It’s kind of fitting that brothers Milan and Nenad Gajic are on opposite sides of one of the best rivalries in college hockey. After all, the Michigan sophomore and the Michigan State freshman have been competing with each other their whole lives.
“The way we grew up, with four boys in the house, all two years apart, you have to be (competitive) or you’re going to die,” Milan, the first-born, said. “Even when you go for dinner, if you’re not there early, if you tell them to hold on, there’s no holding on. And you either get up there, get your chicken or your meat, or you’re not eating for the night.”
The Burnaby, British Columbia natives competed in just about everything they did.
“Even playing road hockey in front of the house, the games would start out laid back, and they’d end up breaking into fights,” their mother, Helen Gajic, said.
The two forwards were teammates in juniors, and Nenad talked to Michigan when he was choosing a college. But he decided that after years of following in Milan’s footsteps, it was time to “try to get out of his shadow.”
Now, Nenad stands in Milan’s path to the CCHA title. The brothers will skate on opposite sides for the first time in their hockey careers when the Spartans and the Wolverines meet in a home-and-home series this weekend. Nenad has “been looking forward to it all year,” and Milan already has a post-game plan.
“If we – when we – take (the game) here, I’m not going to say anything that night,” Milan said of today’s matchup at Yost Ice Arena. “I’m going to wait until after the Saturday night game, just see how it goes.”
Both brothers said there hasn’t been much trash talking between them this week. They’re close friends – although they have different personalities.
“I’m a lot more outgoing,” the brother in the maize-and-blue jersey said. “I like to scream and yell and get things done. He’s a video-game-type guy, and I just don’t want to go anywhere near it. If I can win at it, I don’t want to play it.”
So who’s the better hockey player?
“I’m going to say he is, because he’s my older brother, and I’ve always looked up to him,” Nenad said, adding that having a brother who knows the ropes – even one that plays for his archrival – has been “a big help.”
Milan should soak up the compliments while he can, because they’ll disappear once the Gajic boys hit the ice, especially with so much at stake.
Michigan sits four points behind first-place Ferris State in the CCHA standings, and it needs to win its last eight games to catch the Bulldogs. Four of those, including the pair this weekend, are against the red-hot Spartans.
Michigan State spent the first half of the season in the bottom half of the conference standings.
“Frustrating is a good word for the first part of our year,” Nenad said. “We were losing games we expected to win. And I think that was the problem – we we’re expecting to win just because we’re Michigan State. We just weren’t showing up early in the year. It came down to work ethic.”
Gradually, the Spartans adjusted to the departure of superstar goaltender Ryan Miller and the arrival of new coach Rick Comley, and a sweep of the Wolverines this weekend would tie the two teams at third in the CCHA.
One group in the crowd won’t be rooting for a Michigan State sweep – or a Michigan sweep. A crew of Gajic relatives are flying in from Britsh Columbia, and Helen Gajic said that, since both teams can’t win, two ties would be ideal. She and her husband, Lazo, have never been to Yost or seen Nenad play for the Spartans. Helen Gajic said she is excited, despite her divided loyalties.
Besides, she may have to get used to this. Ilija Gajic, who turns 18 next week, visited Michigan last year and was, according to his mother “blown away.” Ilija has never been to Michigan State, but his 15-year-old brother, Alex, will go there with his family this weekend.
Both boys play hockey.