The young Mahalak brothers skated on to the ice as teammates for the first time in years last week and the siblings had instant chemistry.
The Mahalaks are Monroe natives who are living out their childhood dreams of playing major junior hockey. R.J., 18, is a left winger. Matt, 17, is a goaltender. Both play for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.
The brothers were together on Oct. 20 when their Michigan-based team played against Owen Sound (Ont.). Matt Mahalak relieved the starting goaltender early in the first period with his team down 3-1.
"He saved my butt a couple times," R.J. said. "Whenever I messed up, he was there to help out. I let up a breakaway and he stopped it. It was the first time we've been on the ice together in a long time. He played really well. He made a couple big stops."
Matt said another "interesting moment" occurred late in the third period with his team trying to kill a penalty.
"There was a back-door play where I ended up diving to stop it and R.J. was diving behind me," Matt said. "We both made the save. After the play, we gave each other a tap. It was a close call, but it was cool because we made the save together."
The Mahalaks said they've played hockey their whole lives. Beginning at age 7, both dreamed of someday becoming pros.
"Since I can remember, I've always had the ambition of being an NHL player," Matt said. "Over the last two years, it has become more realistic. It's becoming a more and more reasonable goal."
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The two played travel hockey on the same team at age 9 and then worked their way up eventually to the highest level of junior hockey. Both were drafted by the Whalers.
R.J. joined a youth travel team when he was 12 and has been playing at an elite level ever since.
"When I got drafted into the OHL that put things in perspective," he said. "It made me believe I was actually somewhat good. So I decided to try to make a living out of it."
Two years after the Whalers drafted R.J., they picked his brother. But Matt opted to play one season of junior hockey in Cleveland before joining Plymouth this year.
"When we were kids we played together, but we haven't played together in a long, long time," R.J. said. "It's good to be back on the ice with him."
But both said sibling rivalry never dies.
"He's a four-year vet and I'm a rookie," Matt said. "So it's a blast from the past. He's still big brother, I'm still little brother."
R.J. added, "He is still my little brother. So I give him a hard time. If he makes a save on me, it ticks me off. If my little brother stops me, I want to try harder. It's kind of funny to watch."
But the older Mahalak has helped show Matt the ropes.
"I know what he is capable of," R.J. said. "I know what he can do out there.
It's really no surprise what we get out of him every night. We help each other. We battle each other hard in practice. It's always been competitive."
R.J. has been fighting a shoulder injury he suffered in 2007, his first year with Plymouth. He went through three surgeries within a year and tried to play through the injury over the last three seasons with the Whalers.
"It kept going in and out of the socket," R.J. said. "I'd go into the corners and it was just not strong enough. It was very painful."
Although he said he still is not 100 percent, he said he is able to play again.
"I'm doing OK. Everything is good right now," he said. "I feel good enough to contribute."
In their debut together, Matt made 17 saves on 19 shots. R.J. had an assist. Plymouth ended up losing 5-4 in overtime. So far this season, R.J. has two goals and three assists. Matt has a 5.03 goals against average.
Matt said he always has been a goalie and his brother a forward.
"He was a tough guy and I liked stopping pucks," Matt said. "[Playing goal] is like a pitcher in baseball. It's the feeling of you against the world. You have the ability to win the game for the team. My dad has a saying that you win as a team and lose as a goalie."
R.J., who graduated from Plymouth High School, now attends college at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. R.J. said he wants to ensure he has a degree to fall back on if a pro hockey career doesn't work out.
"There's still an opportunity to get picked by an NHL team," he said. "If nothing works out, I might go over to Europe and play."
Matt attended three high schools while pursuing his dreams. He graduated from Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central.
"It was a crazy ride. But I made the right decision," Matt said. "I'm happy with how it has worked out. I look forward to where it takes me next."
Matt also is attending U of M-Dearborn.
"I want to make sure I graduate college and get a degree," Matt said. "We're both on schedule."
R.J. said as a veteran, he has told Matt what to expect at the major junior level.
"I told him a lot about it and helped him out a little bit," R.J. said. "But sometimes it's better to figure it out on your own."
The top pick in the last NHL draft was a player from the OHL.
"It's a major adjustment," Matt said. "It's quicker and faster. Overall the intensity is way up. Guys are competing for NHL contracts."
Both will be eligible for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
"It's in my hands right now," Matt said. "My name is out there and people are watching every night. It's up to me to perform well. It's within reach."
R.J. said one of the things Matt must adjust to is the size of the crowds. The team routinely plays in front of 4,000 spectators.
"It's pretty intense," R.J. said. "It's fun. I love it. I get to play with my buddies and my brother."
Contact Mark Monroe at: firstname.lastname@example.org