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Punkari brothers in arms - and on ice

Sharing a sibling bond far tighter than most, the Punkari brothers could not be more different when it comes to their respective hockey games.

Yet for the first time in their life, Jake Punkari (20) and younger brother Ryan (18) enjoyed the opportunity to suit up on the same team, spending the 2013-2014 season as teammates with the Sudbury Nickel Barons.

Looking at their backgrounds, safe to say that this was a most unexpected convergence. Jake had played the bulk of his life at the rep "A" level, mixing in a couple of years with the Lively Hawks high school team as he grew older, not the type of resume that would normally draw junior hockey attention.

"My dad convinced me to go skate with the Barons, two years ago, because Ryan was going for a skate," said Jake. "I honestly didn't think it was even an option for me."

"I was getting ready to play beer leagues with my dad," he laughed. "They ended up keeping me as a seventh defenceman last year, but then I made the switch to forward."

By contrast, little brother Ryan has drawn attention since his first foray into the minor hockey scene, working his way through the "AAA" stream and earning a tryout with the London Knights of the OHL last fall.

While he was pleased with his performance in training camp, Ryan was not all that surprised to be looking at other junior opportunities as early September came along.

The thought of finally getting a chance to suit up alongside his older brother was attractive, yet he didn't want to forego the chance of greater exposure, perhaps, staying in southern Ontario.

It was the exit interview with London head coach Mark Hunter that clinched the deal. "He said that there is no place like home, nothing like sleeping in your own bed, still having your mom make your meals," said Ryan.

"If you can, play for your hometown junior team, he told me." Not that the smooth-skating forward needed much prompting. And so began an unlikely alliance, one forged in bloodlines, but seperated by drastically dissimilar hockey bios.

"I am mostly an energy guy," confessed Jake. "I go 110% every shift. I play a simple game, I play a systems game. Whatever my coaches say, that's what I try and do."

Known mostly as a goal scorer in his youth, Ryan, by contrast, has developed a more well-rounded game. "I'm a pretty defensive forward, but my role is to also help put the puck in the net," explained younger brother.

"I'm not a natural goal scorer, but I try and do whatever I can on the ice." It worked out pretty well for Ryan. The NOJHL rookie finished fourth in team scoring, amassing 33 points in 50 games, just five less than team leader August Jarecki.

The sharing of information regarding their respective strengths came easily to the Punkari's. "At the start of last year, when I first made the move to forward, I had to ask Ryan about some moves, because I had always played defence," said Jake.

"I had to get him to teach me how to take a faceoff, show me different tricks on how to win a faceoff." Reciprocally, Jake ensured that should the need arise, Ryan would know how to handle himself should the gloves be dropped.

Not that he wouldn't have his back. "When I got back from my concussion, my first game, one of the players from North Bay ran me from behind," recalled Ryan.

"Jake was pissed. He broke his stick and went after the guy for the next two games." Their relationship, however, extended far beyond the surface of the ice.

"We're very close, in terms of brothers," acknowledged Jake. "We're buddies before we're brothers. We would eat pre-game meals together, share head-phones, fight over dress clothes. We did everything together."

The moments were not lost, in the least, on the remainder of the family clan. "Our family had never seen "Punkari" on the back of a jersey before and there we are, standing on the blueline for "O Canada", brothers next to each other," said Ryan with a smile.

"It was an awesome experience." Graduating from the ranks of the NOJHL this spring, Jake will also complete his time at Cambrian College, moving on from the power-line program and looking for work.

As for Ryan, he is keeping his options open heading into the 2014-2015 campaign. But regardless of where he calls home, it's more than likely his older brother will never be too far away.

Orendorff and Associates