Jacob Kaminski was 16 years old and Tyler Kaminski 18 when the brothers decided to pack up their lives in Rockford, Michigan, and head to Gillette to pursue their hockey dreams.
Gillette Wild coach Steve Kruk found Tyler, a recent high school graduate, at a North American Hockey League camp in July 2018 and recruited him to join the team. Jacob, who still had two years of high school left, also was at the camp but Kruk didn’t think about signing the younger Kaminski
Not then, at least.
“I saw them both there, and to be honest I wasn’t even going after Jacob,” Kruk said. “Just because of his birth year, I knew he still had a couple years of high school. I didn’t think he was even going to think about (playing junior hockey away from home).”
But as Kruk talked to Jacob and sensed his maturity and willingness to work, the coach said he gave the younger brother an opportunity to join the North American Tier III Hockey League’s Gillette Wild.
“I enjoyed playing with my brother his senior year, so I thought it’d be fun to come out here,” Jacob said. “I want to play at the best level I can, and it was an opportunity for me. I saw my out, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
He signed the papers soon after Tyler, and the brothers and their mother, Laura, loaded up their Ford Taurus in late August 2018 with two hockey bags, sticks, clothes and all other possessions they could stuff into the small car. They had to stuff things into the sides of the seats and hold bags on their laps.
Neither had been to Gillette, but they’d committed to it, found a host family to live with, filled up a tank of gas and started the 19-hour road trip.
They drove to Chicago and hopped on Interstate 90 for a straight shot through the heart of the United States to the Energy Capital of the Nation. They drove through northern Illinois, through southern Wisconsin and into southern Minnesota, where they would stay on a nearly straight east-west path through hundreds of miles of flat cornfields.
“It was just a lot of bound-up energy, I’d say,” Tyler said about what he felt like during that first trip to Gillette. “Just ready to get here and, really, get on the ice.”
They listened to a lot of music, watched movies, played road trip games and talked throughout the drive.
Laura was spending quality time with her only two sons, whom she’d raised and seen almost every day for the last 18 years. She was there when they started learning to skate on their home’s flooded back deck when Tyler was 5 and Jacob 3.
“I’d say me and TK were bonding a lot and jamming, and my mom was pretty emotional,” Jacob said about the trip. “I mean, obviously going from having both of her boys to having none … it made her emotional.”
Finally, after stopping to see Mount Rushmore, they passed the South Dakota-Wyoming border and Tyler got the final shift behind the wheel.
“I don’t think I went under 100 (mph),” Tyler said. “I just wanted to get here.”
They drove straight to what would be their new home for the next two hockey seasons, the Marty family’s big log house in the Red Hills neighborhood of southern Gillette.
Right at home
Nick and Stephanie Marty had recently moved into a larger house and had space for a couple more. The Martys have three sons: Peyton, 13, Gavin, 11, and Aiden, 5. Peyton and Gavin play youth hockey in the Gillette Hockey Association, and Aiden is learning the sport.
Nick said that he remembered Jacob, Tyler, Peyton and Gavin going downstairs to play video games shortly after the Kaminskis walked through the front door and met their new host family for the first time.
“(They) went straight downstairs to the theater room to turn on the PlayStation. I was like, ‘Where did everybody go?’ And I stuck my head in, and it was like shoving your head in a skate,” Nick said. “I’m like, ‘It’s not even season yet and you smell like hockey players.’”
Later in the day, the Martys brought the three Kaminskis to the dirt track car races at Gillette Thunder Speedway. Their first meal was white chicken chili, something that has become a favorite of the Kaminskis.
The weekend ended and Laura flew home. Jacob started his junior year at Campbell County High School and Tyler began searching for a job that would be flexible enough to accommodate his Wild schedule.
They all went on a camping trip to the Big Horn Mountains in one of the first weekends after they arrived, and that helped bond the hosts with their teen hockey playing guests, Tyler said.
“As quickly as they bonded with our boys, it was like, ‘This is going to be fine,’” Nick said.
“They act like brothers too. They get along, and they fight, then they get along,” Stephanie said.
The Kaminskis and Martys don’t have much free time during the hockey season. Nick works as an engineer for the city of Gillette. Stephanie is an accountant, and the Marty kids are in school or playing hockey.
Tyler works part time at D&DJ Fishing and Rental Tools and Jacob is a senior at CCHS.
They eat dinner together most Wednesday nights, the only time that is usually free for everyone, and at hockey events.
“It’s about as smooth as you could possibly get five boys in one house to be,” Nick said. “It’s hectic and it’s crazy. Everybody gets along and we all genuinely like each other.”
The Martys go to most of the Wild games and Jacob and Tyler have helped the Marty boys work on their hockey skills. They have a room in the basement where they have torn out the carpet and put up a hockey net so the four can get in some shooting practice.
“The first couple weeks that I was, like, struggling to lift the puck, and they kind of came down there and helped me and taught me a few things,” Peyton said.
Aiden was just learning to skate last year at age 4 and he wouldn’t step out on the ice without seeing Jacob and Tyler there to make sure he wouldn’t wipe out. Stephanie said that the Kaminskis have rubbed off on her sons and that “Aiden sounds like mini Jacob sometimes.”
Tyler — nicknamed “TK”— and Jacob — nicknamed “JK” — are the only brother duo on the Wild. They each have earned gritty reputations for playing a little rough while being productive as well.
Tyler, a forward, leads the team with 85 penalty minutes this season and Jacob, who plays forward and defense, is right behind with 70. Jacob was suspended for four games earlier in the season for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
Last year, Tyler finished with 40 points and Jacob finished with 28 points. This year through 21 games, Tyler has scored nine goals and notched 17 assists, while Jacob has scored eight and tallied 13 assists.
“Tyler’s more of a grinder, probably a little more physical. They’re both fluid skaters, but Jake’s kind of a pure skater,” Kruk said. “(Tyler) does the job. He’s kind of that meat and potatoes. He’ll stand in front of the net. He doesn’t care if a puck hits him in the face.”
Both Tyler and Jacob are eligible to come back to play for the Wild next season, but neither are sure what their plans are yet that far out. In the end, they each dream of playing college hockey, and if it happens to be at the same college it wouldn’t be a bad deal.
“It’s definitely a possibility,” Tyler said. “We seem to be kind of a package deal the last few years.”