Pittsburgh Penguins Alumni Interview – #PENSultimate Brett Sterling

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brett sterling
Brett Sterling has played professional hockey for over 10 years, between the NHL and AHL, as well as Europe. Photo courtesy of Brett Sterling.

 

“On every level, I have played I’ve heard, `Am I going to perform or not because of my size?’ I think I have proved to people I can perform regardless of how big I am.” – Martin St. Louis

Brett Sterling is no exception to the rationale behind St. Louis’ quote, at 5’7″ and 175 pounds, he has been at the forefront of a new generation of players that have been working to eradicate the old line thought. Small players do not have the adequate size to be relevant for an extended period of time in the world of professional hockey.

Thankfully, that view is eroding with the emergence of players that are racking up consistent productive seasons. Some examples are Nathan Gerbe, Brendan Gallagher, Brad Marchand.

In the summer of 2016, Sterling returned to his “home away from home” with the Chicago Wolves for his third tenure with the team, bringing him back to the AHL, where he has been roughly a point per game player over the course of his career. He was hot off the heels of back-to-back championship seasons with Salzburgh EC and four years total in Europe.

It is hard to quantify, how much value and experience a player like Sterling brings to the table, the experience that has been gained from a 15-year career that has taken him from the sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean to the desolate mountainous regions of Austria.

You simply cannot buy that type of experience, it is earned.

Brett Sterling returns to the Wolves

Sterling remains unwavering and focused on making a return to the NHL, relishing his new roles with the team, providing a veteran voice and displaying those battle-hardened leadership skills to the young Wolves squad looking to carve out names for themselves.

His commitment to the game he loves, his teammates, and his family, serves as a gentle reminder that with hard work, dedication and a resolute spirit, you can reach your dreams and obliterate antiquated thinking along the way.

Here is an exclusive conversation with Brett Sterling:

Growing up in California, what was your first exposure to the NHL (who were your heroes?) and do you recall the impact the Gretzky deal had on the state?

My first exposure to the NHL would’ve been watching (Los Angeles) Kings games on FOX Sports Prime Ticket. I used to watch them all the time with my folks and my brothers.

My heroes would be all the small guys that played back in the day like Theo Fleury, Paul Kariya and Dino Ciccarelli, mostly the type of players who were smaller, but skilled and played with a little grit.

The impact of the Wayne Gretzky deal is hard to even quantify in words. Growing up in California you don’t expect it to be a hockey hotbed. But by the time I was ready to leave, within a 45-minute radius of me, there were probably close to 40 rinks. There were tons of teams and our youth teams were competing and winning national championships. I don’t think that would’ve happened, that explosion of hockey, it wouldn’t have grown the way that it did without Gretzky coming to L.A.

In terms of your time with the Penguins organization, can you share any special memories from your time with PIT/WBS.

With Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, one of the coolest things was we went on a nine-game winning streak to start the season. And from Game 1 to Game 80, we were in first place the entire year, which is rare to be able to do that all year long, to be that consistent. Unfortunately, we went to the playoffs and had a lot of injuries, so we just weren’t able to win.

There are three things I remember the most with Pittsburgh. First, going to the locker room, reading the lineup for the first preseason game and seeing that I was playing on a line with Sidney Crosby and Pascal Dupuis was pretty cool.

Then my first game, even though it wasn’t a regular-season game, I assisted on the first goal in CONSOL Energy Center history, and then ended up later scoring a goal, from Crosby, and was first star of the game. Even though it was preseason, it was still cool and something no one else will be able to do.

And then when I got called up, the first game I ever played was against the L.A. Kings and I scored on Jonathan Quick early in the first period. Scoring against your hometown team, players you watched your whole life, is well worth it.

You are fresh off the heels of a stint with EC RedBull Salzburg (winning two championships). How does a player playing abroad avoid homesickness and, at the same time, assimilate into a new community?

You realize that life is different over there, it’s a little bit slower. We’re lucky, in this day and age, with technology and that most people abroad speak English.

Assimilating to the culture isn’t too bad. Learning the language is a little tough. Swedish was a difficult language, but German was even harder to learn. I wouldn’t say I know much German, just enough to get by day-to-day and for emergencies.

You miss stuff from home, but you realize it’s just a temporary thing. You make the best of it— it’s almost somewhat of a mini-vacation when you’re not at the rink. It was an awesome experience, it’s just far from home.

What do you feel the biggest challenges are trying to balance work and your role as a husband?

Everybody has a job. In some ways, our job is better, time-wise, in that since we get summers “off” and we just train and get to make our own schedules. At the same time, we don’t get weekends off for almost nine months out of the year, which is tough because everybody else that works has weekends and we’re busy during that time. So you find little ways to get out and do things even when you’re tired.

Something you learn the longer you’re in the game is finding ways to keep your life going outside of hockey while managing the hockey side. I think it’s just something that comes with age and experience.

I’m sure early on my wife would say I was more focused on hockey day-to-day, even when I was away from the rink, but now I leave hockey at the rink and take advantage when I’m away from it.

Can you speak on your two-year tenure with the National Development Team Program in Michigan (balancing school with development, being away from family and staying with billets)?

It was the first time I lived away from home. I’d only been away for different tournaments, select camps and things like that. I was lucky enough to be offered a spot in Ann Arbor when I was at the Select 16 Festival. I actually agreed to it before I even asked my parents, and then realized I probably should call and ask them. Of course, I knew they would say yes.

But it was fun, it was a good transition between high school and college. You have to learn to be on your own, to a certain degree, but you have your billet family. I still talk to mine and keep in touch with them. I also got to see them at my wedding.

It was a unique experience, and it’s one that I can say has had a huge impact on my career. Playing against junior teams, playing against college teams when you’re 17 and the international tournaments, playing against some of the best competition at your age can’t be replicated.

Who are/were some of the veteran players that provided you with guidance along your journey?

I was lucky enough to have guys like Jason Krog and Darren Haydar at the Wolves my first couple years in the league.

You are back with the Chicago Wolves this season; are you being looked upon to provide some leadership to the young players, or do you feel that process happens organically, given the longevity of your career? Is it a welcomed role for you?

I think it’s what you want it be. If I want to be vocal, make myself into a leader that way, I can. Or I can sit back and have guys watch the way I conduct myself, on and off the ice, and they can follow that way. For me it’s a little bit of both. I love to help guys.

The American Hockey League has changed so much since my first year. There just aren’t as many veteran guys anymore. When I started there were usually four or five guys in their 30s on a team, now teams are lucky to have one or two.

But you realize your actions speak louder than words sometimes, so that’s how I’m going to try to conduct myself.

Once your playing career winds down, what post-playing career aspirations do you have?

I try not to focus too much what happens after hockey. I’ve got my college degree (economics) and I have an idea that I want to go into the business world. I also want to stay in hockey, but I don’t want it to be my permanent job.

I’ve spent more than enough time away from home, away from my wife, away from our families and, one day, kids. I don’t want to miss those big things, I’ve missed enough in my life already with being in Europe and missing holidays. But I don’t want to completely leave the game because it’s something I’ve been doing since I was four years old and I still love to do to this day.

Favorite rink?

There are two games that stick out in my mind. We played Canada in Halifax for World Juniors in 2003 in the semifinal game and it was one of the first games where I had seen thunder sticks. The Canadians are also so passionate about World Juniors, and it was U.S.-Canada to go to the gold-medal game. It was one of the loudest rinks I’ve ever been in.

Also playing at the Madhouse on Madison with Pittsburgh against Chicago was pretty fun, especially for me because my wife was there, our friends, family, etc. I ended up scoring a goal, the game went into a shootout and we lost, but I was kind of singing along because it was just a great atmosphere. Of course, I wanted to win but I still enjoyed the night.

And I’ve been at Allstate [Arena] so many times, the crowds are amazing and I’ve had so many experiences there — there are so many good ones — it’s hard to pick just one out.

Most underrated teammate?

Joey Crabb. He was drafted by New York [Rangers], they didn’t sign him but Atlanta did. He came in and had to battle from the fourth line up. He played in Atlanta for a little bit and then went to Toronto and then went to Washington. He was never really regarded as a highly-skilled, top-six guy, yet he put up numbers, while at the same time, still being good defensively and physical. He’s had an amazing career — he just retired — he did things I just don’t think he ever got as much credit for as he deserved.

If you could sum up your career (so far) in a sentence or two, what would you say?

More than I ever expected.

A quick little game of word association, first word that comes to mind when you read the following career accomplishments or teammates:

  • 2004 Gold Medal – World Jr. (first for U.S.) – Elation
  • 2002 Gold Medal – U18 (first for U.S.) – Pride
  • 2008 Calder Cup – Relief
  • 2005 Colorado College team MVP – Support
  • Bobby Holik – Beast
  • Sidney Crosby – Greatest
  • Jason Arnott – Steady

Main Photo Courtesy of Brett Sterling.

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