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A family affair

Mike Tanev was in town to watch his sons Brandon and Chris play each other on Wednesday

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

As Penguins winger Brandon Tanev prepared to face off against his brother Christopher on Wednesday night as Pittsburgh hosted the Vancouver Canucks, their father, Mike, was watching him and chuckling from his seat in PPG Paints Arena.

"He's wound up tighter than a drum tonight, especially with us here and Christopher on the other team," Mike remarked to his buddy sitting next to him. "Somebody on Vancouver is going to get put into the fourth row tonight."

After Pittsburgh's eventual wild 8-6 win over Vancouver, where Brandon and Chris each recorded an assist, Mike stood outside the family room checking the stats on his phone while he waited to see his boys.

"Brandon ended up with six hits," he said before shaking his head. "That game was unbelievable."

Which is a fitting word to describe Chris and Brandon's path to the NHL.

"It's definitely something I don't think a lot of people or ourselves envisioned when we were 15, 16, 17 years old," Chris said. "Things happen quickly and they happened for the better for us. Obviously, our parents raised us well, they raised us to work hard and I think they're both very proud of us right now."

He couldn't be more right.

***

Mike currently lives in Scarborough, a borough of Toronto - just a five-hour drive from Pittsburgh. Needless to say, he was thrilled when Brandon chose to sign with the Penguins this summer since he'll be able to attend more games in person. And the Nov. 27 matchup against Vancouver was the first one he circled on his calendar.

"I kill two birds with one stone," Mike said.

Mike talks with his sons after every single one of their games. When he's not in attendance, they'll call him to discuss what happened on the ice. But on Wednesday, he appreciated the chance to speak with them both in person.

"I share what I saw, my own opinion, of course," Mike said before adding with a laugh, "Never arguing with Christopher. Always arguing with Brandon. Because Brandon is never wrong. Brandon is always right."

Ask anyone who knows Chris and Brandon and they'll tell you that off the ice, the two brothers couldn't be more different.

"I was joking about that with Brandon this morning (before the game)," laughed Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, who coached Chris for one season as an assistant with the Canucks in 2014-15. 

"I really enjoyed coaching Chris. He's a real smart defenseman. He's a mobile guy. He's got a great stick. He's a good defender. But he doesn't say a whole lot. Chris is a quiet and reserved guy. Brandon is a ball of energy. He's a very different personality."

That's the exact same assessment that Chris himself made when comparing the two of them.

"He's always talking, he's always buzzing around, he's always trying to chirp someone or do something like that," Chris said of Brandon. "I think I'm more quiet, laid-back."

Those differences translate to their styles of play as well. As Sullivan said, Chris is a smart, solid and steady defenseman. Brandon is a physical, fast and tenacious winger. But what they do have in common is their work ethic and perseverance.

***

"Listen guys, don't worry about it - only my son is going to make it to the NHL."

That's what the boys' mother, Sophie, would jokingly tell other moms at the rink when Chris, who is the oldest of the three Tanev boys, was playing.

"Never in a million years did I actually think it could happen," she said. "He's a great player, the odds are just so slim."

That's what she told Derek Jory, the writer for the Canucks official website, when he visited Chris in his hometown of Toronto in the summer of 2012 - a few years before Brandon, the middle child, would be Sophie's next son to defeat all odds and also make it to the NHL.

But as if the odds weren't already slim enough, factor in that both boys stopped playing competitive hockey during their teenage years because they were deemed too small, and they turn astronomical. Somehow, both Chris and Brandon overcame that. So, to see them go against each other years into successful NHL careers is pretty mind-blowing.

"It's so really hard to explain," Mike said. "As a father, you're so proud of the moment that they're in the NHL, but you're watching them against each other, and it's just one of those things where it's surreal. 

"My kids were actually left at the bottom of the barrel because they were small. And all of a sudden, they grew and thankfully, they were able to get scholarships to play college hockey. After that, that took over."

Chris was the first one to put on skates when he was, as Mike put it, "old enough to try it." They went to parent-tot skates at the Victoria Village Arena in the North York borough of Toronto, and while Chris caught on fairly quickly, finding properly-sized equipment was an issue.

"There wasn't equipment small enough for Christopher," Mike said. "It was huge. When Christopher put on his equipment, if he fell down he could hardly get back up because it was too big."

For a while, Sophie would open the door, run out and grab Chris, but eventually let him figure out how to stand up on his own two feet. Brandon eventually followed in those footsteps, which was a sign of things to come for their hockey careers.

They both played youth hockey in the Greater Toronto Hockey League until their teenage years, which is when they started to encounter their biggest obstacle.

Going into Chris' minor midget year, he got cut from seven different teams because he was just 5-feet tall. At that same age, Brandon was a smidge smaller at just 4-foot-10 and, as Mike estimates, "about 75 or 80 pounds," so he experienced the same naysayers. 

"Everybody in Toronto seemed to think you had to be big to play," Mike said. "I said OK, that's fine. So, I pulled them out of hockey, let them play high school hockey, let them grow up with friends they're going to have for the rest of their lives because hockey wasn't going to be something that went on for 30 years. And I told them when you grow, you'll play."

Looking back on it, Chris loved that he and Brandon both got to live normal teenage lives while attending high school at East York Collegiate Institute.

"A lot of guys that are playing in the NHL were in the OHL or in the U.S. programs and were a lot more focused on hockey, and I think we sort of got to enjoy ourselves," Chris said. "Go to school, try to do well in class, hang out with your buddies and live a more normal high school life."

Though that whole time, the love for the game was still there, so Chris and Brandon played roller hockey and worked on developing their skills. Chris' growth spurt eventually hit, and he 

was able to earn a scholarship to RIT for the 2009-10 season. He signed with Vancouver the following year. Turns out, dad was right.

"When he made the NHL and got to play his first game and made himself a great career, it's a very special moment," Brandon said. "He's a role model for myself. To see him go through that process and making that dream come true for himself, it made a light at the end of the tunnel for me."

Brandon went on to get an invite to Canucks prospect development camp in 2011 before committing to Providence for the 2012-13 season.

"When he went to Providence he got better and better and better every year," Mike said. "Then his third year of college he really turned the corner, became one of those guys that everybody loved to have on their team and everybody hated to play against. Then there was interest from NHL clubs."

After helping the Friars win their first-ever NCAA championship in program history after scoring the game-winning goal against Jack Eichel and Boston University in the title game in 2015, Brandon signed with Winnipeg.

"I'm very proud of him," Chris said. "He's worked tremendously hard. He played four years of college and he was a bit older when he came and signed. Fortunately, he had a bunch of options to pick from. He chose a really good fit in Winnipeg and things worked out well."

After three-plus seasons with the Jets, Brandon signed a six-year contract with the Penguins as an unrestricted free agent this summer. When he told his dad about his decision, Mike was certainly happy about the proximity, but also because he felt like it was a perfect fit for his son's style of play.

"When he told me he was going to sign in Pittsburgh, with it being a sports town and a blue-collar town, I said they're going to love you," Mike said. "They don't know you yet, but once they see you play a couple of times and they get what you do, they're going to like you. Because that's Pittsburgh. That's what they like."

And that's exactly what has happened, with Brandon off to a strong start with five goals and 12 points in 24 games while endearing himself to Penguins fans with that boundless energy of his.

"People have to remember that Brandon missed hockey for four and a half years," Mike said. "So, he'll be 28 years old in December, but in hockey life he's like 23, 24 years old."

***

When the brothers played each other for the first time on Dec. 20, 2016, it was an incredibly special moment - especially considering everything they had been through to get there.

"And it was different because we had never really done it," Chris said. "We practiced together on the ice growing up, and had fun competing at the outdoor rink or playing road hockey or mini-sticks and things like that. Playing a game was a little bit different. It was a little bit weird."

But in typical sibling fashion, what the boys were most concerned about is who was going to win.

"We hate losing to each other," Chris told Ben Kuzma of the Vancouver Province heading into that first head-to-head matchup. "If you've ever been to our house, there's an argument going on about something. We're all pretty competitive. It's obviously a special moment for the family and it's pretty cool, but I'm not going to let him win. If anything, I want to beat him and he wants to beat me."

While Chris did prevail that day with the Canucks defeating the Jets, 4-1, Brandon's teams have been on the right side ever since. When he was with the Jets, they reeled off seven straight wins against Vancouver. And Brandon continued that Wednesday with the Penguins, improving his record against Chris to 8-1.

"That was a crazy game," Brandon said after he and Chris made their way over to see their dad.

"Got your money's worth tonight," Chris agreed.

With that, they made plans to head off to dinner - Mike would drive his group, while Brandon would drive Chris and some of their buddies - to discuss the game in more detail and get some quality time together. The timing of the game really couldn't have been more perfect with the Thanksgiving holiday.

"It's nice being close to home and having that opportunity for my family to come up, especially when Chris is in town," Brandon said. "So that's exciting."

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