The basis of almost every great movie is friendship.
Think of it: Marty McFly and Doc Brown in Back to the Future; Buzz and Woody in Toy Story; Stanley Ipkiss and Milo in The Mask; The Fantastic Four; the whole clan in The Goonies – I could go at this for hours.
When asked to write short stories in elementary school, I always cast my best friends in leading roles. All of us drove around in Dodge Vipers and solved cottage mysteries (listen, I never said they were any good). The idea of my core group being the perfect concoction of whit, skill, personality and performance to attain ultimate success – whether it be fame, fortune or heroics – kept my imagination busy for years.
It’s this same element which makes great the tale of four boys out of Akron, Ohio, winning on every level of basketball from the age of eleven on up. It was a team centring around this budding forward named Lebron. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a Saturday afternoon in late June, another chapter was written in such a tale. As Brian Burke made the remainder of his draft selections, two friends were united under a blue and white banner continuing a story 15 years in the making.
It starts something like this.
Matthew was three, and like every three year old he likely had the help of his mother when it came to tying his skates for the first time at Centennial Park Arena.
As he looked around ahead of his first skating lesson Matthew took note of, and pointed to, a boy of the same age wearing the identical shirt. Their mothers had coincidentally dressed the two in matching outfits. It was enough to catch Matthew’s eye, and draw his mother’s attention to his observation. So as their youngsters took to the ice for skating lessons, Mrs. Finn and Mrs. Brown (the mother of the similarly dressed boy) exchanged pleasantries for the very first time.
It was the first meeting between Matt(hew) Finn and Connor Brown. The two boys on the ice, learning to skate for the very first time. New York Times’ best sellers don’t even start off this good.
As the two families grew closer, Matt and Connor’s friendship began to grow. They started hockey together, playing for the West Mall Lightning mite team. Connor’s father, Dan Brown, was the head coach.
The drive to the rink on Saturday morning would start pretty darn early, often before 6am. Connor recalls piling into the minivan and making the same stop every Saturday for two years, breakfast a la Tim Horton’s drive-through. It was always the same for Connor, a sesame seed bagel and apple juice.
It was under Coach Brown that the winning started, and just didn’t seem to end.
Through one of the fledgling seasons, the two skating buddies met five new friends as the Lightning numbers were bolstered. Matt recalls five cuts being needed through the course of one campaign alone as the team numbers kept growing. Matt, Connor and their new friends comprised the core of a club that would win 10 straight city championships, a group of youngsters that would later be dubbed the magnificent seven.
“We didn’t lose a game in three years,” Matt said with a gaze in his eyes that almost summoned a soft chime and a wavy transition into a flashback. To be honest, he couldn’t recall suffering any more than 20 losses over the entire decade spent together.
As the children grew, the Finns and the Browns remained tight. When Matt and Connor were 12, the two families headed to Europe together for a Mediterranean cruise. The boys, who admitted they were a bit young to stray too far, remember the ping-pong table on the ship; Connor saying he was the better player, but only when Matt wasn’t around to rebut.
Connor laughs as he recounts the stop in Dubrovnik, Croatia. While atop the city’s encompassing walls, the two friends spotted an assembling of umbrellas outside the city limits. Curious as to what was concealed underneath, the boys were quickly disappointed when they discovered it was nothing more than a bar; something of little interest to twelve year olds. The nearby cliffs, however, were more to their liking.
The boys climbed the rocks and jumped into the water. They scaled higher and again leapt into the sea. As they continued to reach for new heights, the knees of the young adventurers came across the uncomfortable surface of a starfish. I’ve never personally brushed up against a starfish, but according to Connor, it sure made a mess of their legs.
From the sounds of it, it didn’t prevent the boys from continuing. Growing up with two brothers myself, I chuckled at the story. Connor, though, did point out how uncomfortable the remainder of the trip was.
As the two families grew together, end-of-season parties were often held at the Finn’s home and summer escapes taken at the Brown’s cottage in Orillia. Matt and Connor were inseparable; until major junior. Matt headed to Guelph to be a part of the Storm while Connor joined the Eerie Otters. The remaining members of that core group also being drafted into the OHL to a smattering of teams.
Now, fast forward two years.
We’re back at Burke’s draft table, June 23rd, 2012. With the Maple Leafs second pick, it is announced before the crowd and television audience the selection of Matt Finn. On hand in Pittsburgh, Matt accepts his new sweater and addresses the media.
With all the commotion the day brings, he very well may have missed the team’s sixth round selection. Drafted 156th overall, Connor Brown – who watched on from home – too would join the Maple Leafs.
It is almost too good to be true, but I assure you I’m not making this up.
A duo who had spent almost their whole life playing together, would now have the chance to suit up for the team they had spent all those years idolizing. Matt lives no more than a few blocks from MCC, the Maple Leafs training facility.
Connor has frequented Ricoh Coliseum a handful of times to watch the Marlies play, the team whose name mirrors his GTHL club.
Having missed the media crowds at the draft, Connor now stands in front of reporters at development camp with a big grin. His body language says he will handle this professionally, but his eyes give away his excitement.
When asked, Matt can’t find the words to describe what it means to be reunited with Connor. He stares into the rafters, with 15 years of memories flashing through his mind.
He knows this isn’t it; they both do. More than just one camp lay ahead for the two local stars.
But in the third day of scrimmages as the two Toronto natives sit in a dressing room – one likely a tad nicer than where they first met – and put on their skates and pull the same blue shirt over their head, it certainly is a fitting end to the chapter.
Team blue fell behind 3-0 to white in the opening period, but battled back and pushed it to overtime. Tyler Biggs scored the shootout winner with Brad Ross also notching a tally for blue in the tie-breaking format, while David Broll was the lone skater to reply for white.
Dominic Toninato, Charles Sarault and Justin Baker scored for team white during regulation while Tony Cameranesi, Greg McKegg and Biggs rallied the comeback goals for blue.
McKegg finished the three-game tournament with three goals, the highest of any of the camp attendees. Jamie Devane, Greg Carey, Sarault and Toninato all finished with two a piece.