Ahead of the 2020-21 ECHL season, Max Coatta and his older brother Sam were set to live out something that had talked and dreamed about for years by playing on the same professional hockey team. The Coatta brothers had signed with the Idaho Steelheads, Max for his second season in Idaho and Sam for his first in North America.
But then, in December, Idaho opted out of the COVID-affected campaign. Max and Sam were suddenly without a team. So the elder Coatta worked some contacts and the pair signed with Tyringe SoSS in Tyringe, Sweden.
“We’re best friends in the summer,” said Max. “We do all of our training and hang out a bunch. We always dreamed of playing together and it worked out last year”
The Coatta brothers grew up in Minnetonka, Minnesota, living a childhood typical for the state of hockey. Every winter, their parents would create a makeshift rink in the back yard, surrounding a tarp with wooden boards and flooding it. The two spent hours there, often joined by friends from around the neighborhood or cousins, nurturing the mutual passion they shared for the game.
At 27, Max is in his third professional season and his first with Rapid City. Sam, who is 31, turned pro in 2015, and has played seven seasons in Europe in leagues in Sweden, Norway and Hungary. Four years Max’s senior, he had always just missed the chance to play with his younger brother.
“We always wanted to do that but we were four years apart so it had never worked out,” said Max. “In high school, my freshman year he had just graduated so I missed him by one year. Then when I [was going into] college it was the same thing, he was gonna graduate and I was coming in.”
Max and Sam live together during their respective off seasons and spend tons of time together. Golfing, training and working part-time jobs to fill the gap until hockey season. The pair is used to being one another for extended periods of time. But when they arrived in Tyringe and got to their team-provided apartment, it became clear that during their stay in the small town, they would be closer than they had bargained.
“At one point early on when we moved into our apartments, and it was late notice for the team too, so this is nothing against the team, but they set us up with a place to live and Max’s room and my room were connected but there was no door,” said Sam with a chuckle. “We had our own rooms, but we go to bed that night, I’m going to sleep, about to turn the light off and close the door and we both just started laughing. We could not get any closer to each other, we had no door to our bedrooms.”
The Coattas arrived about halfway through Tyringe’s season and only spent three months in the town. Max had been to Europe once as a child but was too young to have any real memories of it, so everything was brand new to him. He followed his brother’s lead since he had been in Europe for so long. This is typical of the dynamic between the Coatta brothers.
“I look up to him. Growing up, I’ve always followed in his footsteps,” said Max. “We’re best buddies. We hang out with a lot of the same people. Before we went over there he was giving me the breakdown of what to expect.”
“Europe’s different. It’s an awesome organization that we played for but it’s a village really, where we lived,” said Sam. “I kind of knew what we were getting in to and at times I would be chuckling to myself, like Max, I’ve told you stories about how different Europe is, but you have no clue.”
Max found that the majority of the team and residents spoke English, and their coach even ran practices in English, to the relief of the North American imports. But in the scenarios in which they were met with a language barrier Sam, who speaks Swedish, would take charge.
A self-described foodie, Max enjoyed sampling the different cuisine in Tyringe, with favorite being Pytt i panna, a dish consisting of potatoes, onions, mushrooms and diced meats. In a season affected greatly by COVID-19, Sam lamented that his younger brother didn’t have the typical European experience.
“The cool part about Europe is buzzing around and getting to know people of the country and the city that you’re living in,” said Sam. “We did to an extent, but it was much different with the COVID kind of lockdowns and not having fans in the building. That’s the cool part about Europe or the part I’ve enjoyed the most.”
Despite this, the season that the Coatta brothers spent together was everything they hoped it would be.
“It was awesome, it was so cool to be able to experience that together,” said Sam. “Obviously being the older brother it was really special to see my little brother on the ice with me. There were times, it was almost like, we’d be on the ice in warmups, and I’d forget that he was on my team. We’re skating around and it’s like – yep! We got comfortable with it but when you took a minute to think about it, we’re playing hockey for a job in some village in Sweden. This is amazing.”
The two are apart once again for their respective hockey seasons, with Sam playing in Budapest for ETE in Erste Liga, and Max the second-leading goal scorer and an alternate captain for the Rush. They follow each other’s games as best they can, with an eight-hour time difference making it difficult to watch live. Sam found out about Max’s hat trick against Idaho earlier this season by watching highlights on twitter the next morning
“The time difference is tough,” said Max. “I think he’s eight hours ahead right now. I’ll watch games when I can and same with him when he is able to, he will watch mine. But we’re always talking and following up with each other.”
Neither Coatta brother ruled out the possibility of playing together again, perhaps in the states, executing the original plan for the 2020-21 season when the two signed in Idaho. Sam had already signed in Budapest by the time Max began talking with Rapid City ahead of this season.
“Every year is different,” said Max. “I pitched him when we signed with Idaho last year. This year I didn’t have the opportunity but had he not been signed I would have for sure.”