Is there a correlation between being a younger sibling and becoming a netminder in the NHL?
Nearly three decades later, the origin story is still fresh in Mike Smith’s mind. It was the middle of winter in Vernon, Ont., a rural town near Ottawa with one grocery store, no stoplights and fewer than 1,000 residents. Outside the Smith family household, a group of neighborhood friends are skating on a frozen pond, firing shots at a terrified and insufficiently outfitted 5-year-old. At first the boy had protested. Few things bruise like icy pucks and those orange street hockey balls. But this assignment wasn’t optional.
“I knew if I was going to be cool like my brother and hang out with the older crowd,” Smith says, “I was going to have to suck it up and be goalie.”
Brad Smith is three years older than Mike. He actually played goalie in organized youth hockey as well, but preferred to shoot if they were just fussing around. And shooting, of course, is always more fun with a body between the pipes. That was Mike’s earliest introduction to the position: human target practice. Sometimes tears were shed and words were exchanged, all symptomatic of any normal sibling rivalry. Now 36, though, the Calgary Flames netminder has logged nearly 550 NHL games over 12-plus seasons. In that time, countless curious interviewers have asked about how Smith started playing goalie. “It always comes back to my brother,” he says.
Among NHL colleagues, Smith is far from alone. San Jose’s Martin Jones remembers getting tossed into goal when he and older brother Jordan played mini-sticks in their North Vancouver basement, using the couch as a net. The same thing happened to Canucks counterpart Jacob Markstrom on a street hockey rink in his Swedish neighborhood, where older brother Tim—now a soccer goalie for Sandvikens IF—gave young Jacob two options: stop pucks, or quit playing. Handling life in the crease requires a certain steely disposition.
Evidently this is not unlike what is required to handle life with an older sibling. “Some people would say goalies are the oddballs,” says Capitals backup Pheonix Copley. “I think that’s more of a younger brother thing as well.”
Richard Bachman understands. He and his twin brother were last in the family batting order by a dozen years, which hardly stopped their much-older siblings from ripping tennis balls at Richard’s head in front of the garage door … when he was 4. Plenty of other forces ultimately conspired to help Bachman choose goalie; staying up late and watching Patrick Roy backstop Colorado to the ‘96 Stanley Cup is an especially vivid memory. Plus the equipment always looked sick. “I think there’s something in your brain that pushes you toward the goal,” says Bachman, now a minor-leaguer in the Canucks system who spent some time with the big club this year. “But I think having brothers or sisters there to influence you or shoot on you gives you more drive and opportunity to do it.”
Copley has noticed the correlation before. Two of his teammates with the Capitals’ AHL affiliate, Riley Barber and Liam O’Brien, each had younger brothers who became goalies. For his part, Copley was raised in Anchorage with a biological brother and a stepbrother, both of whom later played Division III hockey, all less than two years apart. When they were younger, the trio would skate together at 6 a.m., almost every summer morning, Navarone and Matt against Pheonix. Even today, Copley will call them if he needs extra shooters for offseason workouts. “They still score on me sometimes,” Copley says. “But I think it’s tilted more in my favor in recent years.”
Then there is the perspective of Wild backup Alex Stalock. “Still getting the s--- end of the stick,” he says. Growing up around South St. Paul, Minn., where all the neighborhood kids lived within a 10-minute bike ride, Stalock quickly learned his responsibilities when hanging with older brother Nick. “In baseball, you’d be the catcher,” he says. “In football, you’d be the all-time center, so you’d never get to run a route and play quarterback. All you wanted to do was hang out with your brother and friends. Then obviously hockey, you can go play goalie.”
Of course, this rarely goes over well at first. Like Smith, Stalock protested the lack of available gear: a baseball mitt, catcher’s chest protector and little else. "It’s funny how the game came back to that now, where equipment is getting smaller," he says. "I feel like I’m back in the basement."
Predators goalie Juuse Saros, meanwhile, is famous among family members for dashing into the house, eyes welled with tears, and furiously declaring that he refused to face any more shots from older brother Eemeli. “Then they had to disallow goals, so we could keep on playing,” Saros says.
But the tides inevitably turn. After all, it’s the younger brother who made the NHL, right? “That’s probably a big reason I am where I am, honestly,” says Panthers goalie James Reimer, three and a half years behind older brother Mark. “You’re pushing your developmental limit, because he’s so much better than you. Then all of a sudden you get to an age where you’re better, and then there’s a 20-minute time or session where he can’t score and you’re flying around like Patty Roy back in the day. I remember those times when he’d just lean into a clapper that would’ve normally gone in, and he’s sitting there like, ‘Hmm. Wow. Nice job.’”
Malcolm Subban remembers a similar scene. Contrary to less eager younger brothers such as Smith and Stalock, he always wanted to be a goaltender. But father Karl insisted that each of his three sons would play defenseman. Even so, Malcolm would grab a mini-stick and guard the piano legs, borrowing a fitted New Era baseball cap for his glove. One time his older brother, Predators defenseman P.K. Subban, was launching tennis balls in the hallway. Malcolm saved every single one. “Dad!” cried P.K., clearly impressed. “He’s catching all of them!” By age 12, Malcom was in net for good.
The list goes on. Arizona’s Antti Raanta has an older brother. Same with Buffalo's Linus Ullmark, Chicago’s Corey Crawford, Detroit’s Jonathan Bernier, Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick, Philadelphia’s Brian Elliott, and Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy. Not all could be reached to discuss their sibling’s influence; through a team spokesman, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck said this topic “doesn’t apply” to him. But those who did respond offered remarkably similar stories. "I wanted to play with my brother," Reimer says. "He told me that I had to get in net. Okay. Here I am. As basic as it gets."
Ditto for the Devils’ Cory Schneider. If he and older brother Geoff wanted to really get serious, they would clear furniture from the family room of their Marblehead, Mass., home and compete to score on the fireplace hearth, which had a metal chain that doubled as the perfect net. But most of the time they just played in the kitchen, using the stove as one post and a weighted, cat-shaped doorstop as the other. “My mom used to joke that we had a few tennis balls end up in the spaghetti sauce,” Schneider says. “Good little competition. It was always him playing forward, me being goalie, and if we did switch for a little bit, it didn’t last very long.”
Still, every goalie finds the position in different ways. Nine years younger than her brother, Taylor Crosby never took shots on the living room carpet, or by the stove, or in the streets. Instead she grew to love goalie from a distance. Beginning when Sidney was starring for the QMJHL’s Rimouski Oceanic, Taylor would keep track of shot locations and other statistics in a loose-leaf notebook, an analytical trait that she believes is common among fellow goalies. “That’s more or less the brain of a goalie at the cell level,” she says. “You’re fascinated with the facts.”
Maybe it is genetic, then. Upon finally convincing her parents to let her play hockey at age 10, Taylor tended net from the start. Eventually she spent three seasons in a backup goalie role for St. Cloud State, before finding work in partnership marketing with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who also happen to employ her brother. Last summer, while working a goalie camp at the team’s practice facility, Taylor hopped onto the ice alongside Sidney for the first time in years. It was also her first skate since leaving college, but the dynamics quickly returned—for Taylor herself, and the Crosby siblings together.
“I made a couple saves,” she says. “Then he realized I made a couple saves, so then he had to score a few. It’s always a competition. But you have to put it in perspective. I can’t get too upset about it because he’s a professional athlete and he’s done pretty well for himself. Still, he’s my older brother. So I still want to beat him.”