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Photo: Ross Dettman/Chicago Wolves

#AHLOTB: Sterling returns home

By: Lindsey Willhite | AHL On The Beat

Brett Sterling grew up in Pasadena, California, 11 miles from downtown Los Angeles, and SoCal to his core. He learned how to drive a stick shift in the Rose Bowl’s parking lot. He played youth soccer in the adjacent park. He loved the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Perhaps most important, he started playing ice hockey at age 4. That set him on the path to the place he loves to call home and the place he loves to play: Chicago.

Over the course of his 10 years as a professional, the 32-year-old left wing with the thick beard and the genius for goal-scoring has followed a route that has taken him far from his SoCal roots – but keeps bringing him back to the Windy City.

After launching his career with the Wolves in 2006 – he led the American Hockey League with 55 goals as a rookie – he proceeded to move from Chicago to Atlanta to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to Pittsburgh to Peoria to St. Louis to Portland (Maine) to Chicago to Sweden to Austria.

Clearly Sterling and his wife, Lizzy, have proven they can live anywhere. But Chicago is the place they choose to call home. Specifically, the Lincoln Park condo they’ve owned for six years.

There are many reasons the Windy City appeals to them – and they all were reinforced during the recent summer months after spending the last three seasons in Europe.

“We had a good summer,” said Sterling. “We went to the Pearl Jam concert (at Wrigley Field). We saw Bob Dylan at Ravinia. We saw Firebird up in Ravinia as well, which is classical music. We’ll get our subscription to Lookingglass Theatre. We saw ‘Newsies” with a friend of ours at Cadillac Palace Theatre.

“And how can you not love the restaurants in this city? We love to go out and experience new restaurants, though we’re still in the phase of hitting the ones that we really loved and missed while we were abroad.”

“I love it because I grew up in the suburbs, so it’s being home for me,” said Lizzy. “But I love Chicago because it feels like a perfect mix. This neighborhood can be quiet when you want it to be, but you can still walk to restaurants, walk to do things, get a cab to go downtown easily.”

But easy proximity to family might rank No. 1 for Brett and Lizzy. On a picture-perfect Friday afternoon in August, Lizzy’s mother, Sharyn, and her sister, Becca, dropped in on the Sterling abode unannounced with a delicious lunch in tow.

Why did they come over? Simply because they could. That convenient option simply wasn’t available when Brett and Lizzy were in Europe. Yes, they made good friends and hosted occasional visits from family. Brett even won a pair of Austrian League championships with EC Red Bull Salzburg while playing his usual high-scoring role. But it wasn’t Chicago.

They made the decision to return home this year regardless of where Brett’s hockey fortunes might take him. Then, in July, came the news everyone longed to happen: Sterling and the Wolves agreed to a contract that brought him back to his original franchise for a third tour.

He kicked off this tour in style as he scored Chicago’s first goal of the year during Friday’s opener at Grand Rapids – his 168th goal in a Wolves uniform.

“I feel confident that I still have a lot to give,” said Sterling. “I had a great year last year. So it was, ‘Where now? What’s the next option?’ If you’re going to be in the American League, I don’t think you can beat being in Chicago and the Wolves organization. I’ve been several other places and they were good and all, but they’re not Chicago.”

“The Wolves are extremely pleased to bring Brett back into the fold,” said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. “He continues to compete and score goals, as proven by his work in Austria. He goes to the net and puts the puck in the net.”

In 46 regular-season games for EC Red Bull Salzburg last year, Sterling produced a team-high 33 goals. He added 8 more tallies during 17 postseason games. That boosted his 10-year professional totals to 298 goals in 613 regular-season games and 35 goals in 82 postseason appearances. That’s a remarkable goals-per-game average regardless of competition level.

Sterling enters this season ranked No. 2 on the Wolves’ all-time list for goals (167) and No. 5 in points (308) in 302 career games. He’s a four-time AHL All-Star and one of the greatest players in franchise history.

But he’s not returning to the Wolves to wave to the adoring crowds and rest on his laurels. Sterling put in too much sweat equity over the summer with personal trainer Simon Hyun to do anything less than strive for his established standards of excellence.

“He isn’t 22 anymore, he’s 32,” said the trainer, who runs Simon Hyun Fitness in Lincoln Park. “When we started, I wanted to see him through fresh eyes. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about his history, performance, anything. The center of our conversations was longevity. How much longer does he want to play? How much longer CAN he play? How can he get stronger, faster and quicker?”

As Sterling and his trainer powered through 2- to 2.5-hour sessions two or three days each week – as well as homework on the days when they didn’t meet — it became clear how motivated Sterling happens to be.

“His physical and athletic capacity and work ethic are beyond anybody I’ve ever worked with,” said his trainer. “He put on 7-8 pounds of muscle. He said he hasn’t put in this much work or been this strong since college.”

While strength isn’t the be-all and end-all for a hockey player – Sterling and his trainer focused extensively on speed work and mobility – there’s no question it will be extra-tough to dislodge Sterling from the slot this season. Based on some of his deadlift workouts (lifting a barbell from the ground to his hips multiple times per set), his trainer estimates Sterling could max out his deadlift at 500 pounds.

“Even after adding 7-8 pounds of muscle, he was able to go on longer distance runs and do more sprints without losing a step,” said his trainer. “In fact, he was even getting faster. That’s a huge marker for me. And his recovery time has actually improved. I can’t wait to see him play. I can’t want to see how his work pays off.”

Sterling leaves no doubt about how he wants the work to pay off. Remember, he teamed up with Jason Krog and Darren Haydar on a high-scoring line that helped the Wolves hoist the Calder Cup in 2008.

“The goal? To win a championship,” said Sterling. “It’s one thing that I hope to help with. If you win a championship, everybody does better. The organization. The coaches. Management. Staff. Players. Everybody wants a winner. And if you look at our team from 2008, guys went on and had great opportunities after that because of it.”