lot about the different style of play," said Reilly, of Brendan's advice to him before beginning his freshman year for the RedHawks. "It's a lot different from where we both played in the OJHL. It's a much faster game and a lot more defensive. He helped me with that transition — letting me be aware of the whole system and how it all works."
Certainly, the young careers of Brendan and Reilly have paralleled one another closely thus far, and they're starting to become college hockey household names — not always the easiest task, by the way, when your last name is "Smith." But two teams that noticed the brothers long before their arrivals on campus in Madison and Oxford were the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars.
Detroit drafted Brendan with the No. 27 overall pick in the first round of the 2007 NHL draft; and last year, Reilly was selected by the Stars in the draft's third round — just two more accomplishments for an athletically accomplished family that also includes the pair's older brother, Rory, who plays for the Orlando Titans in the National Lacrosse League (NLL).
Said Brendan, "I don't know if I've ever had a better hockey feeling or accomplishment. Both teams we've been drafted to are great organizations. When I was drafted, Reilly was going through a little bit of a struggle at St. Mike's [in the OJHL] and wasn't sure if he was going to be drafted. But he ended up playing like he always does and ended up being drafted by Dallas. Now, he's had a phenomenal freshman year, and he's put himself on the top two lines. He's really helped himself out to secure that spot. I've been really proud of him.
"I'm excited. There could be a chance we could end up playing each other."
One can of course forgive the brothers' tendency to look ahead to a possible matchup in the finals. Again, the RIT Tigers and Boston College Eagles will have plenty to say about making sure the sibling showdown doesn't happen. But for Miami in particular, the road back to the NCAA Frozen Four truly began when last year's season ended, with a gut-wrenching loss to Boston University in the national championship game.
It was of course one of the most memorable title tilts in history, with the Terriers scoring two goals in the final minute of regulation before winning the game in overtime. Reilly Smith, of course, was not on that team. But he knew full well what happened.
"I caught the second half of the game because I had a lacrosse game that night," said Reilly. "I went back and was watching it with all my buddies. People try to forget about it, but you can't really. It really drove everyone because no one wanted that to happen again. Everyone wanted to redeem themselves."
That journey — for both the RedHawks and Badgers — ends one way or another next week in Motown. Whether we'll see Brendan and Reilly Smith face off in the national championship game remains to be seen, but until then, Brendan — again speaking hypothetically — offered a message for his younger brother.
"I will make sure he doesn't get a step on anything," said Brendan, who also shared that their parents will simply wear red to support both their sons. "And I think he'll do the same — it's just that competitive nature that we've always had against each other."
Next week, that competitive nature arrives in Detroit, with each Smith two wins away from college hockey's grandest prize.
Indeed, the stage for the NCAA Frozen Four will be an NFL stadium.
But — if it comes to it next Saturday night — for at least two of the players involved, it might as well just be an old basement in Canada.