The San Antonio Rampage were not the happiest of teams after coming off of a yet another disappointing loss Tuesday Morning against their division rivals, the Abbotsford Heat. With 5 wins and 9 loses in just 14 games, this is the worst start a Florida Panthers AHL affiliate has seen since the 2008-09 season.
The Rampage signed an agreement to be the Florida Panthers newest AHL affiliate (previously the Rochester Americans) in the summer of 2011-2012, and immediately positive gossip and high expectations came from just about everyone around the league. With Mike Santos moving in as their new General Manager and the signings of talented Greg Rallo, Bracken Kearns and Nolan Yonkman, among others, the Panthers minor league affiliate was finally back on the radar as playoff contenders. Along with these new signings, the minors welcomed back veterans Michal Repik, Tim Kennedy, Evengii Dadonov, and goalies Brian Foster and Jacob Markstrom, to name a few.
But expectations took a plunge early on in the season as San Antonio has struggled to find the back of the net. In 14 games, the Rampage have scored an unimpressive league worst, 29 goals. So-called offensive threats such as, Mark Cullen, Angelo Esposito, Greg Rallo, and Bill Thomas have combined for just 5 goals. On the defensive side, Mike Kostka has yet to find the scoring touch that led him to the third best point total among defenseman last season. But the finger cannot just be pointed at the expected star players, as other teammates such as Garrett Wilson, A.J. Jenks and Jonathan Hazen struggled to start the season and have recently been demoted to the ECHL in Cincinnati. To compound everything, expected starting goaltender “of the future”, Jacob Markstrom, spent the first month of the season with the Florida Panthers, while Scott Clemmensen was recovering from off-season knee surgery.
While it might not be time to push the panic button just yet, there is still a lot of work to be done. In saying this, there have been a few shining performances such as forward Michal Repik (2-7-9), defenseman Colby Robak (3-4-7), and veteran forward Bracken Kearns (5-2-7).
Could the Rampage’s slow start be a result of growing pains, and getting use to new players? Only time will tell as the season continues.
Here is a phone interview I had with Bracken Kearns of the San Antonio Rampage. This season he became the second 30-or-older player to make his NHL debut with the Florida Panthers.
Paige: You took the non-traditional route and went to the University of Calgary and played hockey. Most kids play in the CHL or NCAA. Why did you decide to take the Canadian University route?
Bracken: “To be honest with you, I was really into Golf growing up, as well as hockey. I didn’t really choose a specific sport, where as a lot of kids choose to play hockey and go play in the CHL when they’re 16 or 17. But by the time I was 18 or 19, I felt that neither sport had taken me too far so I decided to go to the University of Calgary. For me, it was just getting that experience and getting away from home, and hoping to make the hockey team as a walk-on. And I ended up making it. But for me I was definitely a two-sport guy who couldn’t really choose.”
Paige: Are you still playing Golf?
Bracken: “Yes, I still play Golf. I no longer compete like I used to. I was very competitive and was in all sorts of tournaments when I was a teenager. I still play a lot over the summer, but I don’t compete like I use to. I don’t play a lot of golf during the years. Sometimes I’ll go and play 9 holes with my fiancé, but generally I’ll just stick to playing in the summer time.”
Paige: You make the jump from Canadian College hockey to the ECHL, the Toledo Storm, and you lead your team in scoring. At this point did you feel like you were maybe being overlooked by NHL teams and that you finally deserved a shot?
Bracken: “Yeah, but I was really just taking everything one day at a time. I didn’t know how it was going to be my first year of pro. But I ended up having a pretty good year there and a really good coach that seemed to like me and gave me a chance. And a year after that I got an American League deal out of it, which I thought was really cool. Of course I still dreamt of playing in the NHL but I was just taking it one step at a time, and that was good enough for me at that point.”
Paige: You played for numerous minor league teams both in the ECHL and AHL, and in 2010 you g0t signed to your first NHL contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. Before you signed with Phoenix, did you ever lose hope that maybe the NHL wasn’t going to happen and that you were going to be a really successful minor league player instead?
Bracken: “It’s funny, because after all those years, I felt that I kept getting better and better. Well, I had a pretty good year in Rockford, and got to play in the Blackhawks camp. They said some really nice things. So I never really lost hope. And I never really stressed myself out trying to get that deal, it just kind of happened. I was very thankful for the opportunity. And it definitely seems like every year I have gotten a little bit better, and a little bit more of an opportunity and that is exactly where I am at today.”
Paige: You spent 428 games in the minors; you finally get the call-up of a lifetime and get to make your NHL debut in two NHL games as a Florida Panther. What was your reaction? And who was the first person you called?
Bracken: “I was actually just putting my soup on the stove for my pre-game meal, and then I got the phone call that I just got called up. So the first thing I did was obviously turn off the stove since I had to run to the airport quickly. But I did call my mom and of course she wanted to talk my ear off but I kept telling her I had to go since I had only about 45 minutes to catch my flight. After I got off the phone with her I also sent a text to my brothers. It was so frantic trying to makes it to the game, I just didn’t have a lot of time to talk to many people about it.”
Paige: What did you learn from finally playing in the NHL? Were your games in the NHL more challenging? Or just as challenging as games you’ve played in the AHL.
Bracken: “It’s definitely a different game in the NHL. The guys are definitely better and work harder. For me it was an eye opener. I believe I can play there, and in my heart I know I can produce up there. So playing in the NHL has given me more drive to become a better hockey player and get back out there and hopefully take advantage of the next call-up.”
Paige: You guys are off to a bit of a slow start. There were high-expectations for San Antonio in the beginning of the season. What do you think the issue is? Do you think this could turn into a playoff team this year?
Bracken: “I think so. We still have a long way to go and it’s just a matter of stringing together a couple of wins. We do have a solid team and we really do have all the parts. We have great goal tending from Jacob Markstrom, good defense, and a lot of good veterans. But I definitely think we have a good team. We’ve talked about it and it’s a good time to struggle. It’s better than struggling towards the end of the season. Hopefully we can string together some wins and come a playoff team and go from there.”
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