By Paul Ryan | AHL On The Beat Archive
It took 563 American Hockey League games, but for Bridgeport Sound Tigers forward Bracken Kearns, it finally happened.
A yawning net, a hungry vet and a day that he won’t soon forget.
On Friday, February 5 against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, with the score 5-3 and just six seconds remaining, Kearns sailed a slapper that hit the twine and sealed a hat trick for the 34-year-old.
“Before that shift, I mentioned to [Carter] Verhaeghe if you get the puck, get it to me,” Kearns said. “That kid’s a great passer and sure enough, he was able to find me there. It’s one of those things that I’m kind of surprised took that long, but better late than never I guess.”
‘Better late than never’ sums up Bracken’s career quite well, actually. Son of National Hockey League defenseman Dennis Kearns, Bracken went to college for four years at the University of Calgary before making his pro debut at 24. Dennis retired just months before Bracken was born, allowing the youngster to get opportunities other kids would not get.
“When you have a dad that plays in the NHL, it makes it more real,” Bracken said. “It makes you believe you can play there even more because somebody close to you was able to do it. His first year he was 26, so he wasn’t young and it definitely made a difference in my career and my life.”
Bracken followed in his father’s footsteps, waiting until he turned 30 years old to make his NHL debut. Prior to that, Kearns suited up for five different AHL teams, two ECHL squads and logged nearly 450 games between the two leagues.
The year was 2011 and Kearns had been an AHL mainstay for four seasons after a season in the ECHL. He started the year in San Antonio, but never let his childhood dream die.
“I felt like every year I was getting better,” Kearns said. “I always thought it would be a possibility to play in the NHL if I just kept better. I think I’m a little bit stubborn like that too.
“Everything was encouraging for me, though. I continued to move up—I started on the fourth line in the AHL and continued to move up, then I was on the first line. After the first line in the AHL, there’s only two places you can go—you can either go to the NHL or you can go backwards. I never felt like I was taking a step backwards. I knew there was a very slim chance I would play in the NHL, but definitely never, ever even thought about giving up on it.”
The dream was alive. Kearns would finally be realizing what had been eluding him for years—a trip to the show. Kearns’ new team, the Florida Panthers, were at home that night hosting the Buffalo Sabres. However, dreams don’t always play out as they do in your head.
“I was told I was called up and told I literally had 45 minutes until my flight took off,” Kearns recalled. “I remember getting there and the person telling me I wasn’t getting on the flight. I basically begged them, telling them the whole situation ‘I’ve never played in the NHL, I have to make this flight’ and ended up making the flight.
“I got to the rink, just threw on my gear, hadn’t met any of the guys yet and got on the ice about halfway through warmups. I felt like a clown because of the scenario, but at the same time I was very excited just to have been there and have been called up.”
Kearns played five games for the Panthers that season and one with San Jose the season after that. Despite his six games in the NHL, he still had yet to score his first NHL goal. He played another game early in the 2013-14 season before getting a more permanent call-up on December 28.
The very next day, the milestone came. At nearly 33 years of age, Kearns scored his first NHL goal, becoming the oldest player in team history to accomplish the feat. Kearns followed that game up with goals in back-to-back games, giving him three goals in three NHL games. It took five days to score three after waiting 32 years and 231 days for goal #1.
“I think for me, my dream wasn’t to just make the NHL, but to be productive in the NHL,” Kearns said. “It was a huge relief for me and I stayed up with San Jose for 25 games that year and played on the third line. That whole stretch was just amazing for me because I didn’t want just a cup of coffee in the NHL, I wanted to contribute.”
Despite his success in the highest professional hockey league in the world, Kearns did not receive a single offer from an NHL team during the summer of 2014. He decided to play in Europe, going to Finland to join the Espoo Blues in SM-liiga. Kearns put together a successful 2014-15 season, getting a call from the Islanders before the start of the 2015-16 year.
“The biggest thing is his leadership and his character,” Sound Tigers Head Coach Brent Thompson said. “Knowing him from the past, he has a reputation as a leader and a worker—a guy that can play at both ends of the rink. His presence away from the puck, in the locker room—I’m really, really happy with the way he’s evolved this year.”
“I didn’t necessarily want to leave North America, but when the opportunity to come back came about, I jumped on it pretty fast,” Kearns said. “I’m thankful to come back and play in a place I really didn’t want to leave in the first place.”
Kearns has been a major factor in Bridgeport’s success this season, leading the team in points, working on both special teams units and serving as an alternate captain. Kearns’ play has put the Sound Tigers in a position to make the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in four seasons, a position they would not be in if not for Kearns. If Bridgeport raises the Calder Cup in June, it would be Kearns’ first and at 35 years old.
Better late than never.