For Johnny Beecher, brother's experience means he takes nothing for granted
Johnny Beecher always tapes his stick the same way.
The freshman forward isn’t unusual in that — most hockey players have a specific way in which they get their sticks ready for every practice and every game. Some take things a step beyond just the tape job and write something on the tape, whether that’s a dot indicating which stick is the most favored or something personally meaningful, like a cross.
Beecher always puts the same two initials on the white tape, the part he leaves exposed below his blue grip tape.
B.B. — his older brother Bryce’s initials.
Bryce and Johnny — three years and four months apart in age — played hockey together for as long as either of them could remember. Bryce started skating when he was two, and when his younger brother came along, the boys spent all day, every day playing every kind of hockey imaginable.
Floor hockey. Knee hockey. Mini sticks. Street hockey.
Everything except ice hockey, because Johnny hated ice skating at first.
“John actually didn’t start skating until he was like six years old,” Johnny and Bryce’s mom, Natasha, said. “It was too slippery for him at first. He didn’t like it. We put him on the ice twice before that and he literally told us it was too slippery.”
But when Johnny was six, falling further in love with the game after a summer of roller hockey, his parents put him back on the ice. Right away, he made the travel team for his local league in Elmira, N.Y., and he hasn’t looked back since.
“He was always naturally gifted when it came to athletics,” Bryce said. “When we were growing up, even before he played, we played a lot of street hockey. We were pretty big into the roller hockey so when he took to the ice, it came pretty naturally to him.”
When Johnny joined the Elmira Jackals, Bryce had already been playing in the organization for a few years. Suddenly, the brothers had one more kind of hockey to play together and another opportunity to spend time together.
For the next six or seven seasons, Johnny and Bryce kept up their routine of hockey, hockey and more hockey. From fall to spring, it was all about being on the ice. In the summers, it was street hockey all day with a gaggle of neighbors and knee hockey at night when it got too dark to stay outside.
Then, in 2015, the summer before Bryce’s senior year of high school, everything changed.
Natasha and Bill — Bryce and Johnny’s dad — knew there was something wrong long before then, when Bryce was just 13 months old. They could see that the way Bryce had learned to walk wasn’t normal.
At multiple doctor appointments earlier in Bryce’s life, doctors had assured the Beechers that he was fine. One pediatrician thought there was maybe an issue with his hips, but a subsequent visit to the orthopedist revealed nothing out of the ordinary.
But weeks after Bryce’s first birthday, Bill and Natasha finally got answers.
Bryce had been born with congenital hip dysplasia, and because it wasn’t diagnosed until after he started to walk, there was little the doctors could do to fix it. If hip dysplasia is caught early, it can be corrected and is unlikely to cause future problems. Because Bryce’s condition was so advanced — he’d essentially developed without hip sockets — surgery was, at best, a temporary fix before he had his hips replaced.
“His first surgery was when he was 13 months old, and then every couple years, he’d have another one,” Natasha said. “His last surgery before his replacement was when he was in third grade, and at that point they knew they couldn’t really do anything for him until it was time to have his hips replaced.”
And in the 16 some years between Bryce’s diagnosis and his bilateral hip replacement in 2015, his hips never slowed him down. He started skating when he was two and played competitive hockey for most of his life — in addition to playing both soccer and baseball.
“We didn’t want his hips or the lack of to define him,” Natasha said. “We encouraged him to live his life just as if everything was normal. He played right up until he had to have his surgery because he was in so much pain right before his senior year, so that unfortunately ended his hockey career.”
At age 17, just before his senior year of high school, Bryce had both of his hips replaced. Hockey — the one thing he and his brother had always shared — was suddenly taken away from him. It was clear that the surgery was necessary, but it didn’t make going through it much easier.
But the Beechers always approached Bryce’s situation as just something they had to deal with and get through, and that translated into how he approached the surgery and his recovery.
“At first you don’t really — you might not understand why, but I guess the way I always looked at it was that it could always be worse,” Bryce said. “Having a lot of surgeries growing up, I had the opportunity to see a lot of kids who were in wheelchairs or had some terminal illnesses or anything like that, so that’s how I kind of dealt with it was that it could always be worse, so just make the most of what you can or can’t do.”
After spending the first seven years of his hockey career with his brother, Johnny was suddenly on his own. Gone were the days where the two would spend hours on the ice, gone were the hours in the car to away games where the brothers grew even closer.
Two years later, as a sophomore in high school, Johnny moved from Elmira to Salisbury, Conn. to attend Salisbury School and play a year of prep school hockey. A year after that, he moved to Plymouth, Mich. to join the U.S. National Team Development Program, which is made up of the best U17 and U18 players in the country.
Both brothers say now that Johnny moving away brought them even closer, because they had to make an effort to keep in touch. They couldn’t take seeing each other for granted.
But in leaving home to chase his dreams in hockey, Johnny had to reconcile achieving his dreams in hockey, the sport they both grew up playing, with the fact that his brother couldn’t do the same.
“It was heartbreaking,” Johnny said. “You could see how sad it was for him to have to leave the sport behind and not play anymore, but at the end of the day, he’s never complained or said why me.
“… There’s times where I look back and I really think he deserves it with all the work he’s put in. He’s the hardest working kid I know. But at the end of the day, I’ve worked extremely hard as well. I know for a fact he would never want me to feel (guilty).”
It would’ve been natural, maybe even expected, for Bryce to develop a bit of jealousy as he watched his little brother continue to grow and excel in a sport he could no longer play. But Natasha, Bryce and Johnny are all quick to clarify that there’s never been even a hint of that.
“When he started really blossoming and having lots of success, I couldn’t have been any happier for him,” Bryce said. “If anything, I think it was a blessing for him to see me and my situation because I think it just gave him a greater appreciation of kind of, ‘Never take anything for granted because you never know when it can be taken away.’ ”
Added Natasha: “It makes us proud. I feel like sometimes some kids could look at it a little differently. Some brothers could look at it a little differently, but he’s never been more than happy and excited for John. That makes us proud as parents. It could, you could see how that could happen to a young person, but he’s never, ever once been jealous of anything, so that makes us really happy.”
Now, as Johnny moves into the tail end of his freshman year at Michigan and Bryce completes his schooling at Elmira College, the two remain incredibly close. They talk every single day, and while they don’t get to see each other as often as they’d like, when Bryce is able to make the trip to Ann Arbor, it’s like no time has passed.
And as Johnny achieves even greater successes in hockey — he was selected by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2019 NHL Draft — he’s always thinking about his brother and what he’s gone through.
When Johnny talks about his accomplishments, it’s never presented as something he’s done alone. It’s all been a team effort — him and Bryce, working together to achieve the dreams they both had as kids.
“He’s the reason I’m here today,” Johnny said. “… Every time I play hockey, I do it for him.”