When Bracken Kearns arrived in Toledo in the fall of 2005, he had no idea where his path in professional hockey was going to continue to take him.
In fact, he went for more than six years before he played in his first NHL game, and more than eight years before he became a regular in an NHL lineup.
Kearns began his pro hockey career with the ECHL’s Toledo Storm and spent the bulk of his nine pro seasons in the ECHL and American Hockey League.
Since he joined the San Jose Sharks late last month, Kearns, 32, has three goals and an assist and may have found a spot in the Sharks’ lineup.
“There were some injuries, and that’s where I caught my break this year,” Kearns said. “Last year I got to play a game in Vancouver, which was a big deal for my family, and I got to play in the playoffs. The coaches trust what I’m doing on the ice, and this organization is taking a chance on me, especially as an older guy. And I owe the organization for giving me this opportunity.”
The son of former Vancouver Canucks defenseman Dennis Kearns, he saw his future as a professional golfer until he joined the University of Calgary hockey team as a walkon.
He graduated with a degree in economics, and realized that turning pro was a real option for him.
Still, his first contract in Toledo didn’t even guarantee that he’d earn a salary unless he made the Storm’s roster, and he remembers hearing that there was a chance he would be traded before the start of the 2005-2006 season.
Toledo Walleye coach Nick Vitucci, who previously coached the Storm, remembers Kearns as a player who didn’t stand out in one area of the game, but who was sound in every aspect and who placed an emphasis on his work ethic and his practice habits.
That, Vitucci said, was how Kearns was going to forge his identity as a pro hockey player.
“The message we send to our players is, ‘work on your defense and be committed to it,’ " Vitucci said. "When you get to the [AHL], you’re going to be a third or fourth-line player and you won’t move up until you gain the confidence of the coaching staff. Bracken worked his heart out to do that and it didn’t surprise me to see him grow that way.”
Following one season in Toledo, where he scored 33 goals and had 36 assists to help the Storm to the American Conference finals, Kearns joined the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. He spent 17 games with Reading of the ECHL in 2007 before he joined the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals.
Mark Bernard, who is now the Chicago Blackhawks’ general manager of minor-league affiliations, was an executive with the Admirals and looking to fill a roster spot. Vitucci recommended Kearns but Bernard, he recalled, was lukewarm at the idea of signing Kearns.
Vitucci continued his pitch.
“I said ‘give him two weeks and give him a chance to grow on your coaching staff,’ ” Vitucci said. “Having a player that does one thing good, that’s great, but a guy like Bracken can do everything, and that’s very good.”
Bernard and Vitucci spoke after Kearns’ second weekend with the Admirals. Norfolk was ready to sign Kearns through the end of the season.
Kearns spent seven seasons and nearly 600 games in the minor leagues. On Oct. 20, 2011, he got the call to the NHL — as he prepared for an AHL game in San Antonio.
Kearns rushed to leave Texas and join the Florida Panthers. He barely made his flight and connection. He got snagged in traffic between the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and the Panthers’ home rink in Sunrise, Fla., and arrived right before the start of pregame warmups. At 30 years old, Kearns played in his first two NHL games before he returned to the AHL.
“It was very fortunate that I got to play,” Kearns said. “It was such an experience, and I’ll never forget it. It came with some mixed emotions, but it felt great.”
The next full-time call to the NHL didn’t come until last May, when he joined the Sharks in the second round of the playoffs. Even then, he began the season in the AHL before he was recalled last month.
“But I remember just being young when I was in Toledo,” Kearns said. “I felt like I was rich, getting paid to play hockey! But as far as the values go, the path I took, it makes you appreciate everything you have, especially when you make it to this level. I appreciate the struggles, and I wasn’t perfect in the ECHL. But you appreciate every moment and everything you’ve given in that path and the sacrifices.
“And I never gave up on that dream.”