By Adam Kaufman
Plenty of people have friends so dear to their hearts they’re considered family. Few of those folks, however, see that sentiment become a reality.
Barry Almeida and T.J. Syner are both rookies this year for the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears. Dig just a hair deeper and you’d learn they’re natives of Springfield, Mass., who grew up playing with or against one another since they were first learning how to skate.
What you may not realize is they’re also cousins.
It’s a funny story, actually.
Barry and T.J. have been the best of friends for as long as they can remember, skating on the same teams from youth hockey through their time with the New England Junior Falcons before going their separate ways but keeping in constant communication when facing off in the United States Hockey League and college.
But, about a decade ago when the two were in their teens, Barry’s uncle — Albert Calvanese — and T.J.’s aunt — Laura Gramse — met through the boys, hit it off and eventually got married. Suddenly, the close pals were related.
“It was kind of weird because we’d always refer to each other as friends our whole lives,” T.J. said. “Then, when they got married, even though we weren’t blood-related — we’re, I don’t even know, second or third cousins — people would always ask if we were related since we’re similar and always around one another. Now we just kind of laugh at it and say, ‘Yeah, we’re cousins.’ ”
The guys aren’t only similar off the ice — charismatic, honest, humble and fun-spirited — they’re remarkably alike on it.
Though T.J.’s the elder of the two 24-year-olds, only by about five weeks, Barry was the first to leave home when he joined the USHL’s Omaha Lancers for the 2006-07 campaign. He stuck around for a second season in the league — winning a Clark Cup championship — and that’s when T.J. followed him, but to the Indiana Ice, which presented their first opportunity to square off.
That became the norm for another four seasons as both were recruited to Hockey East schools — Barry to Boston College, where he won two championships on teams that averaged 28 wins over his four seasons, and T.J. by UMass, a chance to play very close to home in Amherst with a squad that never won more than 18 games and managed to see its season ended three times in the conference playoffs by those pesky Eagles.
While their teams had far different successes, the guys thrived individually and almost equally. Barry’s collegiate career ended with 45 goals and 92 points in 159 games, while T.J. boasted 60 assists of his 97 points in just 135 contests. Both stood out as seniors — on the score-sheets and as captains — but neither had been drafted, leaving their future options wide-open.
T.J.’s season wrapped up on March 10 of last year, courtesy of an Eagles sweep in the Hockey East quarterfinals, so the Hobey Baker nominee signed an amateur tryout agreement with the Bears four days later.
“I called him to congratulate him and he was saying how I was up next,” laughed Barry. “We were saying how it’d be crazy if we ended up playing together but we didn’t know anything at this point. It just so happened that when my season ended — we both have the same agent — they were interested in me also, so that made my decision easier because I wanted to go somewhere where I was really close with someone. Getting an opportunity to play together again was a no-brainer.”
And so Barry signed his contract with Hershey on April 15, a week after capping an All-American college season with a national title. He appeared in just two games with the Bears late in the year, scoring a goal on only his second career shift. T.J. finished with an assist in his pro debut, his lone point in 10 games.
They spent the summer looking ahead, training and working hard for an opportunity to enjoy this season together in the AHL, perhaps with eyes on an even bigger prize, but the National Hockey League’s 119-day lockout threw a wrench in their plans. When the hockey season started, T.J. was assigned to the ECHL’s Reading Royals.
“It was tough,” admitted T.J. “Obviously at the end of last year, I came to Hershey, played some games, and maybe my production wasn’t where I wanted it to be, so I was kind of set back when I first came into camp. It was a numbers game.”
It was disappointing for Barry, too. He’d lost the one person who basically made a strange new place feel like home.
Fortunately, though, the demotion was brief. T.J. was recalled in late October after just five games, where he was a point-per-game player for the Royals. The cousins were together again. For about three weeks.
On Nov. 21, it was Barry’s turn to head to Reading. The gritty winger had gotten off to a slow start in the AHL — with three points in 13 games — and this assignment lasted a while. Just like their junior hockey or college days, he and T.J. had to bond from afar.
“We told each other when one of us was down to keep working and things would work out,” Barry remembered. “Being down there, it’s not the end of the world but it’s not what you plan for. You want to stay up. That’s pro hockey, too, you just never know. Luckily things worked out.”
Barry was an unstoppable force at the Double-A ranks with seven goals and 19 points. The timing was good for him as the end of the NHL’s work stoppage resulted in a few promotions from Hershey to Washington, and a trickle-down effect that reunited him with his cousin in southern Pennsylvania in mid-January. They’re even living together.
“Having T.J. away from the rink is awesome,” said Barry. “We can talk to one another, take criticism from one another, and stuff like that. It’s awesome to have him with me, someone I’m close to. Some guys, in talking with them, they don’t have that where they are.
“It’s made going pro an easy transition,” he continued. “Guys still give us a hard time in the locker room, saying we’re like the same person — typical locker room talk — but it’s obviously great to have him with me. I don’t like to be uptight and I can always look to him for a laugh.”
The transition hasn’t only been great for the boys. Imagine the ease on their families!
“When he went to BC and I went to UMass, our families only really got to see the other one of us play when we went against each other,” T.J. said. “Now we can kind of go back to the old days when our families used to travel together and take the long road trips to see us play. It’s kind of full-circle. It’s unbelievable.”
“It’s especially nice for my mom,” added Barry. “She’s always worried about me, even though I’m 24 years old. She still thinks I’m a little baby. Having T.J. around, she knows I’m happy and there’s someone else keeping an eye on me.”