LIKE BROTHERS

Stephen Kelly had just been cut by his junior hockey team in Janesville, Wisconsin, at the end of training camp and was looking for a place to play during the 2014-15 season. Enter fellow Columbus native Tanner Bennett, who was beginning his first season with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights, then of the Eastern Hockey League.

Justin Lyle, then the Knights’ head coach, still recalls getting Bennett’s sales pitch.

“A short time after (Bennett) was there,” Lyle said, “he came into my office and he said, ‘Hey listen, I’ve got one of my really good friends, I grew up with him. He’s having a bad go, and would you give him the opportunity?’ And I remember like it was yesterday — I said to him, ‘Well, is he anything like you? Because if he is, he’s got a spot on the team.'”

To say that Kelly is something like Bennett is, to put it mildly, an understatement.

The two were born just one day apart — Kelly on April 7, 1995, and Bennett on April 8. They played youth hockey together in Columbus from the age of 8 up until 2012, when Kelly left before his senior year at Columbus North to play junior hockey in Minnesota.

Bennett, a year behind Kelly in school, also departed before his senior year, playing juniors in Massachusetts. The following season, he landed with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton — and thanks to his successful lobbying job, he’s been reunited with Kelly for the past two seasons.

They’ve excelled as linemates for the Knights, who are in their first season of play in the more competitive North American Hockey League. Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Bennett is the team’s fourth-leading scorer with 15 goals and 20 assists (35 points) in 58 games. Kelly is right behind him with 17 goals and 12 assists (29 points).

Attached at the hip for most of their lives, Bennett and Kelly share a bond that has produced magic on the ice but also thrived off of it as well.

Instant connection

Bennett and Kelly weren’t the only kids their age playing youth hockey in Columbus, but it didn’t take long for the two to become fast friends once the sport brought them together.

“It was just an instant bond with them from the beginning,” Stephen’s mother, Lisa Kelly, recalled.

Through the years, they became more and more inseparable, and their on-ice chemistry continued to improve, thanks in part to some late weekend nights playing street hockey in their driveways.

“Every weekend we played until 1 or 2 in the morning,” Stephen Kelly recalled. “I remember we always had to patch the garage doors at our houses at the end of the summer.”

Judy and Bryan Bennett recently replaced their garage doors, hopeful that the consistently heavy damage they’d sustained over the years is now a thing of the past.

If a hailstorm happens to come along, so be it — but the Bennetts are hopeful that their new doors won’t be getting dented and punctured by hockey pucks anymore.

As long as Tanner and Stephen keep coming around, though, there are no guarantees — and when one is around, the other usually isn’t far.

They’ve been roommates in Pennsylvania for the past two years. When the two came home after last season, Lisa Kelly was sure Stephen would want a little time away from Tanner, but that didn’t materialize.

“They would hang out every day,” she said, “and it’s like, ‘Don’t you get tired of each other?'”

We are family (or families)

Part of the reason that the relationship between Stephen and Tanner has grown so strong over the years is that the Kelly and Bennett families have gotten along so well. Tanner’s older brother, Brad Bennett, and Stephen’s father, GJ Kelly, coached the boys through youth hockey and high school, and Stephen’s older brother James was a high school teammate with the Columbus Icemen.

Both households share similar values and have grown extremely close over the years — and now, the families even gather together each weekend to watch live Internet streams of Knights games on FastHockey.com.

With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton playing in Alaska the last two weekends, it was tough to keep that routine going — the games were starting at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time. But the parents’ dedication was rewarded.

The Knights won both of their games last weekend in Soldotna, Alaska. On Friday night, Bennett scored a shorthanded goal off an assist from Kelly in a 4-3 overtime victory. On Saturday, it was Kelly scoring the game-winner off an assist from Bennett in a 2-0 triumph.

Seeing such a connection between the two on the ice is nothing new for James Kelly, who played with Stephen on the Icemen for two years and with Tanner for one.

“They’re both great players, but together, they’re just amazing,” he said. “They just know where each other are at all times, and they make amazing plays.”

The bond between Stephen and Tanner goes well beyond hockey, however. Sporting matching hockey mullets, the two bear enough of a resemblance to one another that they’ll try to pass themselves off as brothers outside of Columbus. According to Tanner, they pull the trick with new teammates and see how long the ruse lasts each time.

Lisa Kelly wasn’t buying it until she saw firsthand how well it worked.

“We went out there in November and we were at a restaurant,” she said, “and the waitress said something about the twins.”

Considering how welcome each is made to feel in the other’s home — each mother said she cares for the other’s son as if he were her own — they may as well be twins.

Separate ways

Though their friendship will continue on for many years to come, the on-ice connection between Stephen and Tanner is nearing its end. The Knights wrap up the regular season this weekend in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and whenever the team’s run in the NAHL playoffs comes to an end, that’s all she wrote. Both Columbus players turn 21 in April, meaning this is the end of the line in terms of junior hockey eligibility.

Next winter, both will be playing at the collegiate level, but not for the same team — Tanner committed last month to play for Wisconsin-River Falls, while Stephen recently committed to play at Buffalo State in New York. Both are NCAA Division III programs.

The two took four of their five college visits together, but as Tanner noted, “We figured out Buffalo State was a better fit for him and Wisconsin was better for me. It just worked out that way.”

Lyle, the coach who brought them together at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, believes the two could end up playing against one another someday in the Division III playoffs.

Whether they’re on opposite sides of the red center line or not, Stephen and Tanner will continue to maintain the close relationship that hockey enabled them to cultivate together in Columbus.

“We feel like brothers, for sure,” Stephen said. “We’ve been playing hockey on the same team since we’ve been 8, and we’ve been living together the last two years. I mean, I’ve got a blood brother, but he’s the closest thing to it that’s not blood.”

“It’s pretty unique,” Tanner added. “I don’t think anyone can say that they share a bond like that.”

What is junior hockey?

Junior hockey is defined as competition for players between the ages of 16 and 21. Many players use junior hockey as a stepping stone to either an NCAA collegiate team or to a professional career.

In the United States, the junior hockey system is split up into three tiers:

Tier I: The United States Hockey League (USHL) is the lone Tier I league in the country. Unlike the top Canadian junior leagues, the USHL does not pay a stipend to its players, making the league a popular destination for those hoping to play collegiate hockey before pursuing a professional career.

Tier II: The North American Hockey League (NAHL) is the nation’s only Tier II league and the largest junior league in the United States. Though the talent level is not as high as in the USHL, many NAHL players go on to play for collegiate programs, including some at the Division I level.

Tier III: There are 10 Tier III leagues across the United States sanctioned by USA Hockey. Most Tier III players are hoping to work their way up to a Tier I or II team, though some will move on directly to small college programs.

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.