Thursday was just a normal game day for Bracken Kearns.
With his American Hockey League game starting in a few hours, the 30-year-old forward got down to his regular routine. A light lunch of soup, pasta and chicken breast before a quick drive to Austin, Texas, for that night's game.
With the soup on the stove, the phone rang.
The voice on the line was a familiar one, San Antonio coach Chuck Weber. Get to the airport, Weber said, and quick. Forget Austin; You're going to South Florida.
“I was told the flight was leaving in 45 minutes,'' Kearns said, recalling the rush of being told he was not going to be playing for the San Antonio Rampage on Thursday. Instead, the career minor leaguer would make his NHL debut with the Panthers in what ended up being a 3-0 loss to the Sabres.
“I was definitely panicking. I didn't want to miss the flights. I made 'em.''
Kearns was in such a hurry, while hastily throwing clothes into his travel bag the thought came to him. The water for his pasta was still boiling. “I had to run downstairs to shut off the stove,'' he said with a smile. Kearns never got to throw down his afternoon meal. Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said Kearns was such a late addition, the flight the team needed him on was full.
The San Antonio Spurs, which own the Rampage, apparently made a phone call to the airline. A seat mysteriously opened up.
“He's a good story,'' Dineen said. “You see guys get to fulfill a dream, although I don't think it ended the way he would have wanted. There's been a lot of years and effort for one NHL game. When you have a lot of games under the belt, you forget how special that is. Unfortunately for us, it wasn't a motivational factor in the game.''
Kearns' flight finally touched down in Fort Lauderdale just after 6 p.m. With Thursday's game against the Islanders scheduled to start at 7:30, Kearns had a stressful westbound drive on I-595 during rush hour. By the time he arrived at BankAtlantic Center, warm-ups were just about to start. They started without him. Kearns, who spent seven years in the minors chasing his dream of playing in the NHL, made it for the final minutes of the pregame skate.
In all the hustle, Kearns didn't have time to be nervous. If there were butterflies in his stomach, well, they were alone. Kearns doesn't remember if he ever had time to eat.
“I should have taken a bowl of soup to go because I hadn't eaten all day,'' he said. “That may have been a good thing.''
With Sean Bergenheim and Shawn Matthias out for Thursday's game, the Panthers quickly recalled Kearns and Tim Kennedy. Neither Bergenheim (soreness) nor Matthias (flu) practiced on Friday and their status for Saturday's game against the Islanders is in question. If one or both don't play, Saturday is another opportunity.
For Kearns, that's all he's ever asked for. A formidable golfer in his youth, Kearns – who says he is a 1 handicap – tried to land at a college in the south where he could play golf and hockey. When he was told to pick one or the other, he went to the University of Calgary. It wasn't for the golf.
Dennis Kearns, Bracken's father, spent 10 seasons on defense with the Vancouver Canucks in the 1970s and played alongside Panthers GM Dale Tallon during the expansion days of the franchise.
Mike Santos, the Panthers assistant GM, knows Bracken from their days with the AHL Milwaukee Admirals. When Kearns scored 20 goals with 43 points last season in San Antonio, Santos gave him a contract with the Panthers.
“This wasn't a favor, he earned his way here by scoring three goals in three games in San Antonio,'' Santos said. “He's a lesson for a lot of guys struggling to get to the NHL. You can do it. He's showed that.''
-- Dineen said Bergenheim, Matthias and defenseman Ed Jovanovski (hip) were questionable for Saturday's game. None of them practiced on Friday. Center Mike Santorelli (shoulder) practiced but was in a no-contact jersey. He's expected to miss Saturday's game but join the team on its trip to Canada on Sunday.
SATURDAY: ISLANDERS AT PANTHERS
When, Where: 7:30 p.m.; BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise
TV/Radio: No local TV; WQAM-560
Series: Panthers lead 37-30-5
The game: Florida won the season-opener between the two teams 2-0 on Oct. 8 at Nassau Coliseum. Jose Theodore made 27 saves to lead the Panthers to the victory. Florida has now won three of the past five against the Islanders dating to last season. .-.-. The Islanders are 3-2-0 after losing in Tampa Bay on Thursday. Florida has lost two straight – both 3-0 losses to Washington and Buffalo – and haven't scored a goal since Jason Garrison's power play goal in the third period of Monday's 7-4 win at Tampa.