Better With Popcorn

Brotherly Love Defined

At this point in the NHL season, the grind has culminated in playoff berths and do-or-die situations. For the teams that remain alive in the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup, they’ve fought and clawed all season together. As is usually the case in sports, there’s a cliché to describe the camaraderie between teammates; some may use ‘brotherhood’ as an apt description. It’s a term that doesn’t do a justice to what a brotherhood truly is. Instead, the true meaning of the word was illustrated in a small city just over 60 miles from Friday.

With two-thirds of the Sovereign Center empty, the first game of the ECHL second round playoffs seemed like an afterthought to the community of Reading, Pa. The Kalamazoo Wings were visiting the Royals and the 8-3 result indicated that the game may have been an afterthought to the home team as well. Despite the entire Wings team basking in the joy of taking the first game in the best-of-seven series, two of their teammates’ grins were a bit wider.

The first was a healthy scratch in the game, yet he sported quite a smile as the final ticks of the clock fell off the game clock. Just one night earlier, it was his brother that was sporting quite the opposite expression after his taste of playoff action. After all, he had been cast into the spotlight when he was a stick-lift away from preventing the only goal in the Flyers’ game one defeat to Buffalo. 

Danny Syvret was the sixth defenseman seen trailing Patrick Kaleta on the Sabres’ game-winning goal. He was the next in line to enter the lineup when Chris Pronger was unable to start the playoffs due to a hand injury. Philadelphia let Syvret walk in free agency to Anaheim in the offseason, yet traded for him to return just months later. Now, Syvret has found his way to the NHL playoffs after experiments with Erik Gustafsson, Matt Walker and Nick Boynton have failed. With the roster spot comes the bright and sometimes scrutinizing spotlight. After game one, Syvret was involved in the downside of the bright lights.

In Reading, his brother Corey was all grins after Kalamazoo’s easy victory despite being scratched before the team’s dominating performance. A night before, his brother was surrounded by a large contingent of media members, trying to explain what happened on the game’s only goal. Corey stood in an empty hallway in the dark corridor of the Sovereign Center after being scratched for an ECHL playoff game. The differences between the two went far beyond a first name.

One may have thought that the dark and dank basement in Reading’s arena was as dark as the shadow of his brother that hangs over Corey Syvret. The young defenseman believed that to be far from the truth.

“I’m used to it now,” he said. “Maybe when I was younger [it was more difficult]. At 15 years old, I played for the same junior team that he did. I came into the league the year after he won the Memorial Cup and a World Junior Championship and he was the best defenseman in the CHL. It was tough from day one. I was kind of in his shadow the whole time.”

Now, the only shadows that affect Corey are the dim lights of the ECHL barns.

“I’ve embraced [being in Danny’s shadow]…there’s nothing I can do about it but be my own player,” he said. “We’re two different players.”

That second teammate for Kalamazoo was the furthest thing from a scratch that Friday. The big defenseman was involved in more than his fair share of scrums and he made his presence known. Mitch Versteeg is no stranger to chippy play, something he attributes to playing against his brother, Kris, as they honed their skills through the years.

“Growing up, we were always battling with each other,” Mitch Versteeg said, laughing. “[Kris and I] got in a lot of scuffles.”

Like Danny Syvret, Kris Versteeg didn’t start the season with the Philadelphia Flyers, but now he’s back in the spotlight. One year after winning the game’s ultimate prize in the City of Brotherly Love with Chicago, Versteeg has since been traded twice.

He was dealt to Toronto in the offseason and then to the Flyers before this year’s trade deadline. With lofty expectations to replicate the Blackhawks' run last season, Versteeg has all eyes upon him when the arena lights are on.

Friday night, all eyes were on his little brother, too. But there were only a couple thousand pairs of eyes in Reading’s hollow barn, not millions across the globe on television sets. Mitch Versteeg realizes the obvious discrepancy in situations, but it doesn’t faze him.

“[Kris] is in the NHL and I’m in the ECHL, but you know, I’m used to it,” he said. “We’re our own players and we do our own things.”

A similar refrain.

For the Syvret and Versteeg brothers, one thing is clear. Each brother is his own person, his own player. Despite expectations and pressure, the little brothers are content with their place in the hockey universe at this moment. In all likelihood, there will be bigger games ahead, and the much brighter lights that come with those games. Until then, the focus is placed on the task at hand: Winning the ECHL’s Kelly Cup.

Mitch’s smile was large and bright, the only thing illuminating the dark corridor. The win was big, but the fact his brother had made the trip to Reading to see his victory was even bigger. But, he was hardly surprised given how close the two are.

“I usually talk to [Kris] every day, just to see how everything’s going with him,” he explained. “We like to keep each other updated and on days like today when we’re able, we like to see each other play.”

Danny also came to see his brother play, but wasn’t able to after the late scratch. Interestingly enough, the younger brothers have spent time paired together in the playoffs. And it’s not just the pairing that has helped the two become close.

“It’s pretty cool to be paired with [Corey] this year,” Mitch Versteeg said. “When our brothers play together too, it’s pretty cool, that doesn’t happen very often…we bond really well and we’ve become pretty good friends.”

It’s a unique situation, one that seems almost too weird to be true. After all, Danny and Kris started the season far from Philadelphia. Now, not only are they in the playoffs together, but their brothers are becoming closer by the moment partially because of their similar ties.

Friday night, the meaning of the connection was much bigger than an earmark in the notes of a media guide. The connection was real. After all, they had seen their brothers. All the days of scuffling on the rinks growing up are long gone now. Despite the physical and theoretical difference between the pairs of brothers, everyone’s on the same team now.

That unity became crystal clear when Mitch spoke about his brother’s achievement of lifting the Stanley Cup last season.

“That was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen,” he said emphatically. “When you see your brother succeed, it makes you want to do it that much more. Especially when he wins the Stanley Cup, it keeps the dream alive. Hopefully, he can do it again this year.”

For now, the dream is the Kelly Cup for the younger brothers and the Stanley Cup for Danny and Kris. But for one night, the chips fell in such a perfect way that they were able to see each other. The result was the extra width of Corey and Mitch’s grins. 

Outside the Kalamazoo locker room, Kris waited on his brother with a similar expression. In the dimly lit corridor of an empty building, the smiles were shared. Mitch’s grin was one of excitement to see his older brother after a great game. Kris’ was of pride in his brother’s performance on the path to fulfilling his dream. 

In everything similar, different and in between about the two grins was the true definition of ‘brotherhood’.

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