Hockey a family affair for Fitzgeralds

by Suzie Cool | AHL On The Beat

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 Watt brothers represent three different organizations in the Houston Texans, Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Last month, Miami Marlins pitcher Brian Moran made his big-league debut and struck out his brother Colin. 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 Rochester Americans interim head coach Gord Dineen, one of five sons of legendary AHL coach Bill Dineen who all went into the family business of hockey.

Gord, Kevin and Peter Dineen all played in the NHL. Those playing days are what Gord can reminisce on the most for now.

“Playing against your brothers, 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 on Oct. 12 when Rochester visited the Providence Bruins.

Amerks rookie defenseman Casey Fitzgerald and older brother Ryan Fitzgerald of the Bruins 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 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 two oldest kids dove into hockey the way that they did.

Casey and Ryan Fitzgerald spent time in Nashville while their dad Tom played for the Predators from 1998-2002.

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 skill set, 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 wanted 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,” said the third-year pro. “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.

Now 22, Casey 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, setting up his first-ever faceoff against Ryan.

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,” Casey said. “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. He served as team captain as a senior and won the Hockey East conference’s award for best defensive defenseman. And in his first two years at BC, he and Ryan got to team up while assisting one another on game-winning goals and sharing championship moments.

The brothers won a Massachusetts state championship together at Malden Catholic High School.

Ryan Fitzgerald was originally drafted right out of high school by the Boston Bruins in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Draft. The 24-year-old has seen ample time at the AHL level, partaking in 134 games entering this season. Bringing a strong forward presence to the Providence roster, Ryan has a goal and an assist in his first five games of 2019-20.

Although at the end of the day it was just another game to add to the record books, Ryan made sure that his younger brother knew he wasn’t going to take it easy on him before their faceoff at Dunkin’ Donuts Center.

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

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, the Fitzgeralds are no stranger to taking in a game and watching their kids play. But 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 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.”

The season matchup between the two isn’t quite over just yet, as the Amerks and Bruins are set to have one more meeting in Rochester on Oct. 30. Ryan may have gotten the bragging rights with a 3-2 Bruins win the first go-around, but Casey will look to settle the score.

The relationship within 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.

“This is a giant step to their goal, and their goal is to play in the NHL,” said Tom. “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.”