Many athletes work their entire lives to achieve their professional goals. But their ultimate rise is often meteoric.
The recent on-ice success of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins forward Brian Gibbons in the American Hockey League has catapulted him all the way to the National Hockey League. That run that took off during his team's stint in the Calder Cup Playoffs last spring.
"Toward the end of last year in the playoffs, I started figuring out the pro game more and feeling more comfortable with the way I was playing," said Gibbons, who is in his third season in the Pittsburgh Penguins' organization. "I had a good offseason and worked hard, and then just had a hot start and it carried over."
The Braintree, Mass. native tallied 30 points in 70 games both as a rookie in 2011-12 and again in 2012-13. After notching three goals and five assists in 15 playoff contests to help the Penguins reach the Eastern Conference finals last season, Gibbons has reached 30 points again in 2013-14, but in just 27 games.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach John Hynes saw his team's 2013 postseason run as a turning point for the 25-year-old forward, who played four seasons at Boston College and won two national championships.
"You could see his speed, skill and competitiveness were a real factor," Hynes said. "When you get into the playoffs at this level, some players can separate themselves and really start to show NHL-type attributes on a consistent basis. He never really dropped off when he came back this fall."
Gibbons began the 2013-14 season in Wilkes-Barre, where he put up 22 points in 15 games when he received his first NHL recall to Pittsburgh on Nov. 18.
"It's obviously been a dream my whole life, so to finally get there is special," Gibbons said. "You kind of take it all in and just try to enjoy it."
Literally overnight, Gibbons found himself as a teammates with some of the biggest names in the NHL, including Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Evgeni Malkin.
"When you get put on a line with guys like Sid and Kuni, who are so talented, you just try to find your role and find a way to help the team win games," Gibbons said.
In his NHL debut, Gibbons did just that. He scored his first NHL goal on his first shot at the beginning of the third period, breaking a previously scoreless game and leading Pittsburgh to a 3-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks.
"It was a little unexpected, to be honest," Gibbons said. "I was pretty nervous the first game. I just wanted to try and fit in and not make any big mistakes.
"My parents and brother were in the stands, so to be able to share it with them was definitely a special moment. It was kind of an important goal for us, which made it even more special. "
Gibbons also picked up an assist on Brandon Sutter's game-winning goal that night. But his successful debut came as no surprise to his coach in Wilkes-Barre.
"He has NHL speed and NHL hockey sense, and he's using those things at an NHL level both when he's up [in Pittsburgh] and here in the American League," said Hynes. "He has the ability in big games to produce and be an impactful player and he's been able to translate that to the National Hockey League."
In two stints with Pittsburgh this season, Gibbons has recorded four goals and nine points in 19 appearances. He was one of an elite group selected to represent the American Hockey League in the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic earlier this month and recorded two assists during the AHL All-Stars' 7-2 victory over F??rjestad BK of the Swedish Hockey League.
Gibbons has relished the opportunity to learn from some of the NHL's most elite players throughout his time in Pittsburgh, including Crosby.
"Sid is one of the first guys on the ice and one of the last guys off, and he's always just working on the little things that I wouldn't even think about to try and get better," said Gibbons. "With all of the guys [on Pittsburgh's roster], the work ethic is so high and they want to improve so much, and that's something that I've learned a lot about."
That appreciation is echoed by Hynes.
"He has the ability to play with NHL superstars, whether that's Crosby, Kunitz, Malkin or really any guy on the team. I think there's a confidence level that you get from that," Hynes said. "It's also great for him to see the professionalism that those guys come to practice with every day, how they prepare for games and how important the little details are; all the things that go into maximizing that talent."
With the AHL season entering the final stretch, Gibbons will continue to fill the unique role of both teacher and student as he grows with both Penguins teams.
"He's playing with one of the leaders of the Pittsburgh Penguins when he's up there, and when he comes down here he's a leader in the way that we want to play," Hynes said.
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