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30-year-old rookie debuts for Panthers

by John Kreiser

Bracken Kearns was just in time for the night he'd waited for all his life.

The 30-year-old veteran of seven minor-league teams got to the BankAtlantic Center in the nick of time to make his NHL debut Thursday night. He arrived during warmups and was in the lineup for the Florida Panthers' game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Kearns' plane landed at 6:05 p.m., he was picked up at the airport and arrived midway through warmups.

It was a big change from preparing for the San Antonio Rampage's AHL game against the Texas Stars

"I was preparing my pregame meal of soup in San Antonio and got the phone call from my coach and he said your flight leaves in 45 minutes," he said after the Panthers' 3-0 loss. "I had to turn my soup off, so I didn't get to eat much but I caught my two flights and made it here for the second half of warmups."

Kearns, a center and the son of former NHL defenseman Dennis Kearns, wore No. 73 as he became the 12th player since the start of the 2000-01 season to make his NHL debut after age 30. The oldest was 34-year-old Magnus Johansson, who played 45 games with Chicago after making his NHL debut at the start of the 2007-08 season. He was the first Panther to make his NHL debut after his 30th birthday since 32-year-old Magnus Svensson on March 20, 1995.

Kearns played seven shifts for a total of 6:30 in ice time. He was credited two hits and did not have a shot on goal -- but it was still a night he'll never forget.

"It was a real rush," he said. "I told my fiancée -- that was a nice feeling. I called my parents and my mom wanted to talk for a while but I told her I had to go. It will be nice to talk to them tonight. I said 'Hello, and I've got to go.'"

Kearns' path to the NHL includes four seasons at the University of Calgary, a 33-goal performance with Toledo of the ECHL in 2005-06, his first pro season, and an odyssey through the minors that includes stops in Cleveland, Milwaukee, Norfolk, Rockford and San Antonio of the AHL, as well as a brief appearance with Reading of the ECHL in 2007-08.

The 6-foot, 190-pounder had never scored more than 15 goals at the AHL level until getting 20 with San Antonio last season. He signed a two-way deal with Florida this summer, scored three goals in San Antonio's first three games, and got the call when Shawn Mattias went down with an injury.

The only disappointment for Kearns was the outcome.

"It's never fun to lose," he said. "You always want to have an impact on the game and that didn't really happen tonight. It was a nice feeling getting called up, that's for sure. It would have been nice to get the win." correspondent Alain Poupart contributed to this story

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