TAMPA — When Lightning wing Ryan Callahan delivers a hard check to Canadiens captain Brian Gionta during this week's first-round playoff series, consider it payback for their many childhood battles.
Callahan, 29, and Gionta, 35, grew up just a few minutes away from each other in Greece, N.Y., a small suburb of Rochester. Callahan was good friends with Gionta's younger brother Stephen, 30, now a Devils center. Gionta hung out with Callahan's older brother Mike.
Whether they played street hockey in the cul-de-sac in front of Callahan's family home, or on the frozen pond in front of the Giontas, the bigger brothers typically got the better of the smaller siblings.
"We beat up those two," Gionta said, smiling.
"Yeah, they did," Callahan said. "Maybe the roles will be a little reversed now in this series."
While the two took different paths from Greece to Wednesday's Game 1 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, they've remained close, working out together every day in the summer back in Rochester where they both still live. Their families hang out and their kids play together, making this a unique friendly rivalry.
"It'll be cool," Callahan said. "He was one of the players I looked up to. Early in my career, I got a chance to play against him in the playoffs when he was with New Jersey and I was with New York (in the 2006-07 Eastern Conference quarterfinals). That was an awesome experience. I think it'll be fun to look across the ice and know that you're battling with a guy you know so well."
As a kid, Callahan watched reruns of Sabres games instead of Sesame Street. Gionta helped him believe, setting the bar high by getting drafted 82nd overall by the Devils in 1998 during a decorated four-year career at Boston College, where he led the Eagles to a national title in 2001.
Meanwhile, Callahan scraped and clawed for every opportunity. He got selected in the 15th and final round of the 2001 Ontario Hockey League draft, picked by Guelph coach Jeff Jackson as a favor to a friend, Callahan's agent Steve Bartlett.
"He's a hard-working kid, earned everything he's got," Gionta said. "It's great to see him rewarded for that."
But Bartlett, who represents both Callahan and Gionta, said the two are very similar in their working-class roots and humble stature (Callahan is 5 feet 11, Gionta 5-7). They've both overcome doubts to become Olympians and captains of original six teams (Callahan with the Rangers).
"They were often told, 'Careful what you wish for' a little bit because size is going to be a factor," Bartlett said. "And it didn't faze them at all."
They've pushed each other during offseason training the past six years, joining a handful other pros at Rochester Institute of Technology. "We do the exact same workouts," Gionta said.
But they've turned into different players. Gionta is a seven-time 20-goal scorer, including 48 in 2005-2006, boasting more flash.
"He's a very skilled, fast player," Callahan said. "And I maybe get my goals in a little bit different ways, more in the dirty areas in front of the net."
Callahan, acquired in early March from the Rangers for captain Marty St. Louis, has made a significant impact. He has six goals and five assists in 19 games with Tampa Bay, providing an edge and grit that coach Jon Cooper said was needed. Callahan has broken bones by blocking shots, garnering respect for doing the dirty work in front.
"You can have all the skill that you want, but if you don't have any will, skill doesn't matter," Cooper said. "And he brings that to our team. He never quits. He scraps it out. He's a gamer, you can't have enough gamers."
Off the ice, Gionta said the two have similar personalities and interests. Gionta and his wife, Harvest, have three children, Adam, James and Leah. Callahan and his wife, Kyla, his high school sweetheart, have a daughter, Charlotte, born the same month as James, in May 2012.
In their shared hobbies, Callahan and Gionta are just as competitive as they are in head-to-head hockey matchups, like when Gionta's Devils eliminated Callahan's Rangers in the 2006-07 playoffs.
"Ask him, I kill him in tennis all the time," Callahan says, laughing.
"I beat him at everything," Callahan said. "That's how it works."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]om. Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.
Lindback is NHL's first star
TAMPA — Lightning goalie Anders Lindback was named the NHL's first star of the week on Monday. Lindback, who stepped in when starter Ben Bishop injured his elbow April 8, went 3-0-0 with a .067 goals against average and .975 save percentage. That included Sunday's 1-0 shootout victory over the Capitals to help Tampa Bay clinch home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs. Ducks goalie John Gibson and Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen were the other two stars.
Joe Smith, Times staff writer