Johnson: Former Dino Kearns finally realizes NHL playoff dream . . . at age 32
San Jose Sharks forward never once thought of giving up on his goal to make the big league
As far back as the beginning, out on the U of C campus, Bracken Kearns understood that for whatever reason, his personal GPS would never guide him down the paved double-lane highway; that he was destined for the road less travelled.
“The path I took in Calgary was pretty similar to the one I’ve had to take wherever I’ve been,” the San Jose Sharks centreman is saying, a dozen years after graduating and embarking on a pro career. “I was a walk-on. Kind of a two-day tryout and I missed the first day because of medicals.
“I struggled there like I struggle everywhere. But I persevered, kept working at it. And the last year, the coach, Scott Atkinson, made me captain of the Dinos, which ranks right up there on my list of career accomplishments. Very special to me, still.
“I loved the city, loved the school.
“Seems like a long time ago, and it is when you think about it, but it’s still very fresh in my mind.”
The garrulous Groucho Marx once quipped: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And then give up. No sense being a damn fool about it.”
Well, Bracken Kearns is proof that being a damn fool can pay off. That there can be, despite the odds, more than noble failure in the attempt. He’s tried and tried and tried, and tried some more, managing to keep frustration at bay, unwavering, long after others would’ve abandoned hope, shifted gears and moved on to something new. And now, at 32, finally, he’s arrived. A springtime story to cheer for. An “overnight” sensation, in a Rip Van Winkle kind of way. Embroiled in the second round of the NHL playoffs, in a tong war the against the Back-in-Black defending Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings.
Living the dream.
“This,” says Kearns, “is incredible. I knew coming in that it wasn’t going to be easy. I got a pretty good view of the Canucks’ series, got a feel for just how hard you have to play and how smart you have to be on very shift.
“It’s incredibly intense and tight-checking, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play with confidence. It’s easy to go out there and a play fourth-line role, chip pucks in, chip pucks out. I want to try and make a difference. I’ve waited a long time for this.
“I want to make the most of it.”
He has his degree in economics from the U of C.
But hockey has given him a PhD in perseverance.
Undrafted. Not a shred of major-junior experience. A whole half-dozen NHL regular-season games on his resume (five as a Florida Panther). A career minor-leaguer with more pitstops than a kid plagued by a weak bladder on a cross-country family car trip — Toledo, Reading, Cleveland, Norfolk, Milwaukee, San Antonio and Worcester. Spread over eight years of plugging away.
“I can honestly say (quitting) never really crossed my mind,” says Kearns, whose dad, Dennis, patrolled the Vancouver Canucks’ blueline for 677 regular-season games in the late ’60s and through the ’70s. “I’ve never gotten to that point. Some people might find that crazy . . . But I’ve honestly felt I’ve gotten better every year. And that’s been a sign that I should stick with it.
“People always ask me ‘Are you going to Europe to play?’ Well, I’ve never considered it. I’ve always dreamed of playing in the NHL. So I’ve always strived for that.”
Right now, life’s pretty sweet for Kearns. Besides revelling in his NHL playoff baptism, he’s also the proud father of a one-month-old daughter, London. His wife and the baby were, in fact, arriving at the San Jose airport on Monday from home, from Vancouver, for a visit.
“It has been hectic, lots of changes. But I’m used to change. I’m used to being away from my family, travelling for camps and things like that, because of the route I’ve taken. My family understands what this means to me and they’ve been great about it.”
During the lockout, the San Jose brass got a solid on read on their options in Worcester, toiling for the baby Sharks. So when Kearns was called up on March 4, they knew they had a depth player, not an out-of-his-depth player. He played one regular-season game, in Vancouver, and a trip through Calgary (“I hadn’t been back in the city since school, so that was nice”) without suiting up.
After spending the Canucks’ series in the press box, he’s made the on-ice cut for the first three games of the L.A. set-to.
“It’s real lesson being around here at playoff time. These guys have obviously been there, to conference finals and things. Just to see how relaxed they are, how much fun they’re having, it’s kinda tough not to follow suit.”
Game 4, back at the Shark Tank on Tuesday, coming off the OT win of Saturday. A great chance for all the men in teal. Greater, though, for one in particular.
“In the back of my mind,” acknowledges Bracken Kearns, “I’ve always dreamed about this. I never gave up hope that I’d be in this position someday. I think I’m luckier because I am older and I realize how important this is,
“Every year seems like a struggle. You go through hard times in the American league, trying to improve, trying to get noticed. You wonder and you worry, so right now it feels pretty good to be up here, experiencing everything.
“I’m out there playing as hard as I possibly can, but I’m also soaking it all in; savouring every chance I get. I know I can’t play hockey forever.
“For a guy like me this is one-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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