LA Kings forward Alex Iafallo's path to the NHL and his younger sister Julianna's road to Ohio State University's hockey team is a story of parental support, persistence and a box of Clementine oranges gone bad.
Let's start with the oranges.
When the Iafallos were growing up in Eden, New York, about 20 miles south of Buffalo, their father Tom was trying to think of new ways to help his hockey-playing kids improve their skills. Knowing that preteens can only endure so much repetition, he tried to keep practices creative and unconventional.
He used weighted pucks and tried putting sand in the shaft of their sticks to build strength and help their stickhandling. But Tom's most creative moment might have been the time they used Clementine oranges as targets when the kids were around 10-years-old. One of Tom's coaching friends had a box of oranges that went bad and he got the bright idea to put the moldy fruit to good use.
"I said, 'Let's take them to practice and we'll put them up on the net and they can knock them off,'" Tom said. "You make it fun for them. You're going to shoot 100 pucks, great.
"But now they're shooting at an orange."
Now, more than a decade later, his kids are shooting for the top with their respective hockey teams. Alex, 24, is an undrafted free agent success story with the resurgent Kings. A year ago, he was playing with the University of Minnesota Duluth against Michigan Tech, North Dakota and Bemidji State University. The Bulldogs eventually reached the championship game of the Frozen Four, losing to the University of Denver 3-2 on April 8.
With the book closing on 2017, Iaffalo spent most of this season playing, until Dec. 28, on the Kings' top line with center Anze Kopitar and right wing Dustin Brown. He has 11 points (two goals, nine assists) in 40 games for the Kings (24-13-5), who are seven points behind the Vegas Golden Knights for first place in the Western Conference.
Video: NSH@LAK: Iafallo one-times the puck into the open net
Julianna, a senior forward and co-captain at Ohio State, is the Buckeyes' fourth-leading scorer with 17 points (10 goals, seven assists) in 22 games. Ohio State (13-5-4) has not lost in regulation at home and has been ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation this season.
One sibling is in the NHL and the other is playing at the highest level of NCAA hockey. Just like they predicted all those days and nights practicing in their driveway and basement in Eden?
"It would just blow my mind to think of all of the work our parents and we did over the years," Julianna said. "We motivated each other through everything. It's just crazy to see him reach his dreams and play in the NHL."
The hopes and dreams became a reality when Alex made his NHL debut against the Philadelphia Flyers at STAPLES Center in a nationally televised game Oct. 5.
"It's always a dream to play in the NHL," he said. "Stepping out there in the starting lineup for the home opener, it was really cool. You can't really describe it, especially playing with Kopitar and [Brown]."
Video: Rookies Iafallo and Kempe making an impact
His speed and his ability to create space for Kopitar and Brown have been his strengths. Getting benched for the third period of the Kings' 3-2 overtime loss to the Golden Knights on Dec. 28 and a healthy scratch against the Edmonton Oilers (Jan. 2) and Calgary Flames (Jan. 4) is part of the learning curve for a first-year player adjusting to the League. Iafallo returned to the lineup for a 4-3 loss against the Nashville Predators on Jan. 6, getting an assist on a Trevor Lewis goal for his first point in 10 games.
College schedules feature weekend series, not games almost every other day. Iafallo could play his 41st NHL game, versus the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday (7:30 p.m.; FOX Sports West, FOX Sports GO, NHL.TV). The Kings believe in his upside and understand the daily grind players face at the NHL level.
"The NHL tests you every day," Kings general manager Rob Blake said. "Even practice requires focus. It's hard to teach that until you go through it."
Though the Kings have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in two of the past three seasons, they've won the Cup twice (2012, '14) and were an attractive destination for Iafallo when he was making his decision as a free agent. Ten days after Duluth lost in the Frozen Four final, Iafallo signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Los Angeles.
"There's a lot of great organizations out there," Iafallo said. "This one was the best for me. They're really pushing on development. I'm a development kind of guy. I felt like everything was in a good spot."
Julianna had similar clarity about moving to Columbus from Eden. She said her decision to go to Ohio State became clear as soon as she stepped on campus.
"I knew this was going to be my home for four years," she said. "Ohio State wasn't well known and being on this team made me appreciate building a program, being part of something that is bigger than ourselves. Work hard and be determined to make a difference, rather than coming on a team and, 'Oh, we're probably going to win this year.'"
Julianna has been part of major turnaround considering Ohio State went 10-25-1 as recently as the 2015-16 season, her sophomore year.
The best brother-sister combination in hockey is Phil Kessel and Amanda Kessel. Phil is two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Amanda was named to her second U.S. Olympic women's hockey team Monday.
Among other prominent brother-sister teams are Mike Reilly and Caitlin Reilly. Caitlin is a forward at the University of Minnesota and tied for third on the Golden Gophers with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 21 games. Mike, her older brother, is a defenseman for the Minnesota Wild and has seven assists in 29 games.
A strong thread of competitiveness runs through hockey families and brothers and sisters are no exception.
"It was not a rivalry," Tom Iafallo said. "But if one was doing really well, the other would have to do really well. They wanted to out-do the other one."
Said Julianna: "I was always the little sister that loved to do what he did."
Apart from shooting oranges into mush, Julianna remembers adventures including breaking lights in the basement during impromptu practices.
Some parents would object to the wreckage. But not their mother, Barbara, who understood it was all in pursuit of a good cause.
"She got used to it after a while," Julianna said. "She couldn't even be mad."