By Ed Reed
ESTERO, Fla. – Is the Sunshine State a good place to step out of a shadow?
That’s what Brian Sullivan is trying to find out.
The Florida Everblades’ rookie defenseman goes by a different name to many hockey people in his native Massachusetts: “Mike Sullivan’s little brother.”
And Mike Sullivan is a hard act to follow.
Consider having a brother who is 12 years older and parlayed a stellar four-year career at Boston University into 11 NHL seasons as a player and after retiring became the youngest NHL coach when hired in 2003 by his hometown Boston Bruins at age 35.
“It’s probably a little hard for him to really create his own identity and I know he prides himself on that he wants be his own person, and he is,” Mike Sullivan said. “Growing up, Boston has a small hockey environment — high school, college or pro environment.
“To his credit, he’s done a terrific job earning his stripes, creating his own identity as a person and player.”
Not to say there aren’t similarities.
“They look alike, talk alike, skate alike, it’s amazing,” said the Sullivans’ mother, Myrna. “It wasn’t like they grew up together skating, there was a 12-year difference. They even have the same sense of humor.”
They also both play a defensive brand of hockey, although Mike was a forward.
“If Mike was a defenseman, you’d probably see me,” said Brian Sullivan, 24. “We play very similarly. I grew up idolizing him. Hey, it worked for him. Be responsible on the ice, make the right decisions, blocking shots when I can and paying the price. It’s hard not to respect that.”
Sullivan’s father, George, remembered the first day Brian tried out for Boston College High School’s freshman team, for which Mike had played.
“There were probably 85 to 90 kids trying out,” the elder Sullivan said. “When he skated around, I thought I was looking at Mike all over again. It’s unbelievable the resemblance in the B.C. High uniform.”
Brian Sullivan has done his best to create his own path. He left B.C. High after his sophomore year to play at equally strong Thayer Academy. He chose to play at Boston University’s cross-town rival, Northeastern University.
But it looked like the hockey comparisons would end in 2003.
Although Sullivan had a year of eligibility left — he was a medical redshirt during his junior year — Northeastern showed little interest in giving him a scholarship to play another season. Sullivan earned a business degree while at Northeastern.
Instead Sullivan, a 1999 eighth-round draft choice by the Dallas Stars, transferred to tiny Division III University of Massachusetts-Boston, where he started working on graduate courses first and playing hockey second. It helped that UMass coach Jack Foley was a Stars scout and Sullivan’s former coach at Thayer Academy.
George Sullivan thought the move erased any hopes of his youngest son having a professional hockey career.
“I said to him, ‘Nobody’s going to look at you at a Division III school,’ ” the elder Sullivan said. “He was drafted by Dallas. What is Dallas going to say playing Division III?”
Sullivan excelled on the ice at UMass, scoring eight goals and 32 points while playing both defense and forward, en route to earning Eastern College Athletic Conference All-Conference honors.
“When I went there, I fell in love with the game again,” Sullivan said. “That’s when I think I really found something within me that told me that’s what I want to do, I want to go play.”
A day after UMass was eliminated from the playoffs, Sullivan started practicing with the American Hockey League’s Lowell Lock Monsters. He played his first two pro games with the Springfield Falcons on loan from Lowell and then seven games with the Lock Monsters to end the season.
Sullivan said that if it were not for his time at UMass, he would not be with the Blades right now.
“I saw what I could be as a player, even though it was at a lower level,” Sullivan said. “I think if I had not gone and played I think I would have been sitting at a desk when I’m 30 years old saying, ‘If I had brought that player to the pros, what could I have done?’ and it’s that player that I’m trying to find right now.”
Through his first 13 games for the Blades, Sullivan has two goals and a plus-2 plus/minus rating. He is not satisfied with his play thus far.
“I think I can be better than I’ve been,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s between my ears somewhere.
“I almost care too much. I want to play so well all the time that when things go bad for me, I beat myself up over it.”
That’s where being Mike Sullivan’s brother pays off.
“I talk with him a fair amount,” Mike Sullivan said. “It’s not an easy road. It’s not a glamorous life, like more people think. It is a lot of hard work and dedication. There are a lot of ups and downs in the game that as a player you go through.
“He has to carve his niche like everyone else. To have an opportunity to play in Fort Myers, it’s a nice place to live, the team has experienced some success in the past and there’s good in that.”
Ironically, the Blades almost saw Brian Sullivan last season.
The Stars wanted to send him to their AHL affiliate in Utah after UMass’ season. Dallas’ agreement with Utah fell apart, however, and Dallas asked if he would go to its ECHL affiliate in Idaho. The same Idaho club that beat Florida in the Kelly Cup Finals.
Sullivan received permission from Dallas to look for a different AHL team to sign with instead. Sullivan showed enough while with Lowell last year to be re-signed by the club and has been sent to Florida to discover the player he can become.
Maybe even another Mike Sullivan.
“Not that living in Mike’s shadow is the worst thing,” Brian Sullivan said. “At the same time you want to create your own identity to be Brian Sullivan, not Mike Sullivan’s brother. That’s motivated me a lot.
“I’ve proven people wrong time and again. That’s something Mike didn’t have to do and that’s where I think I have a leg up on him.”