by Bob Crawford | AHL On The Beat Archive
The Hartford Wolf Pack’s Adam Tambellini got his first chance to play against his brother Jeff, on Oct. 18, when Adam’s Wolf Pack knocked off Jeff’s Syracuse Crunch by a score of 5-2 at the XL Center. For Adam, who is more than a decade younger than Jeff, it was more than his first crack at competing against his brother, it was more like a chance to go up against one of his heroes.
“He was the guy for me,” said Adam of Jeff. “I always idolized him, watching him through juniors and college and on to pro as well, just someone I could always talk to and look up to. So that was pretty cool, to see him out there.
“It’s something that me and him have been looking forward to for a long time. Obviously with the big age gap, we never really got to play against each other competitively. So it was a really cool experience for me and him, and my family as well.”
The Tambellini family is one that has enjoyed two generations of hockey success, as Adam and Jeff’s father, Steve Tambellini, spent nine seasons as a player in the NHL, logging nearly 600 games with the New York Islanders, the Colorado Rockies/New Jersey Devils, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. After his playing days, Steve carved out a solid run as an NHL executive as well, including five years as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers.
For Adam Tambellini, being able to benefit from both his dad’s and his big brother’s experiences has been invaluable, and he revels in the fact that, despite often finding themselves in very different areas of the globe, the three Tambellini men remain very close, particularly Adam and Jeff.
“We’re not always together,” Adam said of him and his older brother, who spent the last four seasons playing in Europe before signing with Tampa Bay, Syracuse’s parent club, this summer, “but we’re always in contact with each other, and I go down to Vancouver with him and skate quite a bit with him in the summer, with his hockey program there. And we have fun, we do a lot of hockey stuff, but we do a lot of other stuff as a family too.”
Adam was barely school age when Jeff left home to play junior hockey in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League in 2000, and Jeff continued from there to spend three years at the University of Michigan before turning pro. Even while far away from his kid brother, though, Jeff always made sure to make Adam feel as though he was thinking about him.
“He’s been really good with that,” Adam said, “always making time to make sure he’s checking in with me and telling me how he’s doing with his game and stuff. And we’ve had some good opportunities to get together throughout his career so I could see him play.”
Seeing Jeff’s games was only one of the advantages that Adam drew off of Jeff’s career as Adam was growing up. Jeff also brought his little brother to the rink with him, letting him tag along to Jeff’s various locker rooms and absorb all that went on around teams at older age levels.
“I was the little kid running around the rooms, chasing after Jeff’s teammates and that kind of stuff when I was younger,” Adam said. “So just to see us at the same level is pretty cool, and I think he was pretty excited about it as well.
“He was probably my biggest idol growing up, and to be around the room, going with him in junior and getting to go see him play in Michigan and with Vancouver and with the Islanders as well, it’s something that not a lot of people get to do and I was pretty thankful for it.”
In addition to the big age difference, Adam and Jeff are physically dissimilar as well. Adam is a tall, lanky 6-3 and 185 pounds, while Jeff has more of a “fireplug” physique, at 5-11 and 190. One thing they have in common is excellent scoring totals throughout their hockey careers, so one might think they are the same type of player, but Adam doesn’t think so.
“I don’t know if we’re actually similar players,” he said. “Obviously he’s a lot smaller, but really strong, a very strong skater with a terrific shot as well. Being a little taller, I think I have a little more reach, but I can try and take things from his game, like the way he shoots the puck and the way that he is on and off the ice, in the weight room and stuff, good little things that I can hopefully bring to my game.”
After an excellent season-and-a-half with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, in which Adam struck for 64 goals and 125 points in only 102 career games, he has enjoyed a solid start in the AHL as well. Adam scored in back-to-back games after being held without a point in the Wolf Pack’s opener, and added an assist in the Wolf Pack’s home win over the Crunch. It has become obvious to him, though, that scoring chances and offense are significantly harder to come by at the pro level, something that Jeff warned him about.
“I think that’s the first thing he noticed jumping into pro as well, just older, bigger guys, that there’s not much of a gap between the mismatches like there is in junior,” Adam said. “For me, skating with him in the summer’s been great, he’s given me a little bit of an idea of what it’s going to be like coming into the season, and I’m just trying to bring that into the season so far.”
Even before Adam turned pro, he drew on Jeff’s experience to make a major decision about his own hockey path. After initially following in Jeff’s footsteps and taking the college route, Adam decided to leave the University of North Dakota 16 games into his freshman year and head to the WHL.
Adam’s explanation of how that shook out was, “I saw him (Jeff) go through what he did in Michigan and obviously had great success there. Growing up, I never thought I could, at a young age, make a real strong impact in major junior hockey, so I took a little bit of a longer route. And once I got there, I felt like my game was ready for maybe a shorter step to pro hockey, which was major junior. I made that jump to Calgary and never really looked back.
“Being 10 years apart, it’s a lot different of a game now than when he came through the college ranks, and he was just kind of giving me advice on what was going on at college and what could be happening somewhere else. And same with my dad, they were just kind of giving me information and letting me make my decision, and it worked out pretty well.”
With both Steve and Jeff Tambellini offering counsel and the benefit of their own experience, Adam was surrounded with good information with which to improve his own situation. His dad, though, has always made sure to let his two sons blaze their own trails.
“He’s never been pressuring us into anything,” Adam said of Steve. “He kind of wants us to sit back and really look at our options and I think he’s done a great job of that. And I think me and Jeff are better for that. For me and Jeff, it’s been a great opportunity to have him in the hockey business, to be able to go to practices in the morning and to be able to go to a lot of NHL games, and just be around the room and see guys and talk to guys and kind of make a relationship with them. We’re really fortunate to have that.”
One might think that it might be hard for Steve Tambellini, given all of the player-development and management experience he has had, not to be whispering in his boys’ ears about what NHL teams are looking for or what kinds of players they need to make themselves into, but Adam says that is not the case.
“I don’t think he’s that kind of guy, he’s a pretty low-key guy, he’s pretty laid-back,” Adam elaborated. “We talk some hockey, but we talk a lot of other things too, and we like to get away from it.
“I think he’s looking more at my game, and again, he’s never been the guy to put pressure on us, he’s just been really supportive in whatever we’re doing and whatever decisions we make, and me and Jeff are pretty thankful for that.”
After Adam and the Wolf Pack won the first battle of the Tambellinis, they made it two in a row the following Friday night, this time in Syracuse, besting the Crunch by a score of 4-3. Not only did Adam earn family bragging rights in the win column, he also scored a pair of goals in the Wolf Pack’s road victory over his brother’s team.
That will be it for a quick two-game season series between the two clubs, who are no longer in the same division, after they met eight times as Northeast Division rivals last season.
“It would have been cool to play him those eight times, it would be awesome, but the way the schedule works it doesn’t set up that way,” Adam said. “But it was pretty cool it was back to back, we got a lot of face time.”