By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – Getting cut loose by the Manitoba Moose just as the season began. Returning to the ECHL after an entire year at the next level. Trying to earn another AHL shot, only to suffer an injury early on.
Bracken Kearns admits it’s been a tough couple of months.
Not that he’s crying about it, though. The 26-year-old Reading Royals center tends to be at his best when things are at their worst.
“I think setbacks and challenges are a good thing,” Kearns said, “not the other way around.”
He’s already had plenty of trials as an athlete once torn between two sports.
As a teen in Vancouver, British Columbia, Kearns appeared headed toward a future on the links rather than on the ice. Introduced to the sport at age 5 by his father, former Canucks defenseman Dennis Kearns, Bracken seemed to have a natural gift for golf.
He became a small-ball addict who would spend 15 hours a day at the local course during the summer. Kearns blossomed into the top-rated 15-year-old golfer in Canada. He played in the Junior World Championships at Torrey Pines.
Thinking he needed formal instruction to get his game to the next level, Kearns received his first golf lessons at age 16. Oddly enough, that’s when he began to struggle and his scores started to climb.
“Definitely my best golf was when I was 15, 16,” Kearns said. “Not so much since.”
By age 19, Kearns was in a quandary. Should he tough it out and follow the golf path, or stick with hockey, which he felt less passionate about at the time?
“I ended up not playing either that year,” he said.
Kearns quit hockey while in the midst of a tryout with a Junior-A team. He stayed off the ice for eight months.
The following year, though, he had a change of heart and decided to walk on at the University of Calgary. Kearns made the squad and his passion for the sport gradually returned.
He developed into nearly a point-per-game player. As a senior, he served as captain.
“The biggest thing was I was there for four years, and I felt myself getting better every year,” Kearns said. “I think a lot of guys kind of go to university and they tail off or whatever. I just kept getting better and better.”
That improvement continued at the pro level.
Kearns earned a spot with the ECHL’s Toledo Storm in 2005 as a third- or fourth-line forward. He wound up leading Toledo, a conference finalist that winter, in goals and points.
“I like challenges,” Kearns said. “I looked at it as a positive. I was definitely challenged there. I started at the bottom of the totem pole and worked my way up.”
The 6-foot, 190-pound Kearns spent all of last winter with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. He scored 26 points in 79 games for a playoff team and seemed likely to get another crack in the league this season.
Kearns won an opening-night roster spot with Manitoba, only to get cut one day into the AHL season when Vancouver sent players down.
Unable to get another AHL gig, Kearns wound up signing with Reading, where former Toledo teammate Chris Blight already was in camp. (Kearns and Blight have the same agent.)
“I want to play at a higher level,” Kearns said, “but the only way to do that is to work hard here, play well here and show yourself here. Be on a winning team and do all the stuff right here.
“You’ve gotta do that first before you can work your way up. That’s what I’m trying to focus on the most.”
Kearns joined the Royals late in training camp. He missed the first two games of the season due to an immigration holdup, then lost five more games to an injury.
Still, Kearns’ teammates revered him enough to vote him team captain. Royals coach Karl Taylor agreed with their decision, based on Kearns’ age, experience and that way he’s handled himself.
“We’re ecstatic to get him,” Taylor said. “He’s gonna be a very good player for us. He’s a great person and a great leader. He’s the right choice and also the right person for the job.”
Taylor said he wouldn’t be surprised if the deep-thinking Kearns ends up being a coach someday. Kearns doesn’t like to think that far ahead, though he hasn’t ruled out eventually giving golf another shot after he’s hung up the blades.
But, of course, Kearns hopes he won’t be hitting the links again until July, rather than April.