Kyle Bollers’ Twitter bio used to say that he was going to finish what his older brother started – a vow he made to become a professional hockey player after his talented sibling grew tired of the game and quit three years ago.
Now there’s a sibling rivalry going on to see who’ll reach the pros first, Kyle or older brother Cyril Bollers, Jr. They’re each taking distinctively different paths that they hope will lead to the same destination – the National Hockey League.
Kyle, 17, signed with the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League over the weekend after he impressed coaches with his play after he essentially joined the Spirit’s summer team as a walk-on and later out-played and out-hustled Saginaw’s top draft picks in training camp.
“It’s a big jump from where I was last year, a big opportunity for me to show what I have,” Kyle told me recently. “It’s a big step.”
Meanwhile, his 20-year-old brother C.J. flew to Sweden over the weekend to resume his career playing for a team outside of Stockholm, stoked by a renewed sense of passion and a greater appreciation for the game.
“He did kind of finish what I started, he just signed with an OHL team. I never did – I had the opportunity, but I never did,” C.J. said of Kyle’s vow. “Now he just has to make it to the NHL before I do, which I’m not going to let him do. We’ve got a little brotherly bet going on to see who does. It will just raise the competition and raise our games a bit more.”
Kyle is rooting for his brother to reach the NHL first but warned that “if he doesn’t, then I’m coming for him.”
Kyle has been trying to leap-frog a lot of players ever since he was passed over twice by major junior hockey teams in league drafts. He played last season for Michigan’s Traverse City Hounds in the U.S. Premier Hockey League, which gives young under-the-radar players a chance to showcase their skills for upper-level leagues and top NCAA hockey programs.
A left wing, Kyle finished fourth on the Hounds in scoring last season with 29 goals and 27 assists in 46 games as a 16-year-old rookie. He notched a goal and 2 assists in seven USPHL playoff games.
When his USPHL season ended, Kyle asked Spirit head scout Ian Meahgher if he could play on the OHL team’s summer squad.
“He eventually ended up being one of our top scorers and earned an invite to main camp,” Spirit General Manager Dave Drinkill said. “In camp, Kyle showed the skill and speed we were looking for when rounding out our forward group.”
Drinkill noted that “Very few players have come as far as Kyle has since being passed over in the OHL draft twice, and being able to earn a roster spot as a free agent invitee is quite the accomplishment.”
But he stressed that Kyle making the team isn’t a happy ending. It’s just a beginning.
“It’s one of those really feel-good stories but, like we told Kyle, ‘We’re not signing you just because it’s a feel-good story,'” he said. “‘We’re signing you because we think you have the ability to be a good hockey player down the road.'”
A lot of hockey people said the same about defenseman C.J. Bollers. The Guelph Storm liked him enough to take him in the ninth round with the 169th overall pick of the 2012 OHL draft.
But C.J. never signed with Guelph. A combination of hockey burnout and a bum collarbone took the joy out of the game. Instead of hockey, C.J. wanted to make a go of it in music or acting.
“After breaking my collarbone twice within six months, it kind of got into my head,” C.J. told me. “After that, I felt like I kind of plateaued because I wasn’t on teams I felt I should have been on. I was around the wrong people. They weren’t people with high aspirations in hockey. They were playing hockey to play minor hockey. I kind of developed that same mentality…I kind of felt bad for myself and then I couldn’t get out of that slump for a bit. I just dropped out of the game because I felt there was nothing left for me.”
The move was heartbreaking for his father, Cyril Bollers, head coach of the Toronto Red Wings Bantam AAA team; an associate coach for the Jamaican Olympic Ice Hockey Federation; and director of player development at Skillz Black Aces.
“I think I cried for about two years straight,” the elder Bollers told me. “Couldn’t watch the OHL on TV because he should have been there. I couldn’t watch the NHL draft because he could have been there, or should have been there. I spent a lot of time just driving, thinking, and ending up different places that I don’t know how I got there.”
But what dad didn’t know was that his son was having second thoughts. After talking to a friend whose soccer career ended because of a devastating knee injury and watching former youth hockey buddies like New York Islanders prospect Josh Ho-Sang, Montreal Canadiens 2015 draftee Jeremiah Addison and Columbus Blue Jackets farmhand Dante Salituro climb the hockey ladder, C.J. realized he loved the game and missed it.
“Coaches always tell you that you don’t want to be the one who looks back and say ‘What if?'” he said. “Unfortunately, I was that person who had to look back at all my friends grow up, do well, and succeed. Now it’s just my turn to catch up with them and…surpass them.”
After first telling his mother, C.J. told his father in May that he wanted to return to hockey. Dad’s reaction?
“I got on the phone and the next day he’s on the ice for three sessions,” the elder Bollers said.
C.J. has no illusions about the challenges ahead in shaking off three years of rust, living in a different country, and playing on larger European ice surfaces where skating skills are a must to survive.
“I know for a fact that if I put in the hard work, it will take me four or five years to maybe get to the NHL, and then from there maybe a bit more to get to Team Canada,” he said. “It took Joel Ward until he was 26 to get into the NHL.”
As for Kyle’s Twitter bio, he recently amended it to say “me and my brother are going to finish what we started.”