On Sunday, John and Jim Harbaugh will be the first brothers to coach against each other in a Super Bowl. Two years ago, they were the first brothers to coach against each other in any NFL game.
In 1971, my brother, Dave, and I were the first brothers to play as goalies against each other in an NHL game. Forty-two years later, we are still the only brothers to have done so.
The moment didn’t feel like I thought it would.
It happened in late March, not long after I had been brought up to the Montreal Canadiens from the minor leagues. I had played two games with the Canadiens. The next game was in Montreal against the Buffalo Sabres; Dave played for the Sabres. A few days before, I had been told by our coach, Al MacNeil, that the Canadiens’ first-string goalie, Rogie Vachon, would play.
That night, my father called from Toronto and said he thought he’d drive to Montreal for the game. I tried to discourage him, telling him what MacNeil had told me, knowing how disappointed he would be. He said he would come anyway.
Buffalo was an expansion team playing out its first season. The Canadiens, stuck in an unpromising year, were waiting for the playoffs to begin. (To everyone’s surprise, we would win the Stanley Cup that year). A visiting team designates its starting lineup first; Sabres’ coach, Punch Imlach, wrote in Dave’s name as his goalie. MacNeil wrote in Vachon’s. After the game’s initial stoppage in play, when Imlach was first allowed to make a change, he replaced Dave with Joe Daley. Dave and I sat on opposing benches watching the game.
Early in the second period, there was a scramble around the Canadiens’ net, Vachon went down, and didn’t get up. A few minutes later, he was still down. MacNeill motioned for me to go in. When Imlach saw me leave the bench, he sent Dave in.
For years in neighbourhood ball hockey games we had played against each other, each of us announcing in our heads our own personal NHL games.
Each of us made fabulous, impossible saves, neither of us imagined that this would ever be us. Then years later here we were, in the Montreal Forum; and, because he had taken a chance, our father, was sitting in the stands watching us.
I couldn’t get comfortable in the game. Already struggling with the sense of unreality that I’d felt since joining the team – if this is me, this can’t be the real NHL – this was worse: if this is me and Dave, this really can’t be the NHL. I felt like I was outside myself. But I had a game to play. I had a new team. I had to prove myself. The Canadiens had been ahead when we both went in; the Canadiens stayed ahead. The game ended. I never felt part of it.
Dave and I played against each other a few more times in other years. It was never fun. When I played, I didn’t want to think about anything. Not about injury or illness, not about bad things, or good, at home, not about opponents, not about winning or losing, about what each would mean, how each would feel. I wanted to empty my mind. I wanted just to do. But if Dave was there, I couldn’t pull that off. If we won, how would he feel? If they won, how would I feel? Would things be different? I wanted us to win every game. I needed to make every game I played personal to put everything into that game that needed to go into it to win. When I played against Dave, I couldn’t make it personal. And if I couldn’t put everything into it, I couldn’t play.
I always envied the Esposito brothers. They seemed to love playing against each other. Phil would laugh at Tony if he scored; Tony would screech at Phil if he stopped him. Maybe it’s different when one brother is a shooter and the other a goalie. Even if Phil had scored on Tony every game they played – and he didn’t – even if scoring one shot out of seven for a shooter is success and stopping six shots out of seven for a goalie is failure, for bragging rights it seems different. Brothers don’t do the math.
For our father watching the games, he would find a place to stand, then grimace and contort himself for sixty minutes making every save at both ends. Our mother, after asking us if it was all right, stopped going altogether. When it had been only one of us in a game, she could keep her eyes on the floor in front of her when the puck was in our zone, then raise them slowly when she was sure it wasn’t. When it was both of us, she had nowhere to look but the floor.
I don’t know how it will be for John and Jim Harbaugh and their family. The two brothers are only fifteen months apart in age (Dave and I are almost six years). That made the Harbaughs rivals, not just big brother and little brother, hero and hero-worshipper. They are more used to this, and their parents are too. Being coaches will also make it easier. They are busy every moment of the game. They are also widely separated from each other, as goalies are, but goalies are part of the action itself in a way coaches aren’t quite. Goalies are more aware of each other. They feel each other.
The Harbaughs may enjoy coaching against each other in the Super Bowl as much as they do against other coaches, or they may not. But this I know. Some years from now when John isn’t coaching the Ravens and Jim the 49ers, this game won’t be about the Ravens and 49ers. It won’t be about who won or who lost. Deeper than that, for them and for their family, it will be about the Harbaughs.
When that first game in Montreal was over, I skated toward the boards to get off the ice. But Dave knew something I didn’t. He skated past centre directly into my line, and we did what hockey players don’t do at the end of a game. We shook hands. I have two pictures on my wall from my time with the Canadiens. This is one of them.