By: Jim Charshafian
If the odds are supposedly long that a career minor leaguer can make his National Hockey League debut at the age of 30, what are the odds that two teammates accomplish this feat within a two-month span?
Such was the case when San Antonio Rampage forwards Bracken Kearns and Greg Rallo played in their first NHL games with the Florida Panthers this past fall.
The path for the duo was nearly identical. Both were undrafted free agents out of college who grinded out years in the ECHL (formerly the East Coast Hockey League) before making the move to the American Hockey League and, ultimately, reaching the best league in the world.
“There’s always a little bit of doubt in your mind,” said Kearns, “but as far as stats and odds, I try not to pay attention to that. I think the guys who paid attention to that are long gone now. I just focus on what I can do and just try to get better.”
“You think realistically, that you’re 30 years old and you might never play in the NHL,” said Rallo, “but from day one in Florida they told me that they didn’t care about my age, they didn’t care about anything else, they just cared about what I could do on the ice. That was great, that they were able to look past those factors. Some other people can’t.”
Kearns, who went the Canadian college hockey route as a walk-on, a road many would consider more difficult than the American college hockey plan or the Canadian Junior course, was just grateful when a team offered him a contract after leaving the University of Calgary in the spring of 2005.
“I remember when I first signed my contract in the ECHL,” said Kearns. “It was for $450 a week and I signed that thing as fast as I could. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to play hockey.”
That fall, Kearns began his pro career with the Toledo Storm and posted 33 goals and 36 assists in 71 games. He earned an AHL contract with the Milwaukee Admirals for the 2006-07 season and then moved on to Reading (ECHL), Norfolk (AHL), and Rockford (AHL), before landing in San Antonio for the 2010-11 campaign.
He scored a goal in each of his first three games this season and when the Panthers needed a player to fill out their roster on October 20th, Kearns got the call.
“It actually felt kind of normal, as weird as that sounds,” he said of the promotion. “I had a lot of texts and e-mails and all that stuff. That was the coolest part for me.”
Kearns played two games with the Panthers that month and was recalled again in December to skate in three contests with Florida.
Rallo finished his playing days at Ferris State University in 2006 and faced just as much uncertainty in his hockey career as Kearns had upon leaving college. Rallo amassed 46 goals and 62 assists in four years with the Division I NCAA program and was looking for an opportunity to continue his development. He caught on with the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL to finish the 2005-06 season and was signed for the following year.
He split time the next two seasons between Idaho and the American League (signing try-out contracts with Albany and then Rockford) before catching on with the Manitoba Moose at the end of 2007-08 and landing a permanent AHL spot with the Moose in 2008-09. The following summer, Rallo joined the Texas Stars and posted 45 goals and 53 assists in 147 games from 2009 to 2011.
In his first three seasons on an AHL contract, Rallo contributed six goals and 10 assists in 50 postseason games with Manitoba (2009) and Texas (2010, 2011) including a trip to the Calder Cup Finals with the Stars in 2010.
After his pact with the Stars expired, Rallo had a talk with the Florida Panthers’ brass before signing a two-way contract with the franchise, his first NHL contract.
“They told me from the beginning, ‘Just do what you do and we’ll give you a chance,’” recalled Rallo. On December 18th, Rallo’s chance came. He made his lone big-league appearance in the Panthers’ matchup against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “It was a shorter stay than I would have liked but I really took it all in. I was fortunate that my wife and family were able to make it. Both my parents and my brothers and sisters were there so it was definitely something I’ll cherish forever.”
Instead of being discouraged when they went pointless with Florida and were sent back down to the American League, Kearns and Rallo focused on working harder to stay in the NHL on a permanent basis.
“When it actually happened,” Rallo said of the call-up, “it showed me that it is a possibility, it is real, and it can happen, so it gave me something to look forward to.”
“I believe strongly in my heart that I can play there, be competitive, and produce there,” said Kearns, “but it starts in this league. I’ve got to dominate here first before I can do well in the NHL.”
Rampage coach Chuck Weber has monitored the progress of both players this season and said that they have earned their promotions.
“Bracken has played to his identity as being a gritty, hard-nosed guy,” said Weber. “He’s shown that in his call-ups by getting into a few fights up there. Greg’s done the same thing. He’s a guy who’s been a little bit more snake bitten this year from the goal-scoring standpoint. He’d definitely like to put up more goals than he has, but he’s done other things with his game. He’s been good defensively and good on the penalty kill, which has earned him his NHL opportunity.”
Weber admitted that while skill and work ethic are important factors in determining whether a player can stay in the NHL, there is also a bit of luck involved.
“It has to be the right situation at the right time,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s how it goes in our game. Sometimes you need the right guy to pull for you and right now, both of them are in a good situation with this organization and it has to continue that way.”
The two certainly don’t lack the drive and determination required to stay with an NHL club.
“I’m never going to be content as a hockey player,” said Rallo. “My goal is to get back there and, hopefully, stick around a little bit longer next time.”
“It didn’t matter how I was going to get there,” said Kearns. “It was always my dream and it still is my dream today.”
Getting a taste of the NHL might be all that either player needs to become a mainstay. They’ve already beaten the odds by playing in a league they were told countless times they weren’t good enough to be in.
“For both of them, it shows their persistence as individuals,” said Weber. “They never quit on their dream. They probably had a number of times in their career where people told them, ‘The American League is the highest you’ll go.’ I think it shows the dedication they’ve had in their career to get better.”