PROVIDENCE, R.I. – It’s the day before the 2013 American Hockey League All-Star Game, and Bracken Kearns is calmly sitting at his unfamiliar stall in the home locker room at the Dunkin Donuts Center in Providence. In his seventh pro season, the 31-year-old forward finally earned a nod in the AHL’s annual mid-season showcase, but being overlooked is nothing new for the former Toledo Storm and Reading Royals standout.
But when addressing an ECHL.com reporter before a milestone moment in his lengthy and successful career, there wasn’t a sense of bitterness.
No asking of "why me" despite spending all but five games of his past five seasons a phone call away from the National Hockey League. There was simply a sense of pride in not only his current role with the Worcester Sharks, but getting to live out a dream with the Florida Panthers last year, a dream that seemed far away for a young Canadian man who was just hoping to latch on in professional hockey after four years at the University of Calgary.
"My assistant coach in university knew the coach in Toledo, and I felt lucky just to sign a contract and get an opportunity," recalled Kearns of signing with the Storm for the 2005-06 season.
"I guess it all just kind of has gone from there. At first, just living in the States was a little bit different. Coming from college, where you only play 30 or so games to playing I think it was 70 games that year, I think those were big adjustments. And the fans as well; I came from a university that didn’t necessarily get a lot of fans, but to come in there and have sold out rinks just about every night, it was pretty neat."
The Storm, which pre-dated the Walleye in Toledo, played at the Toledo Sports Arena, the mere mention of which brings back memories of a season in which Kearns posted 69 points in 71 games over his rookie year.
"The old Toledo rink was something else," he said. "I know they don’t play there anymore, but what an old school barn that was. Just the way the dressing rooms were set up and the benches. That and the different cities you got to roll into; the Johnstown’s, the Reading’s, it was a neat experience for me."
Kearns’ rookie campaign, in which he also played in 13 Kelly Cup Playoffs contests, earned him a full season in the AHL, where he skated in 79 games for the Milwaukee Admirals in 2006-07. But he’d end up going back for a second stint in the ECHL the following year, sent down to the Royals for 17 games to start the 2007-08 season.
"Reading was a first-class organization," Kearns said. "I got an opportunity to be captain there, and it was a good experience there. I did get a concussion that year, and that wasn’t very easy to take. But beyond that, it’s a good league and a real competitive league, and it was a real privilege to have played there."
After performing at better than a point-per-game pace during his brief stay at the Sovereign Center, it was abundantly clear that it was also be the last time he’d have to play there. Kearns went on to establish himself as an AHL mainstay, and enjoyed full campaigns in Norfolk, Rockford and San Antonio over the next three seasons. He returned to the Rampage for a second season in 2011-12, but it seemed like the opportunity to finally play in the NHL was never going to come.
But after 428 games played at the minor league level, including 88 in the ECHL, Kearns finally got the call from the Panthers and made his NHL debut on Oct. 20, 2011 against the Buffalo Sabres. Even being a 30-year-old rookie at the time, the undrafted North Vancouver native says he never gave up hope that his dreams would one day become a reality.
"I never really thought that," he said. "I just thought that this was all a bonus for me, just being able to play hockey for this long.
I’ve played on some really great teams and played with such great players, it’s a nice lifestyle."
Kearns had two brief, separate stints with Florida, going without a point while playing in five games. But that first game is one he’ll never forget.
"The hockey was really good, actually in a lot of ways, it’s easier to play up there," he said. "You’re playing with such great players. But just getting all the text messages from friends and the phone calls that you get, that was pretty amazing for me. Overall, it was just a great experience."
And it was an experience that might not be possible without overcoming adversity in Toledo and Reading.
"I think there’s a lot to be said for that," said Kearns of fighting his way through the ECHL on two separate occasions.
"I definitely don’t take anything for granted. I’m lucky to be here, playing this game and I’m proud to be playing in the AHL. I’m glad I got my NHL debut last year. It was definitely worth the effort."