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Three thousand miles from home, two friends find hockey success at UConn

Lifelong friends Trevor Gerling and Skyler Smutek have formed a bond that has brought them across the country.

Gerling (left) and Smutek from their time playing in Canada.
Gerling (left) and Smutek from their time playing in Canada.
Photo courtesy Skyler Smutek.

Trevor Gerling opened the scoring for UConn against Sacred Heart on November 9th, 2012, when a shot from the right side found its way past Steven Legatto and into the back of the net. It wasn't a particularly glamorous goal; it didn't end up being the game winner, nor was it a major milestone for Gerling. But what made that goal so special was the fact that Skyler Smutek was manning the blueline behind Gerling when the puck went in. For two best friends, who had traveled across the country to play college hockey together, played with and against each other for nearly a decade, and spent every summer since they met honing their skills alongside each other, it was a milestone in every sense of the word. There are few families in sports that have bonds as strong as those created in hockey and the Seattle-born blueliner and winger are a perfect example.

Gerling and Smutek -- known fondly as "Gerls" and "Smutty" to their friends and teammates -- first met in the spring between their 11- and 12-year-old seasons while trying out a spring team. After making the team, the two of them began a friendship that would span many years and many more miles. Smutek and Gerling played their first full winter together as Bantams for the Kent Valley Selects in Washington. It was at this time where Smutek remembers the closeness starting, as the two also lived in the same apartment complex.

"It was really easy to bond since we lived close by," he said. "Every day Trevor's Dad would bring us to practice and my Mom would come and pick us up at the end."

After finishing their time in Kent, the two switched associations and played in Seattle for three years, spending every winter and summer together playing hockey until the age of 18. Smutek went to play in Quesnel, British Columbia for the Millionaires junior team, while Gerling played for the Langley Chiefs in the British Columbia Hockey League. The two were separated by nearly 400 miles and 8 hours of driving time, but still stayed in contact, helping one another adjust to life as a junior hockey player.

"It was different," Gerling recalled, "we helped each other out in different ways, just talking to each other throughout the year."

The two only played four times in their three seasons in the BCHL, and didn't have their first game until their sophomore seasons when Langley traveled to battle the Millionaires. The first game was a memorable one, especially for Gerling. Smutek and the Millionaires were leading 3-2 with fewer than 2 minutes to play and on the powerplay when Gerling skated onto the puck at center ice with only Smutek to beat. Gerling made a beautiful play to chip the puck by a retreating Smutek and scored the game-tying goal. The Millionaires ended up winning the game, but Gerling had the personal bragging rights.

Gerling and the Cheifs were the much better overall team, and proved it in their next two games against the Millionaires, winning 7-1 in Quesnel later that season as well as dominating 8-1 the following year. With just one meeting remaining between the two friends, it was Smutek who evened things up against Gerling and Langley. Both Gerling and Smutek were the captains of their respective clubs when they met for the final time in. After 60 minutes of hockey the Millionaires and Chiefs had battled to a 4-4 tie and headed to overtime. Smutek picked up a loose puck behind the Millionaires net and headed up the far wing where he came face to face with Gerling. Smutek chipped the puck past his childhood pal and skated towards the middle of the ice before ripping a backhander into the back of the cage. Score settled.
It had been four games full of heated moments, one of which had put the two at odds on the ice.

"One game a huge scrum broke out, and the both of us being captains had to talk to the referee to make sure all of the right penalties were called. We both felt we were in the right, so things got heated," Gerling said. But hockey never drove a wedge in between their friendship.

"There's always some friendly chirping, and every chance I got I wanted to finish my check on him. My coaches knew we were buddies, so I wanted to make sure they didn't think I was taking it easy on him," Smutek said.

"We spent a lot of time against each other on the powerplay and on the penalty kill and the battling got heated, but there was never a wedge between us because of that," Gerling added.

Gerling committed to UConn in 2009, during his second year of junior hockey after former Husky assistant Joe Dumais had made his pitch to the young forward.

"I made a few trips to UConn, but I kind of knew what to expect from the players, the coaches and the campus," Gerling said. He was ahead of the game because Jordan Sims, a BCHL alum already at UConn, told Trevor about the hockey program as well as the school aspect of life.

Smutek was not far behind, but things may have turned out a little different for the young defenseman if not for his good friend.

"At the time Trevor committed, I had only been talking to the Air Force Academy, but Trevor mentioned to Coach Dumais that I was available as a defenseman. I got a call from Dumais that summer and he came to watch me play at Quesnel. I was committed to UConn before I even flew down. I had the chance to play college hockey, and especially with your best friend, not many people get that chance," Smutek said.

A delay in eligibility held Smutek out his first season, but the two friends, now roommates, are seeing regular ice time as Huskies this season, and living with each other across the country hasn't been a change at all.

"It's been a little surreal actually, back home he spends half his time at my house and I spend half of my time at his, so it hasn't been an issue. It's like having a brother," Smutek said.

There are adjustments to make in moving across the country for both, but it's something they've done well.

"For me, it's the snow storms and the hurricanes; the weather is much more extreme. I miss my family back home, but I love our team, we have a great room here," Gerling said.

For a couple of guys who know each other so well, it seems to only be a matter of time until the on-ice production comes.

The two have each other scouted pretty well, yet another validation of the bond the two have formed over nearly ten years of friendship.

"Trevor has a lot of skill; his hands are some of the best on the team. Once he really gets comfortable out there he can put a lot of points up," Smutek said. "I see myself as a puck moving defenseman. I think I can get shots through and contribute to the offense. I'm doing my best to transition from juniors and improve the defensive side of my game."

"Smutty is an offensive presence, he moves the puck really well and he loves the physical part of the game," Gerling said. "I feel I have offensive talent, but I'm just trying to keep things simple, create with speed and playmaking."

It's a friendship that has stood the test of time and distance, as well as a healthy dose of competition, but when Gerling seems to find Smutek on a blind pass, it's more than just luck; he knows he'll be there.