Rust and Reward
Brothers Matt and Bryan Together Again at Frozen Four
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
Growing up less than an hour from Ann Arbor, brothers Matt and Bryan Rust made names for themselves while playing with elite-level talent in the nearby USA National Team Developmental Program. And as both ultimately chose to play college hockey, they dreamed, of course, of one day playing for a national championship.
They just didn't know they might have to play each other to win it.
This week at the NCAA Frozen Four, the Rust brothers — Matt, a senior forward for Michigan, and Bryan, a freshman winger for Notre Dame — play in opposing semifinals, as the Wolverines take on North Dakota and the Fighting Irish square off with Minnesota-Duluth.
And if everything goes well for the Rust brothers and their respective teams in the semifinal round, they'll be rewarded with one more game on Saturday night — and the opportunity to win a championship at the expense of the other.
"We're a very competitive family," said Matt, the elder of the two, who has scored 74 points in his Michigan career. "If anyone ever came to watch my family on the golf course, they'd realize just how competitive my family is. It started playing roller hockey in the cul-de-sac."
Matt, now a senior, has seen his career come full circle. Although professional hockey is a potential calling down the road — his NHL rights are currently owned by the Columbus Blue Jackets — Matt will play the final game of his college career this week in the same venue it began, at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
He first put on a Michigan sweater at the 2007-08 Icebreaker tournament, which traditionally kicks off the college hockey season each fall.
And like his younger brother Bryan, Matt reached the Frozen Four as a freshman as well. However the Wolverines lost that year in the national semifinals — in overtime, to Notre Dame.
If the two CCHA rivals meet again, it would of course be for a national title. And, with it, a unique family gathering.
"My parents root for me when I'm on the ice and root for Matt when he's on the ice," said Bryan. "I secretly believe that they're rooting for Matt [in the Frozen Four] because it's his senior year."
Added Matt, laughing, "They are cheering for me because I'm a senior. But they both want us to do well. I think that's the most important thing to them. I don't think who wins is most important to them at all."
Of course, it was a decision by the younger Rust that may have put their parents in this position — one that is enviable and uneviable at the same time — in the first place.
"[Matt] of course wanted me to go to Michigan to play with him, like any brother would," said Bryan, who was selected in the third round, 80th overall, by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. "But he just wanted me to go with what my heart felt. As soon as I came to Notre Dame, I loved the campus. I loved the environment. And I kind of wanted to get out his shadow a little bit. I've been in his shadow a little bit growing up, so I kind of wanted to veer off and make my own path."
For Bryan, that path brought him to South Bend, where he has been part of the tremendous rookie class that has led the Fighting Irish to an unexpected resurgence. Like his classmates T.J. Tynan — the CHN Rookie of the Year — and Anders Lee, among others, Bryan has displayed a scoring touch as well, finding the scoresheet 19 times during his freshman campaign.
Matt, meanwhile, has demonstrated his offensive abilities time and time again as well, but this season in Ann Arbor, he has flourished in a more defensive, checking role. At last weekend's NCAA West Regional in St. Louis, Rust and his linemates shut down Colorado College's potent top line, which had combined for 10 points a night earlier against Boston College.
"It's a role that I developed into," said Matt. "Going into this year, I knew in the back of my head that we have enough offensive power to put goals up on the board. The most important thing is winning as a team, and that's kind of how my defensive game grew — from me wanting success for the team. There's no better feeling than the team doing well. If the team needs me to block shots, that's what I'm going to do.
"I used to be the more offensive player. It's funny how things change."
Added Bryan, "I may have more of an offensive edge, and he may have more of a defensive edge. But I think we're both players who play at both ends of the ice and do little things to help our teams win."
Due to the Rusts' age difference — Matt, born in 1989 and Bryan, in 1992 — they never played against one another much growing up. In the only regular season series between the Wolverines and Irish this season, Bryan was injured in the first game and missed much of the weekend's opportunity to play against his brother for the first time in their college careers.
They did, however, square off in the CCHA tournament consolation game — a contest which, of course at the time, didn't seem like a potential NCAA championship preview. Michigan won the game 4-2 — part of its 10-1 record in its last 11 games, as the Wolverines now seek their first national championship game appearance since 1998.
Said the younger Bryan, "I was just hoping to have another chance to play against him."
"It's fun for our family and friends," said Matt. "But it's interesting. You have mixed feelings on the ice. At the end of the day, he's still your opponent on the ice. Feelings get a little mixed up.
"But my brother, when we were younger, really looked up to me. He really cares about me more than anyone in the world. To see what he's accomplished, from the national team, to what they're doing this year at Notre Dame, I couldn't be happier for him."
The Rust brothers plan to talk as much as they can during the days leading up to the Frozen Four — to check up on one another, certainly, but perhaps with some ulterior motives as well.
"We're both extremely close, so we try to take advantage of any opportunity we get to talk," said Bryan. "I'll probably call him in the next couple days and see how's he's doing and see if I can get any inside scoop on what his team is doing."
Added Matt. "We might send the occasional smart alecky text back and forth. I hope I get to see him in the final and show him who's boss."
Clearly, whether on the golf course, the cul-de-sac back home, or the grandest stage in college hockey, the Rust family competitiveness continues to shine.
And Bryan, not surprisingly, had a response to his older brother's good-natured challenge.
"He's been the boss for the last 18 years of my life. But those roles are about to change."
Oh, brother. They're on the verge of showing us all who's boss — and, just maybe, bringing the national championship home, too.