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Photo: KDP Studio & Asvitt PhotographyPhoto: KDP Studio & Asvitt Photography

#AHLOTB: A cross-country friendship

By Nick Hart | AHL On The Beat

A goalie’s mask says a lot about his or her personality and what he or she loves. Casey DeSmith’s protective headgear does very little to buck that trend, but you might not realize it at first glance.

What first stands out about DeSmith’s mask is the large Pittsburgh and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins logos that adorn each side. It sure looks cool, but the personal stuff is all etched on the back. There’s a silhouette of the iconic Pittsburgh skyline, where DeSmith hopes to someday play. There’s two letter “K” characters sitting back-to-back to signify his two sisters, Kirin and Kylene. And tucked off to the side written in plain font and white letters is “JG32”.

That’s there for one of DeSmith’s best friends, Jon Gillies, No. 32.

Gillies is a goalie playing on the opposite side of the United States for the Calgary Flames’ AHL affiliate, the Stockton Heat. A quick scan over the inferno art and unrelated tribute on his mask and you won’t catch much, but a longer look would reveal, sure enough, a “CD29”.

Context clues can tell you what that one means.

DeSmith and Gillies both grew up as two premier goaltenders in the New England region, but they didn’t develop their friendship until they ended up on the same team playing junior hockey together in the USHL for the Indiana Ice.

“I had been there in Indiana a few years before and I was a couple of years older, and so [Gillies] was the new kid coming in,” DeSmith recalls of the beginning of their bond. “Being the other goalie, he sort of gravitated towards me. Now, we’re great friends. That kid, he’s a sweetheart.”

“We were always able to talk to each other about anything,” Gillies said. “It started with hockey, but we would talk all the time, and we just built our friendship from there. We were able to really get to know each other as people.”

Birds of a feather flock together, so the young goalie Gillies sought mentorship and guidance from DeSmith. It ended up becoming a lasting friendship that is represented on their signature piece of equipment to this day.

“Being as young as I was when I first went into the USHL, I needed someone like him,” Gillies said. “I was 15, 16 years old when I joined. I had been to prep school and all that, but this was the first time I was truly away from home and on my own for the first time. He helped a lot.”

New chapters in their hockey careers eventually meant that the dynamic duo had to go their separate ways eventually, though. DeSmith ended up attending the University of New Hampshire, Gillies went to Hockey East rival Providence College. Still, their friendship persisted. The offseason was prime time for reunions, and they’d often train with one another in the summers, as well, until even that went by the wayside when DeSmith started working with a different goalie coach than Gillies.

Despite the growing barriers, you guessed it, these two still manage to find the time for one another, even if it means several stops at gas stations throughout the country.

“We began to lose that time seeing each other in the summer, but I still try to go see him sometimes,” DeSmith said. “He actually came to two of our playoff games last year in Providence and Hershey, as well.”

Gillies, who DeSmith called “a maniac” for his willingness to drive “all over the place” on a whim, made a surprise appearance at Dunkin’ Donuts Center and was in attendance the night that the Penguins completed the first round sweep of the Providence Bruins with a double overtime victory. That night, his buddy posted Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s franchise record for saves in a postseason game with 59.

“I don’t get too nervous when I play, but he’s one of the few people that when I watch, I get more nervous for him than I do when I play,” Gillies said. “I just want to see him do well all the time.

“For him to be playing such a huge role in the AHL playoffs and back at that level, it was special.”

Gillies had already made it a tradition to drive and watch DeSmith tend goal back when he had a gap in his schedule while playing for Providence. However, this time he was able to see DeSmith play in those Calder Cup Playoff games not only because Stockton missed out on qualifying for the AHL’s postseason, but because his entire rookie season was cut short to just seven games due to a hip injury. That gave Gillies a bittersweet amount of free time to watch his friend become the Penguins’ late-season surprise starter and eventual playoff hero.

A similar hand of fate befell DeSmith the year before. When Casey DeSmith lost an entire year of hockey in 2013-14 due to the NCAA denying the senior goalie a transfer wire, he intently followed Gillies’ season with Providence. Low and behold, DeSmith ended up glued to a television set for many days and nights in April when Gillies backstopped the Friars through the NCAA national tournament and ultimately won the national title game.

While those moments watching one another achieve great levels of success are precious, DeSmith hopes there aren’t as many opportunities to enjoy each other’s work in-person like there have been in the past two years.

“I don’t know if we’ve necessarily been living vicariously through each other, but hopefully this year, we can both have good years and stop with this back-and-forth,” DeSmith said. “We haven’t been that close proximity-wise to each other since juniors. So watching each other from afar is definitely special. I’ll keep an eye on him. It keeps our bond a little tighter.”

Even if there’s a night when one of Gillies or DeSmith can’t find a way to watch and keep an eye on the other, they’ll still be there. They just have to look at the back of their helmets.