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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Friendly rivalry grows among childhood pals

— It's been 20 years, but Donna Callahan can still see and hear them out in front of the house on Groveview Circle in suburban Rochester, N.Y. Her Ryan is on the cul-de-sac with his big brother Mike. So are the Gionta boys: Mike's buddy Brian and his kid brother, Stephen. Maybe some others join in, but it's always hockey — street hockey, roller hockey, any hockey.

They're battling. They're breaking the garage windows, again. Ryan is getting his front teeth chipped by a shot but won't come in the house; he's winning this game no matter what. They're yelling. They're fighting.

Sometimes the neighbors phone Donna.

Donna, are the boys … OK?

“That's how it was with them growing up,” Donna Callahan said. “It was crazy. They'd go at it as if they were going after the Cup.

“And so Ryan and the Giontas all end up in the NHL. Who knew?”

Who knew?

All these years later, they're still going after it. Lightning winger Ryan Callahan, 29, and Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, 35, are facing each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“My brother and the Giontas,” Ryan Callahan said before this series began. “We were a pretty good crew.”

Callahan and the Giontas made it to the NHL, beating the odds, beating the doubters. And all that heart and hustle began on Groveview, or in front of the Gionta home, a few miles away, on Edgemere Drive, or on the frozen pond nearby.

Ryan and Brian became Olympians and NHL team captains.

“You look back, and you're in the street, pretending to be NHL players, and then you're playing with the guys you pretended to be,” said Stephen, who plays for the New Jersey Devils, Brian's first NHL team.

“It's pretty special,” Callahan said. “We grow up 10 minutes from each other, and now we're playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs against each other. But once you step on the ice, it's all about winning.”

Brian Gionta is the same age as Mike Callahan. Stephen Gionta is a year older than Ryan Callahan.

“Growing up, it was the usual older brother-younger brother stuff,” Brian said.

“They pounded us,” Ryan said.

“They killed us,” Stephen said.

They shared the dream.

Brian went first.

“He was a guy I admired and looked up to,” Ryan said of Brian. “I was young when he went to Boston College and into the NHL. He wasn't the biggest guy.”

At 5-7, Brian Gionta is one of the smallest players in the NHL. People once wondered if he was big enough. But he starred at Boston College and played for a national champion. He was a third-round NHL draft pick. He has seven 20-goal seasons in the league. He played on a Stanley Cup winner for New Jersey.

Ryan Callahan came at it another way. He didn't have Gionta's blinding speed or skill. He plugged away to become a star in junior hockey, always trying to prove himself. People once wondered if he was big enough, too. He was 5-11, but playing a big man's game, like he does to this day, using his body, never mind life and limb, all those broken bones from all that shot blocking. Callahan was the Rangers' captain before the Lightning traded for him in the deal that sent Marty St. Louis to New York.

They grew leaders on Groveview.

“He's a very skilled guy,” Ryan said of Brian. “I don't know if I have all the skill and speed he does, but I go out there to try to bring energy. I try to finish my checks, get to the dirty areas.”

“He's just a great kid,” Brian said of Ryan. “He's worked so hard for everything.”

They work out together in Rochester in the offseason.

“The families are close,” Brian said. “We get together with our kids.“

But when it's the playoffs, it's different.

“We kind of shut down communication for a while,” Ryan said.

Ryan's Rangers beat Brian's Devils in the 2008 playoffs. Stephen's Devils beat Ryan's Rangers in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. Both times, the loser smiled at the winner and told him to go get the Cup.

Gionta's Canadiens are all over Callahan's Lightning thus far in this series. Gionta had a goal and an assist in Game 1. Callahan has struggled to make a difference. But when it's over, it's back to the Callahans and Giontas, a pretty good crew.

“It's just two similar families,” Brian Gionta said. “Hard working, blue collar. You earn what you get.”

And sometimes what you dream.

“We had so many battles on that street,” Ryan Callahan said.

Who knew?

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