Over the course of a long NHL season, players get injured. When they do, teams look to their American Hockey League roster for reinforcements. Some of these players are obscure names that may appear for one game over their career. Others rack up enough frequent flyer miles, going back an forth, that they get to spend a free week in Hawaii during the offseason.
Thursday morning, Shawn Matthias and Sean Bergenheim sat out of morning skate. With the team not carrying any extra forwards, general manager Dale Tallon made a phone call that changed Bracken Kearns’ life.
“I got the call at about 12:30 [central time],” Kearns said. “My flight left at 1:45.”
Kearns was making his pre-game meal when San Antonio coach Chuck Weber made the call. He quickly packed what he could and hit the road.
“I know my elbow pads didn’t make it!”
Kearns battled rush hour traffic and made it to the BankAtlantic Center with eight minutes left in warm ups.
Two things make Kearns’ story unique. His father, Dennis, was an All-Star defenseman with the Vancouver Canucks. Dennis played in 677 NHL games from 1971-81. The biggest difference between Bracken’s story and others is his age.
At age 30, he is the second oldest rookie in Panthers history. Magnus Svensson was 32 when he debuted March 20, 1995. He went on to play 46 games over two seasons with Florida. Only six players on the roster are older than the rookie. Even team veteran Stephen Weiss, in his 10th NHL season, is two years younger than Kearns.
Despite his age, Kearns never gave up hope and was constantly motivated by his improving play. “I improved last year and I expect to improve this year. Any time I improved I thought I still had a chance,” he said.
Dennis played his NHL hockey with Tallon, and Assistant General Manager Mike Santos saw Bracken come up through the Nashville Predators system. The two knew right away this was their guy.
“I got a phone call from Dennis wishing me well on my birthday [Monday] and I told him Bracken had a good camp and he would get an opportunity at some time down the road. I didn’t realize it would be [Tuesday].” Tallon told Bob McKenzie of TSN.
“This wasn’t a favor,” Santos told the Miami Herald. “[Bracken] earned his way here by scoring three goals in three games in San Antonio. “He’s a lesson for a lot of guys struggling to get to the NHL. You can do it. He’s showed that.”
Not only did Kearns have a good camp, he had a good start to his AHL season, scoring three goals in three games. He had been bouncing around the American league, until last year when the Phoenix Coyotes signed him to his first NHL contract. Kearns did not end up in Phoenix, but he put up a 20 goal season for the first time in his AHL career. The Panthers swooped in over the summer and signed him to a two-way contract.
Kearns reached another milestone when he debuted on the ice, as he became the first Panther to ever wear the number 73. He played 6:30 in the team’s 3-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. With Matthias, Bergenheim, and Ed Jovanovski all questionable for Saturday, Kearns may get a second game, and a chance to make a dent in the scoresheet.
Kearns still has a long way to go to catch his father’s milestones. He is optimistic and welcomes the challenge. “[My dad’s] first year, he was 26 so he wasn’t young either.”