Brett Sterling had never played an NHL game for the Pittsburgh Penguins before Thursday night. Heck, over his entire career, he'd only played twenty in the big leagues. Yet, by the midpoint of the Penguins' clash with the Los Angeles Kings, Sterling was the most wanted man in blue or white.
After all, just over three minutes into the first period, Sterling put the punchless Penguins on the board via a dazzlingly-accurate, roof-bound wrist shot from the slot. The lifelong Kings fan scoring against the Kings. A headline couldn't have written itself much better.
But the journey to the headline was much more interesting than the headline itself.
Born in Pasadena, California, Sterling didn't grow up in a typical hockey hotbed. In fact, it was as atypical a place as there could possibly be. Perennially warm weather, smog, little televised hockey and an endless supply of taco stands differentiated Los Angeles from other hockey cities.
But hockey found a way.
Due to its temperate climate, Southern California became a hotbed for inline hockey, a wide-open version of the standard ice game. The rules are similar, but there are some exceptional differences, namely that the game is played on Sport Court with four skaters a side, and there is no semblance of icing or offsides in the rulebook to slow play down.
Kids quickly picked up the sport, realizing they could play outside in the California sun, not needing to access an ice rink and, though he had been playing ice hockey since a very young age, Sterling eventually joined the growing ranks of California's inline hockey community.
As he said in a 2003 profile in American Hockey Magazine:
"I still love playing inline hockey," says Sterling ... "It's a chance for me to be a little more individually oriented and work on different parts of my game, especially my hands and release."
Using the skills he developed on the ice and the sport court, Sterling worked his way through the ranks of the hockey world. After playing with the Los Angeles Jr. Kings, Sterling was selected to play with the United States National Team Development Program and, in 2002, featured on the first U.S. team to win the under-18 World Championships. Two years later, he would feature on the first U.S. team to win the World Junior Championships.
Meanwhile, Sterling had been putting up impressive numbers at Colorado College. In 2003, while still a sophomore, Sterling was selected in the fifth round, 145th overall, by the Atlanta Thrashers. Though his skills were obvious, his 5-foot-8 size was a warning sign to potential NHL suitors that he might not be suited for the physicality of the game's highest level.
Thus began a winding road through the Thrashers organization, spending much of his time with the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves, interspersed with brief call-ups to the NHL. Heading into this season, Sterling had played 19 NHL games, registering two goals, two assists and 16 PIM.
In the minor leagues, however, Sterling was a revelation.
In 2007, Sterling led the AHL in goal scoring and was named rookie of the year. His star was shining bright. But, by the end of last season, Sterling found his way onto the free agent market, snapped up by the Penguins at a bargain-basement price.
Now, 56 games into the regular season, thanks to a myriad of injuries, Sterling found his first chance in the NHL since March 2009. He made it count, impressively scoring on an early feed from Dustin Jeffrey. Suddenly, the spotlight was back upon the newly-minted Penguin:
After a scoreless second period, Sterling was then interviewed by Jim Fox, an ex-Los Angeles King who has done color commentary for the organization for the last 19 years. The well-coiffed Fox speaks in rapid bursts of words, as though he were firing a machine gun, operating in direct contrast to the deliberate pronouncements of his broadcast partner Bob Miller.
Quickly firing questions, Fox came around to asking Sterling about his hockey upbringing in the Los Angeles area. Without a beat, Sterling shot out that one of the most important moments in his development and career was when the Jr. Kings team he played won the Quebec Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament.
Not the World Junior Championships, or the Calder Cup he won with the Chicago Wolves, but back to his start. Back to the days when he listened intently to Miller and Fox while they called games featuring names like Gretzky, Robitaille and current Penguins coach Tony Granato, all players he admired growing up. Now, perhaps briefly, he's amongst them.
Still grounded? Of course he is. Sterling has gone from the top of the youth hockey league ladder to a dose of reality once he hit the NHL. He understands that the reason he is in Pittsburgh right now is due to the rash of injuries the Penguins have.
At this point, Sterling knows each call-up will be a battle, and every day he remains in the NHL will be a victory, though brief:
"Just being in the NHL is obviously a great opportunity, and obviously scoring a goal is huge, and doing it against LA was really cool," Sterling said. "It’s better for all of us, especially the guys that are fighting for positions here."
His current battle isn't just an audition for the Penguins this season, but for any potential suitors next year as well. Still relatively young at 26 and on a one-year contract, Sterling is nearing an age where he needs to make an impact during his brief NHL opportunities or face being branded a career AHLer, relaying Crash Davis stories for the remainder of his career about the last time he was in the show, that time he scored a goal against the Kings.
Sure, there are worse fates in life. But, when you've come as far as Brett Sterling has, you might as well dream big.