Greatest Athletes #9: Ferraro brothers made it together

MICHAEL GASPARINO PHOTO | Former NHL and Team USA players Chris (left) and Peter Ferraro at their summer hockey camp at Islanders Iceworks in Syosset.

Their gloves are different.

That’s the quickest way to tell Chris and Peter Ferraro apart as they skate around the rink, teaching at one of their summer hockey camps. The 38-year-old identical twins dress in matching black warm-ups, wear the same brand of skates, with black baseball caps worn backwards — mirror images of each other as they command, encourage, motivate and cajole the two dozen or so young players running through drills at Islanders Iceworks in Syosset.

That the brothers — two of only a handful of players from Long Island to make it to the National Hockey League and just the second pair of twins ever to play on the same NHL team — are teaching hockey together surprises exactly no one.

Since they were born in 1973 (Chris is one minute older) the Ferraro brothers have been pretty much inseparable. From prep school and junior hockey to winning an NCAA national championship and the Olympics, to a professional career that spanned 15 years — mostly on the same teams — with 166 combined games in the NHL, Chris and Peter Ferraro have never been far apart.

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That’s not changing anytime soon.

“They’ve been together always,” said their mother, Diane, from behind the counter at Plaza Surf and Sports in Rocky Point, the sporting goods business the family has run for almost 40 years. “If one was hurt, the other knew it. They had their fights, don’t get me wrong — there were plenty of holes in the basement walls … but they have a connection you can’t explain.”

Spend 10 minutes at Plaza Surf and Sports and you’ll quickly understand where the Ferraro brothers found their work ethic.

It’s a family business in the truest sense, with older brothers Michael and Joseph and younger sister Michelle at the store just about every day. And so it was one weekend afternoon, with Chris and Peter in the hockey section helping outfit a couple of their students with new equipment.

“They always come back to Sound Beach, whether I want them to or not,” Diane said with a smile. “They come back to their roots. It’s home.”

“We grew up in a family setting where we knew what it was like to work seven days a week, and see your family struggle and grind to make a living,” Peter said. “You go up to Plaza Surf and Sports you have my mother, who is 65 years old, up there seven days a week.”

The Ferraros have been surrounded by sports their entire lives, and not just through the family business (they’ve had a second Plaza location in Montauk for 25 years). Father Peter was a minor league baseball player and older brothers Michael and Joe were also athletes, so of course the twins would be as well.

MICHAEL GASPARINO PHOTO | Peter Ferraro was selected No. 24 overall by the Rangers in the 1992 NHL Draft. His brother Chris was then selected by the Rangers in the fourth round, keeping them together on the ice.

They grew up as Islanders fans, raised during the Stanley Cup championship era, and started playing ice hockey at age six. By age nine, they were playing with an elite program in Philadelphia, having already surpassed the hockey opportunities available locally.

Chris said his father rented out the ice rink in Dix Hills, and when the boys were 12, he and a partner founded the Rye Rangers, a travel team featuring top players from the tri-state area, and they played in tournaments across the U.S. and Canada.

“It was a nonstop ongoing journey for us,” Chris said. “We put in a lot of miles. It was very challenging, but we had the full support of our family to make that possible.”

The brothers attended Joseph A. Edgar School in Rocky Point, but eventually moved on to attend the Tabor Academy in Massachusetts. By age 16, they had advanced to junior hockey, moving to Iowa (their mother and sister went along with them) to play for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL.

“It was a major adjustment and a major step up,” Chris said. “I almost packed my bags and went back because I didn’t think I was ready for that competition. We were small guys and were playing against grown men.”

“We made decisions together,” Peter added. “I felt we should stay. I knew that we could meet the challenge. At every level we played, we exceeded the expectations of our abilities, being smaller players. We’ve never shied away from any challenge. If fact, we’ve embraced it.”

It didn’t take long for the pair to settle in. Chris led the league in scoring that first year, with 53 goals and 97 points, while Peter chipped in with 21 goals and 52 points. The following season, split between the Saints and the Waterloo Black Hawks, the pair were 1-2 in league scoring: Peter with 48 goals and 53 assists for 101 points, and Chris with 49 goals and 50 assists.

The Ferraros’ junior seasons and their performance playing for the U.S. at the 1992 World Junior Championships (Peter was named All-World), boosted their draft rating considerably.

Sure enough, the New York Rangers selected Peter in the first round, 24th overall in 1992. The brothers were prepared to go their separate ways, but while Chris had to sit through the second and third rounds wondering when his turn would come, it all worked out when the Rangers stepped up in round four to keep the brothers together.

The following year, the brothers went to the University of Maine and enjoyed one of the best seasons in college hockey history, helping the Black Bears to a 42-1-2 record and the NCAA Division I championship.

“It was arguably the best college hockey team put on the ice,” Chris said of a team that featured future NHL superstar Paul Kariya up front, and an unbeatable goaltending tandem of Garth Snow and Mike Dunham, who are now, respectively, general manager and goaltending coach for the Islanders.

“We knew we were going into one of the best programs out there,” Chris said. “It was one of those situations where you look around the locker room, and you say to yourself, there’s just no possible way we’re going to lose tonight. We had every piece of the puzzle.”

FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/BONGARTS/GETTY IMAGES | Peter Ferraro (L) and Chris Ferraro (R) celebrate a goal during the TUI Nations Cup match between the USA and Slovakia at the TUI Arena in Hanover, Germany on Nov. 13, 2005.

After winning the NCAA title, the Ferraros set their sights on winning a gold medal with the USA men’s hockey team at the 1994 Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

“When they put on the USA hockey jersey, that was one of the proudest moments I’ve experienced in my life,” said Diane. “It was about pride in your country. You’re waving your flag in another country, there’s nothing like it. It was incredible.”

“When you have the honor and the privilege of playing for your country, there’s no greater feeling in the world,” Peter said, adding that the U.S. team excelled in its exhibition matches. “We’re playing NHL teams, we’re playing top teams in Europe. And we weren’t just winning games, we were absolutely dominating teams.”

Unfortunately, the pre-Olympic success didn’t carry over to the Games themselves. The U.S. team went 1-1-3 in the first round and then lost to Finland in the quarterfinals, 6-1, to finish in eighth place. “The chemistry just fell apart,” Peter said, pointing to roster adjustments made prior to the Games.

“They tried to better the team and it didn’t work out as expected,” Chris added. “It went in a different direction.”

Peter was the first twin called to the NHL, but while he played on a line with Mark Messier, something was missing. “I couldn’t completely enjoy the experience because I was alone,” Peter said. “My twin’s not here. To explain the bond … you can’t explain it. My mother knows, she has a finger on us. But you actually have to be a twin to really know it because you feel each other and know each other’s tendencies. It’s the greatest blessing.”

The brothers were later called up together, and Peter doesn’t hesitate when asked what their most memorable moment was in the NHL. It was Chris’s first career goal, at Madison Square Garden against John Vanbiesbrouck and the Florida Panthers, with assists by Brian Leetch and — yes — Peter Ferraro.

“The whole family was there,” Peter recalled. “It was just tremendous.”

Peter played in 92 NHL games for the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals, with nine goals and 15 assists. Chris played in 74 NHL games for the Rangers, Penguins, Islanders and Edmonton Oilers, finishing with seven goals and nine assists. The pair also played in the minors — and faced off against each other a couple of times — in the AHL, IHL and ECHL, and played together for Sodertalje in the Swedish Elite League, and in Germany for the DEG Metro Stars.

Peter totaled 251 goals in the AHL, scoring 52 goals and 51 assists in his final two professional seasons with the Las Vegas Wranglers. He helped the Providence Bruins win the Calder Cup in 1999, when he was named MVP of the playoffs. Chris scored 21 goals in his final pro season in 2008-09, and helped the Chicago Wolves win the IHL’s Turner Cup in 2000.

Looking back on their careers, the brothers are quick to credit their coaches for their development, from John Hill and Rob Grill in juniors, to Shawn Walsh, Red Gendron and Grant Standbrook at Maine, to Chuck Grillo with the Minnesota Hockey Camps in the summers, when they trained with top players from across the globe for 12 weeks, 14 hours a day.

They’re looking to provide that same level of instruction with Ferraro Brothers Elite Hockey, which runs clinics and camps at several Long Island rinks. Their brother Joe is among the instructors.

“That’s our primary goal, to come back here and give to our local hockey base so they can get top-notch training from players who have gone down that path,” Chris said. “It’s a mission of ours to give them opportunities. We put or heart and soul into it.”

Running a hockey school wasn’t necessarily what the brothers planned on doing when their playing careers ended, but it quickly became clear that this was their calling.

“During our playing career we did this in the summers, as a hobby,” Chris said. “But over a few summers, we were like, ‘We love doing this.’ Just the way the kids related to us, and the way we relate to the kids. And there’s a major need for it.”

“Every athlete has a very difficult transition when it’s over,” Chris continued. “You’re playing at the highest levels, and how do you come down from that? It was a situation where we knew we could transition very easily into this. It’s more rewarding. It’s absolutely phenomenal.”

This summer was the first full summer for the Ferraros, with nine weeks of hockey schools. “We are so busy, I know what it’s like to work for a living now,” Chris said. “We’re working harder than ever, but it’s our passion, so we don’t mind it. We love it.”

“It’s probably the most rewarding job that I’ve ever had,” Peter added. “Chris and I have always had that ability to make the players around us better. And now that we’re in a position where we can give back to the local hockey community, it’s by far the most rewarding opportunity we’ve had in a long time.”

The brothers said the next step would be to establish a hockey facility to provide Long Island players the opportunities they had to leave the Island to enjoy.

“The most difficult thing is, honestly, not having a home,” Chris said. “If there was a facility where we had access to ice time and off-ice training in one spot, a state-of-the-art facility with two rinks, off-ice training capabilities, and skill development stations. It’s not difficult for my brother and I, because that’s what we know. And I think we’re in an area that can benefit from it hugely.”

Chris noted that places like Boston, Minnesota and Canada have the facilities where young players believe they can play at the highest levels, whereas Long Island parents seem resigned to accept that those same opportunities don’t exist for their kids. They’d like to change that.

“If we had the ability to latch onto a group that could invest in something to that degree, it’s an expensive project to put together,” Chris said. “But yeah, my brother and I would be in our glory to oversee the operations of everything on and off the ice.”

It would be a perfect coda to a hockey career that has given the twins more than they ever could have imagined. They’ve visited The White House (twice), have had their gear in the Hockey Hall of Fame, traveled the world, played with Wayne Gretzky — on the same line — and alongside other all-time greats like Messier, Leetch, Ray Borque, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and Pat LaFontaine.

“To look back and say here we are, two Long Island guys, who did this on our own with the support of our family, it was a long, tedious road,” Peter said. “But we found the resources to give ourselves a chance. And then to go to Canada and realize that we’re right there with these guys, and you know what, we’re better than these guys. We’re doing something right here.”

“You don’t become successful by sitting around and hoping that things work out,” Peter added. “It all comes down to hard work and determination, and Chris and I have had the luxury of sharing those experiences together.”

Click to learn more about Ferraro Brothers Elite Hockey.