Brotherly love and sibling rivalries have always been a part of hockey, but only a fortunate few get to experience those highs and lows on a stage as big as the Canadian Hockey League.
The Western Hockey League has been the host of many family duos and trios over the decades, and whether they play on the same side of the puck or not, there seems to be a collective understanding of how privileged they are to hit the ice with family.
“It’s always nice playing with your brother,” said 19-year-old Calgary Hitmen left winger Taylor Sanheim, adding growing up on the roads and in the rinks with his twin brother Travis, defenceman for the Hitmen, came with its share of rewards. “Growing up you get used to playing with him so you definitely build chemistry.”
The Hitmen selected Travis 177th overall in the 2011 WHL bantam draft, but ever since he has drastically improved his stock. The 6-foot-4, 199-pound blueliner cracked the league in 2013-14 and went on to earn himself a first round selection by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2014 NHL draft. While it took Taylor an extra season to reach the roster, the two Elkhorn, Man. natives have certainly made their name known in households across southern Alberta.
Entering the WHL at a young age can be a daunting experience, but Taylor says one of the many rewards that come with playing alongside a brother is a familiar living environment in a somewhat overwhelming chapter in his adolescent life.
“It’s definitely more comfortable living in the city of Calgary with (Travis),” he said. “It makes it easier on our parents too, so it’s definitely nice to be on the same team.”
Travis — who put up eight goals and 23 assists from the back end in his first 24 games with the Hitmen this season — recently competed with Team Canada at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship, while Taylor posted four goals and nine helpers through the first half of the WHL season.
Taylor added there was a time when the fraternal twin brothers battled it out for sibling supremacy, but that period ended as soon as they entered the WHL as teammates.
“We’re more friendly about it now. When we were younger we’d play for bragging rights but not now that we play on the same team. We’re looking out for the best for both of us,” he said. “We’re pretty good at competing with each other. We like to compete, we don’t really brag too much with each other.”
There’s a long history of brotherhood in the WHL — and the Canadian Hockey League at large — with some big NHL names starting out their careers in the WHL, OHL or QMJHL. Most notable NHL among sibling dynasties in recent memory are the Staal brothers — Eric, Marc, Jordan and Jared. All four played in the OHL before being drafted into the NHL and all but Jared have found regular NHL homes.
Currently making waves on the international circuits are the Strome brothers of Mississauga, Ont. Ryan Strome — a 22-year-old Niagara Ice Dogs alumnus with 105 goals and 190 assists in 225 career Ontario Hockey League games — has been creating a household name in the Big Apple and beyond as a forward with the New York Islanders with 80 points in his first 143 contests. His younger brother Dylan — an 18-year-old Erie Otters centre with 16 goals and 37 assists in his first 25 games this season — had his name heard across the nation as a key member of Team Canada at the 2016 World Junior Championship. Dylan is destined to join Ryan in the NHL after being drafted third overall by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2015 NHL draft. Matthew, the youngest of the trio, just began his OHL career with the OHL's Hamilton Bulldogs this season.
One of the most memorable moments in WHL brotherly history came in the 2002-03 season, when the Spokane Chiefs made a trade that united all four Lynch brothers in the same uniform. Scott, Doug and Jeff Lynch played the season together after a trade with the Prince George Cougars shipped Scott south of the border, and while the youngest Lynch brother, Jason, had just been drafted by the Chiefs in 2002, he was lucky enough to play a single game alongside his older brothers.
As for the up and coming fraternal phenoms, look no further than Gabriel and Francesco Vilardi of Kingston, Ont.
Francesco, the eldest of the two at 19, has spent time in the OHL with the Flint Firebirds franchise and now the Sudbury Wolves — racking up 24 goals and 41 assists in his first 170 career games. His younger brother Gabriel is the real standout however. The recipient of last season’s HockeyNow Ontario Minor Hockey Player of the Year Award, Gabriel has already broken into the OHL with the Windsor Spitfires at the age of 16, and he’s making his mark early. The 6-foot-2, 185-pound centre boasts a strong nose for the net, and even at 16-years-old he’s on pace for a 20-plus goal season with 10 markers and six helpers in his first 28 OHL contests.
So how do parents negotiate the awkward situation of watching their sons line up against eachother on the ice?
“I don’t care who’s going to win when they play against eachother. I just want them to have a great game. Scoring goals and getting assists, that’s all I want because I would never cheer for one over the other,” said Lino Vilardi of his two talented sons.
Players like the Sanheim and the Lynch brothers had the luck of ending up on the same franchise in one way or another, but the majority of the CHL’s brotherly groupings don’t experience the luxury of sharing the same jersey. As a result, the ice time they share is limited and highly competitive, but that doesn’t make the minutes any less memorable.
Fifteen-year-old Medicine Hat Tigers prospect and Kamloops B.C. native Ryan Chyzowski grew up hearing stories about his father Dave’s escapades as a Kamloops Blazer — now director of sales and marketing for the Blazers — and watching his older brother Nick play for his hometown WHL squad. Playing on the same level as his family members was something Ryan had always dreamed about. On May 7, 2015, the young forward got the call to the major midget level, but it wasn’t Kamloops who came knocking. It was the Medicine Hat Tigers.
The 18th overall bantam draft pick quickly made his mark on Tigers’ brass, and when Medicine Hat made the trip out west to take on the Blazers, they brought a Chyzowski jersey along, allowing Ryan to suit up against his brother as an affiliate player.
“It was pretty special,” said Ryan, who has a minus-2 rating in five games with the Tigers, while Nick has 19 goals and 17 assists through two and a half seasons with the Blazers. “I was out on the ice against him and faced off against him quite a few times. It was a pretty cool experience and it’s something I probably won’t ever forget.”
Ryan added the experience continues to bring about conversation in the Chyzowski household, as the 6-foot, 175-pound skater remains at his home in Kamloops with Nick while playing midget hockey.
“Right after the game we went home and talked about it for a couple of hours,” said Ryan. “Ever since then we joke around about it every once in a while. It’s been a pretty cool experience and we’ve had some good laughs.”
Some homes just seem to breed success, like that of Edmonton’s Quenneville family. Peter, John and David have all shared ice in the ‘Dub over the past four seasons, and with David — the youngest of the three — sitting in the middle of the pack in the International Scouting Services’ midterm rankings, all three may see each other in the NHL one day as well. But unlike the Sanheims, who skate with the same logo on their chests, or the Chyzowskis, who battle it out on opposite sides of the puck, the Quennevilles know what it’s like to play both with and against one another.
“It’s been remarkable for me and it’s just been quite the story,” said David, adding the rivalry amongst brothers is alive and well. “Around the household (the games are) always something you can chirp about. There’s always a shot here and there.”
David — who was selected 10th overall by the Medicine Hat Tigers in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft — was the highest drafted of the Quenneville trio, but the first not to call Brandon’s Keystone Centre home. While it kept David from calling Peter and John his teammates, it gave him the opportunity to hit the ice as a 16-year-old in Medicine Hat and compete against his eldest brother, Peter, in his overage season.
“Going in, I thought I was going to be a first round pick at the time and I was excited to go anywhere. I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go. It ended up being Medicine Hat and it’s just been so great for me being here at 16 and 17. I’ve learned a lot in my two years. It’s been pretty special. Especially being able to play against Peter and John at 16, and John this year at 17.”
Peter, 21, closed out his WHL career with an Eastern Conference title as a Brandon Wheat King alongside 19-year-old brother John last season. The seventh round New Jersey Devils draft pick and former Wheat Kings captain is currently lacing up his skates with the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones — where he posted four goals and 12 assists in his first 24 games — but he got the chance to return home with David for the holidays this December,
“It was nice to have (Peter) home,” said David. “He’s back there in the pros so it’s nice to be home with family for a couple of days.”
While the three brothers weren’t re-united around the Christmas tree, it was for an unforgettable reason. John became the first of his namesake to don a maple leaf on his chest for the World Junior Championship, joining Travis Sanheim in Helsinki, Finland as a member of Team Canada.
“He said he’s really excited to get into the tournament and he’s been having a lot of fun over there,” said David. “I think the most important thing is to have fun. That’s a world-class stage and the players are so good. I just said, ‘Go have fun and play how you play. You’re going to have a blast. It’s a once in a lifetime experience so just enjoy it.’”
While the Quennevilles often trade competitive chatter around the table, after a life of dreaming about the world juniors, David says the excitement of seeing the family name on Canada’s roster resonated through the family.
“It’s crazy. It’s insane,” he said. “I’ve been watching that since I was a kid and watching him is awesome. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
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