NORFOLK, Va. - Several weeks after joining the Norfolk Admirals last month, Bracken Kearns was buying some hot tea at a book store cafe in a downtown mall when the young lady behind the counter asked a tentative but genuine question.
“She wanted to know if I lived in the mall,” Kearns said with a laugh. “I'd been there every day for a long time and I was wearing the same shabby clothes and my beard and hair kept getting longer.”
Because he didn't pack much more than a toothbrush upon his Dec. 14 promotion from the ECHL's Reading Royals, Kearns has been living out of a suitcase in a downtown hotel ever since. But while he might appear homeless to some, he's more than found a home with the Admirals.
“He's been one of our better players on the team since he got here,” said assistant captain Norm Milley. “He's not going to do something unbelievable but he makes the right play 99 percent of the time and you see him out there on the penalty kill and when we're up by a goal with a minute left.”
Undrafted and virtually unnoticed upon completing his college eligibility, Kearns wrangled an invitation to rookie training camp with the Vancouver Canucks, who might well have been thinking of the public relations value of having the son of a former player in the fold.
Bracken's father, Dennis, remains the Canucks' career leader in scoring by a defenseman after playing from 1971-81. His son was born just after his retirement, and neither took the easy road to hockey's upper levels.
Dennis Kearns flunked tryouts in three major junior training camps and settled for a lower-level career as a teenager. He then played a year of senior hockey, an amateur pursuit, before being convinced to try out for the Portland Buckaroos, an Oregon entry in the old Western Hockey League. Following four seasons in Portland, Kearns made his NHL debut at age 26.
Bracken Kearns began his childhood more focused on golf than hockey. He chose to play in local youth hockey association with a relaxed feel rather than compete at higher levels available near his family's suburban Vancouver home.
“I wouldn't put on the skates for five or six months after the season ended,” Bracken Kearns recalled, his way a contrast to the year-round intensity now common to the youth hockey experience. “I was the same way until college.”
Before that, Kearns became Canada's top-ranked 15-year old amateur golfer and played not just on British Columbia's junior provincial team but on Canada's junior national team, competing in the world championships. A year later, convinced his learning curve needed to steepen, Kearns went in for his first-ever lesson and it shattered his confidence and eventually his game.
For the first time, the youngster saw his unconventional swing on video and was told his 10-finger, baseball-style grip was all wrong. So many adjustments were attempted that the end result was paralysis by analysis.
Hockey was soon out of the picture as well. Despite doing well during tryouts for a Tier II Junior A team, Kearns quit halfway through and didn't play competitively for more than a year, when he went to tryouts at the University of Calgary almost on a whim.
“Things weren't going as I'd hoped in either sport and I was just fed up,” Kearns said. “I had just had enough.”
He attended community college for a year and then found himself with a dozen other no-names in Calgary, readying for a two-day walk-on tryout in hopes of reaching Dinosaurs practices. Despite missing the first day because he didn't have correct paperwork, Kearns and two others advanced to a 35-man varsity roster.
With not enough lockers in the main dressing room, Kearns and other scrubs were stuffed in one down the hall. He was elated when told to move his gear into the varsity room, but the coach told him he'd be lucky to play more than a handful of games.
Instead, the scrappy freshman played in half the contests that season and in all of them his sophomore season, for which he was awarded a full scholarship. By his senior year he was a captain and Dinosaurs assistant coach Chris Robertson recommended him to former ECHL teammate Nick Vitucci, then the coach of that league's Toledo, Ohio, entry.
Kearns put up 69 points in 71 Toledo regular season games and added 13 more in as many playoff contests. It was good enough to earn a contract from the NHL's Nashville Predators, who brought him to training camp last season with the likes of Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg.
Not embarrassing himself in such company was a big boost to Kearns' confidence and he managed 26 points in 79 AHL games with the Milwaukee Admirals despite playing a checking role and seeing no power play time. Despite that performance, Milwaukee couldn't offer him a slot at the beginning of this season, so Kearns went to training camp with conference rival Manitoba but didn't make the Moose either.
Signing with the ECHL's Reading Royals, Kearns suffered a concussion early this season, hours before Manitoba attempted to recall him. Unable to accept the promotion, Kearns later put up 18 points in 17 games and was signed by Norfolk in mid-December, half a step ahead of the Worcester Sharks, who also had designs on the 6-foot journeyman.
“We were looking for a third-line center who could play both ways,” Norfolk coach Steve Stirling said. “They're so valuable at this level because they play one third of the minutes and everyone else is trying to find them as well.”
Claude Noel, Milwaukee's coach last season and currently an NHL assistant with Columbus, told Stirling that Kearns “isn't fancy, but give him a chance because he grows on you.”
That's exactly what happened and Stirling has steadily increased Kearns' ice time, a reward for smart decisions, good positioning and consistent play.
“Nobody outworks the kid,” Stirling said. “He's not blessed with high-end speed but he's in the right place when he has to be.”
Can Kearns make it to the NHL without flair?
“I think I can,” said Kearns, who had a goal and six points in his first 17 Norfolk games. “I think I've gotten better every year and I can see myself producing more in this league. Why not? I'm here and if you'd asked anyone three or four years ago if I'd be here, they would have said you were crazy.”
Especially if you had told them Kearns was living in the mall.