Bryan Rust, Penguins rookie and unexpected Game 7 hero against the Lightning, has a special bond with his older brother, a former member of the Pens’ organization himself.
The Rust Family Open is an annual golf tournament nearing its 10th year of existence, a weekend-long excursion exclusive for kin. No prizes are awarded except pride, and teams are chosen by drawing names from a hat. The format switches throughout the trip—best ball, team best ball, one-on-one matchups. Everything is handicapped and the traveling group of eight usually stays the same.
Last year, they played Lakewood Shores, located near Michigan’s eastern shore and Lake Huron. Earlier this June, they were scheduled to visit Whistling Straits in Wisconsin, site of three past PGA Championships. They had tee times and hotel rooms booked and everything. Then the Pittsburgh Penguins made the Stanley Cup Final, forcing Bryan Rust to postpone. “He’s probably got more exciting plans,” says his older brother, Matt Rust. “I’ll make sure that he better play a role in getting it back on the calendar.”
For now, the task of rescheduling would fall onto Matt, who called his parents to discuss the matter on Friday, the day after Bryan scored two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals and the Penguins advanced past the Tampa Bay Lighting. As has become recent good-luck tradition, Matt watched from the couch in his Ann Arbor condo, alone and with a burrito. On the television, he saw his brother—the 24-year-old rookie forward skating on Evgeni Malkin’s wing—whip a one-footed wrister past Andrei Vasilevskiy early into the second period and jam a rebound midway through the frame, the only goals Pittsburgh scored in a 2–1 win.
The next morning, Matt arrived at his job in real estate finance proudly wearing his Penguins T-shirt with RUST 17 on the back, even though the announcement wasn’t necessary. For weeks now, as Bryan piled up five points in the Lightning series and increasingly became a symbol for Pittsburgh’s speedy forward depth, colleagues had been referring to Matt by his brother’s name. “Just to rub it in a little bit,” Matt says, laughing. The last game Matt attended live was in the first round, when Pittsburgh eliminated the Rangers and Bryan, once again in a closeout scenario, scored twice. “Part of me wants to stay put on the couch, but then again it’s man, you can’t miss a Stanley Cup Final game,” he says. “I know the folks at work will be understanding.”
If anything, they understand more because of Matt’s story. A former fourth-round pick by the Florida Panthers and a four-year letterman at the University of Michigan, Matt Rust was actually the first family member into the Penguins’ organization, signing a PTO with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in 2011–12. Matt logged 43 games for the AHL Penguins as a forward, or two fewer than his brother would have this season with the big club. He notched 11 points and played twice in the Calder Cup playoffs. The next year, with the NHL lockout trickling high-caliber players into the minor leagues, finding work was difficult. So when the chance came to return to Michigan as a graduate student, and work with a favorite professor in economic development, Matt left hockey for good.
Matt says he misses some aspects of the sport, like the spirit of locker rooms and the thrill of playing for teams. But that’s the great thing about having a brother who’s one-upped him at every step: It makes for great vicarious living. “I was probably in the spotlight more so than my brother was, and now it’s the other way, right?” Matt says. “It’s me being there to support him.”
Indeed, Bryan has followed a strikingly similar path. Like Matt, he played for the United States National Development Program’s under-17 and under-18 teams. They both attended college for all four years, though Bryan chose Notre Dame, partially because he didn’t want to do everything like his brother. “I’ve been kind of compared to him all my life and in his shadow,” Bryan told the South Bend Tribune at the time. “I’ve been known as ‘Little Rust,’ things like that. So I kind of wanted to veer off and make my own path.”
Pittsburgh chose him 31 picks ahead of where Florida took Matt, and he even earned 14 NHL games during his first full professional season, in 2014–15. “He’s always succeeded in the moment, in the biggest moments,” Matt says. “He’s always risen to the occasion. I think when he got his opportunity, he made the most of it. That’s not always easy to do too.”
Born three years apart, Matt and Bryan were bonded by more than hockey. As children, both attended speech therapy to help their stutters, and found themselves subject to the same type of teasing from peers. “It’s not the easiest thing to go through as a kid,” Matt says. “We were always there for each other. That’s probably a story in and of itself. He never shies away from it.” Like when NBC Sports’s Pierre McGuire Bryan Rust aside during Thursday night’s celebration at Consol Energy center and interviewed him on national television. Sitting on the couch, Matt was damn proud.
“I was never on that stage, so I have no clue how that feels,” he says. “But when you know that everyone is watching the game on NBC, or thousands of fans are going to the Penguins media site and watching your postgame interviews, it’s nerve-wracking, especially when you’re out of breath. It’s not the easiest thing to collect your thoughts. I don't know if I could do it.”
As the Penguins ready to face the San Jose Sharks, owners of an equally deep top-nine, Bryan’s celebrity has grown, inasmuch as it existed in the first place. (“Who is Bryan Rust?” read one Sportsnet headline.) He’s one of several unexpected sources fueling Pittsburgh’s first Cup Final appearance since winning in 2009, alongside goalie Matt Murray, usual top-liner Connor Sheary, and the dominant HBK line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, all acquired in the past year. Thursday’s game-winner gave him five goals in the playoffs, matching his career regular-season total in 38 fewer games. He also became the first Pittsburgh rookie with a multi-goal Game 7, and was a missed breakaway from becoming the first NHL rookie ever with a Game 7 hat trick.
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But when asked to describe his brother, Matt settles on two words: “Quiet, loyal.” For instance, instead of vacationing on some white-sanded beach during the All-Star break, Bryan came home to watch Matt compete in a charity boxing tournament at his high school. As it turned out, Matt’s participation alone was not worth the trip. “It was one quick round,” Matt says. “The guy I was fighting was a lot bigger than me.” Later, he will summon a third word: Ruthless, at least in video games. “Over the years we’ve probably played, I don't know, close to 1,000-plus games of NHL,” Matt says. “I think his record against me is probably 950-50. Like, he just beats me and just crushes me every time.” Recently, Bryan started playing as the Penguins.
In Bryan, Matt sees a more polished, mature version of himself. “The hardest part about being a pro is the ability to be consistent, come to the rink every day and try to produce at that level,” Matt says. “When you’re a younger guy, that’s a skill you learn. I think my brother developed that skill much quicker than I thought he would. He lets failure slip off his shoulders. It’s not easy to do.” Matt didn’t exactly volunteer his experiences after Bryan entered the AHL, but it always helps having someone else around who can relate.
And if Bryan’s upcoming schedule precludes him from scheduling the Rust Family Open?
“He’s probably got more exciting plans,” Matt says. “Hopefully I’ll be planning some of it.”