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HOCKEY A FAMILY AFFAIR FOR THE FITZGERALD BROTHERS

By Suzie Cool (@SuzKewl) | Published on October 18, 2019

One look across the ice and there they are.

It’s a familiar face you’ve seen time and time again and you know almost everything about them. From their favorite food, to their most embarrassing moments, you know this human all too well and now they’re standing on the opposite side of the playing field. Both of you sporting different colors, but with the same name across your back.

We’ve all seen this before, families playing one another in a sport that seems to run in their bloodline.

In the National Football League, the notorious Watt brothers represent three different organizations between the Houston Texans, Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers. The first pitcher-batter matchup in Major League Baseball happened just over a month ago between Brian and Colin Moran, where Brian tallied his first big league strikeout against none other than his younger brother in his MLB debut just days after an emotional call-up. Or how about the iconic sisterhood of Venus and Serena Williams, the only two women during the open era to play against one another in four consecutive Grand Slam finals.

Or, you could come from an elite hockey family like that of current Amerks interim head coach Gord Dineen, one of five sons of legendary AHL coach Bill Dineen. A tale of three brothers who all spent time in the National Hockey League and who are now all currently coaching at the professional level. The only matchup that could possibly even happen between the trio now, though, would be if middle brother Gord and youngest brother Kevin saw one another in the American Hockey League finals, but it’s still entirely too early in the season to tell.

The playing days, though, are what Dineen can reminisce on the most for now, as he remembered them all too well when asked about brotherly matchups earlier this week.

“Playing against your brothers, it’s always, you know, you look across the ice and you see a different uniform and your brother that you’ve been sitting across the table from for a lot of years.”

And that’s just it.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that these athletes, these coaches, these teams – they’re just humans. Humans who have a favorite food, an embarrassing moment or two, and most importantly, families that they’ve grown with on and off the field of play. And sometimes two siblings that are cut from the same cloth have the chance to face-off on the professional stage.

With more than 8,000 sports in the entire world, what makes these sibling matchups seem unique is the rarity in which they occur, like the one that happened this past Saturday night when the Rochester Americans visited the Providence Bruins.

Casey and Ryan Fitzgerald are two years apart in age and come from a family that has had hockey injected into their veins since birth. Their dad, Tom Fitzgerald, played over 1,000 NHL games in his professional career and remains heavily involved in the game to this day. As the current assistant general manager and assistant coach of the New Jersey Devils, there’s no question as to why Tom’s oldest two kids dove into hockey the way that they did.

Growing up, early mornings consisted of dad’s 6:00 a.m. practices that turned into long days at the rink. Time spent at the rink soon turned into watching their father’s skillset, applying it to their own and falling in love with the game that they seemed destined to grow up and play.

After so many years of watching their father on the ice, it’s no surprise Ryan wanting to emulate his dad’s path starting at a very young age.

“I think for our situation growing up, most kids probably look at their dad and their family members and that’s kind of the path that they want to emulate. For us, it was hockey and that’s because that was pretty much all we had growing up.”

Luckily for both boys, they were able to carve out their own path to professional hockey, like that of their father.

Now at the age of 22, Casey Fitzgerald finds himself as an up-and-coming prospect in the Buffalo Sabres organization. Casey landed himself a spot on the Amerks roster to begin the 2019-20 season, his first in pro hockey, and has seen time in most of the games for Rochester. One of those games included a face-off between he and Ryan just last weekend, the first between the pair in their entire lifetime.

When the puck dropped, it was an all-out competition, but Casey admitted just how fun it can be when facing off against your own family.

“We take it seriously, obviously. We’re trying to win, both of us. But yeah, we’re very competitive as well. We were kind of matched up against each other a little bit all night. I was right D and he was left wing, so I saw him a lot. He was giving me a couple of shots and we were going back and forth there a little. It was all fun, but we’re both competitive and we both were trying to win.”

Prior to competing at the pro level, Casey spent the last four years at Boston College and just last year he served as team captain while being honored with the William J. Coaches Award as Hockey East’s Best Defensive Defenseman. In his first two years at the collegiate level, Casey and Ryan got to team up while assisting one another on game-winning-goals and sharing championship moments.

Ryan Fitzgerald was originally drafted right out of high school by the Boston Bruins in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL draft. Currently in his third full season with the Boston organization, the 24-year-old has seen ample time at the AHL level, partaking in 124 games in just the last two years. Bringing a strong forward presence to the Providence roster, Ryan has added two points to this season with a goal and an assist, the latter of which came in the game against his younger brother.

Although at the end of the day it’s just another game to add to the record books, the older of the pair made sure that Casey knew he wasn’t going to take it easy on him before their face-off at Dunkin’ Donuts Center a little over a week ago.

Ryan said, “I told him before we played that you got to get the puck off of your stick quick, because I’m coming for it.”

Some playful banter beforehand, but most importantly, it was the moments that happened after the game that meant the most to the two boys. Despite their extremely busy schedules, their parents, along with a couple of others, came out to watch the competition. Coming from such a heavy hockey family, these Fitzgerald family is no stranger to taking in a game and watching their kids play. But after at least four years of the boys playing together, this game was a little different considering the circumstances.

Tom Fitzgerald talked about the experience watching his boys battle it out against each other at the professional level.

“It was weird because you just want your kids to do well and not get hurt. I thought both boys played extremely well it was cool to watch the boys battle at this level.”

On the ice, the Fitzgerald brothers may be sporting different colors, but the name across their back was what brought them and their family together following the matchup. Both boys noted on how nice it was to have the level of support that they did, but the fact that they could come together as a family and put the competition aside is what was most impressive. Again, another weird concept when your own sibling, someone you often go to for advice, becomes your opponent on the ice.

Being the younger of the two, Casey admitted to going to Ryan time and time again while transitioning into his first professional season.

“In my pro career I’ve learned a lot from my brother. I’ve called him and stuff like that and tried to get the ins and outs of pro hockey to see what his experience was like three years ago when he was starting his first season. Just seeing how he handles everything in terms of the long season, this and that, and practice.”

The season matchup between the two isn’t quite over just yet, as the Amerks and Providence Bruins are set to have one more puck-drop at The Blue Cross Arena later this month. Ryan may have got to go home with the bragging rights after the first go-around, but Casey looks to settle the score.

Jokingly, the younger of the two, Casey alluded to the bad blood after the first face-off and how he’s looking to get his older brother back here soon.

“There was a little bad blood at first that night, but you know we’ll play them again and we will get them then.”

All jokes aside, the relationship between the Fitzgerald family and their humble ability to make you see them as humans is incredible. You have Casey, who looks to his older brother for advice on how to handle his first professional season and Ryan, who was both participating in the game against Rochester and paying attention to his younger brother’s shifts in order to see if he was doing things right. And Tom, who simply at the end of the day goes to the rink to watch his kids play hockey in what just so happens to be at the professional level.

After so many years of being involved in the game himself, Tom knows the struggles and the triumphs all too well. He’s familiar with the dedication it takes to get to this level in the sport and he’s familiar with the sacrifices that come along with the territory. When Tom retired, he was most excited about being able to ‘be a dad’ and be around his boys, because in all honesty, the game can take away even the simplest of moments for some. Luckily for Tom he’s gotten to pass on his love for the game to his own kids who are now living what was once his own dream.

When asked about how he can guide Casey and Ryan throughout their hockey careers and whatever may come afterwards, Tom put it into terms of their overall goals.

“This is a giant step to their goal, and their goal is to play in the NHL. The American Hockey League is the second-best league in the world and that’s where they’re at to find their way to the NHL. Whether it’s one game, a hundred games or a thousand games like me, it doesn’t matter, you get to the NHL and you should be very proud of achieving your goals.”

A younger brother who looks up to his father and best friend for advice on the professional game. An older brother who always wanted to emulate his dad and his career path at a young age. And a father who is just as proud for his kids, as he was for himself, while watching them take every step towards achieving their dreams.

Forget the colors of their jerseys, the positions that they play and their overall statistics. The Fitzgerald family is more than that. They’re a family who has memories of back yard whiffle ball games, early mornings at the rink and now a matchup that can get added to the hundreds and thousands of other sibling rivalries that we have seen in so many other places when it comes to the world of sports.  

It’s a completely different life than we’re all used to seeing professional athletes live. Think about it, we genuinely get surprised when a family is stocked with innate athletic ability. But maybe for some, like the Fitzgerald brothers who went family to foe, it was simply meant to be.

One look across the ice and there they are.

This person who knows all about you and they’re more than ready. So, you better get the puck off your stick quick because they’re coming for it – game on.