SAN JOSE -- San Jose Sharks forward Bracken Kearns already had played for seven minor-league teams over six-plus seasons before he made his NHL debut, Oct. 20, 2011, as a member of the Florida Panthers.
Kearns turned 32 two days before making his Stanley Cup Playoff debut, May 14 for the Sharks, in Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinal against the Los Angeles Kings.
"My dad's first year in the NHL, he was 26 and he played 10 years," Kearns said. "He was a bit of a late-bloomer. He always told me in this game you need somebody to like you, a GM or a coach. Sometimes you have to go through people who aren't really big on you until you find the right situation, and this organization's been really good to me."
The Sharks, who trail the Kings 2-1 entering Game 4 of the best-of-7 series Tuesday at HP Pavilion (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS), signed Kearns as a free agent July 2, 2012, and he led Worcester of the American Hockey League in goals (21), assists (25), points (46), power-play goals (11) and shots on goal (136). He was selected for the AHL All-Star Game.
Kearns played one regular-season game this season for the Sharks, but after forwards Martin Havlat and Adam Burish were injured during a quarterfinal-round sweep of the Vancouver Canucks, Kearns was in the lineup for the first three games against Los Angeles as a fourth-line forward.
"It's a cool story," Burish said. "He's worked his way up. I didn't know that until probably a week ago. Somebody was telling me his story. To work your way up like that is pretty cool. I think every guy in the locker room or any guy in hockey appreciates that because you know how hard it is. Even guys that never played in the minors, they know how hard it is just to get here. And now this guy's come from nowhere and grinded it out everywhere. Everybody gets excited hearing about that."
Kearns grew up playing hockey, but for a few years during his teens he had his sights set on a career as a professional golfer.
"I played in the World Juniors when I was 16 in golf," Kearns said. "I played on a Team Canada team. I played in the Canadian Juniors. Played a lot over the border in Washington and Oregon -- all junior events. I was decent when I was 15 and 16 and then my game took a turn for the worse, unfortunately. But yeah, I was very competitive [in golf] as a kid."
Kearns wound up walking onto the hockey team at the University of Calgary, where he scored 83 points in four seasons while earning his degree in economics. After that, he earned a job with Toledo of the ECHL. Minor-league stops followed in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Norfolk, Reading, Rockford, San Antonio and Worcester. Kearns played five games for the Florida Panthers in 2011-02 before the one this season for the Sharks.
What's kept him going?
"I feel like I've gotten better every year," Kearns said. "That was the big thing. And I've been given new opportunities. New teams have taken chances on me. July 1 rolls around and you're never sure if you're going to be able to stay and play. I've been pretty lucky around that time. I've gotten calls from teams, and they're pretty easy decisions. Europe's not really an option for me. It doesn't really appeal to me right now. My dream is to play in the NHL, and that's where I'd like to be."
Kearns has yet to record a point in the playoffs -- or in an NHL game. But it is a small samples size, and the Sharks aren't asking him to be an offensive force.
"I try to adapt to my situation," Kearns said. "I'm fourth line up here, so I have to be smart. Get pucks out, get pucks in, get some hits. In the back of my mind I feel like I can be a difference-maker if given the opportunity. That's what I want to focus on. It's good enough in a sense to go out and play like a fourth-liner, but it's obviously even better if you can chip in here or there with a goal or an assist."
Sharks coach Todd McLellan said he didn't know much about Kearns until after San Jose signed him.
"Anytime you sign a player, you do some research," McLellan said. "The quality of the person stands out more than anything, his perseverance and commitment to work his way through. He did play five games last year for Florida, and one of them happened to be in our building, and there was some talk after the game, 'Who was that guy?' He had an impact on the game. He then spent … the lockout year in Worcester and was the leading scorer and a very important piece of that team. I believe he benefitted from the lockout. We got to know him more as an individual and felt comfortable and trusted him in our situation here."
Sharks defenseman Jason Demers called Kearns' long journey to the playoffs an awesome story of perseverance.
"It shows you you're never out of it," Demers said. "There's always a chance if you pay your dues and you work hard. Obviously, some guys get it earlier than others. He's well-deserving of that and he's done a great job with us so far this year. He's a real professional in and around the rink. It shows. All the guys in Worcester love him too. It's fun to see stories like that. It couldn't have happened to a better guy, that's for sure."