By Elizabeth Casey | Photos by Ross Dettman & Steve Woltmann
Four-year-old Brett Sterling wanted to be a goalie.
He idolized Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr, and wanted to follow in his footsteps, even selecting to wear number 31 in his honor. Only one small problem - four-year-old Brett Sterling was too small to stand up wearing full goalie gear.
“I really wanted to be a goalie, so my parents put me in full goalie gear and put me on the ice and I couldn’t stand up because I was really small,” Sterling recalled. “So they said, ‘well, you can’t play goalie.’”
So, Sterling signed up to play forward. Since then, he’s made a lot of goaltenders wish they’d picked a different position, too.
As a five-year-old, Sterling scored 84 goals in 18 games.
That’s pretty much how things have gone ever since.
“Throughout my whole career I’ve been able to score goals,” he shrugged. “It’s almost just right place, right time. I seem to have a knack for finding the area where the puck bounces to me. There’s skill involved, but I would never say I don’t get lucky, too. I think in the long run, you create your own luck and finding the right areas and being willing to go into those right areas helps you make that luck.”
Now a 25-year-old left wing for the Chicago Wolves, Sterling has had quite a bit of luck – enough to snag the third-most markers in franchise history (125 and counting at press time) in three-and-a-half seasons with the team, and the chance to represent the Wolves in the 2010 AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 19 – but his goal-scoring aptitude was present long before his arrival in the Windy City.
In 2002, Sterling helped the United States Junior National Team capture the squad’s first-ever gold medal at the World Under-18 Championships in Slovakia. His nine goals in eight games led the U.S. team and were second overall in the tournament.
Later that year, he enrolled at Colorado College, where he proceeded to lead the Tigers in goals every season but one – his freshman year, when he ranked second. When the Los Angeles native graduated in 2006, he had right-place-at-the-right-timed himself into third on the school’s all-time goal-scoring register with 108 tallies in 149 games. His 56 power-play goals were more than any player in WCHA history ever had amassed.
When it was time for the Atlanta Thrashers’ fifth selection in the 2003 National Hockey League Entry Draft to turn pro, then Wolves Head Coach John Anderson put him on a line with a center named Jason Krog and a right wing named Darren Haydar, and the most prolific scoring trio in American Hockey League history was born.
“They made me a better player, no doubt,” Sterling said of the pair, who each won the AHL MVP and scoring titles while the line was together from 2006 to 2008. “They’re not only great players on the ice, they’re good guys off the ice. They helped me become a more mature player and person.
“But it’s not just playing with great players, it’s respecting the coaches for knowing that you have to play a guy like myself, who likes to score goals, with a playmaker. I am really grateful to Johnny Anderson for recognizing that and playing to my strength by playing me with those guys as a rookie. By putting me in that situation, he put me in a spot to succeed.”
After playing on his line for the better part of three seasons, Krog thinks what Sterling has is almost intangible.
“I think it’s something that you’re almost born with,” Krog said. “He just knows how to put the puck in the net, and he can do it year in and year out better than most people in the league. He’s able to find the open spots and get great scoring position. And when he gets the puck, there’s a switch that goes on. He just knows where to put it.”
Sterling broke the 12-year-old franchise record for goals by a rookie in the first 20 games of the season in 2006, and went on to score 55 goals that season, more than any other player in the AHL, and was named the league’s rookie of the year as a result. The following season, he shared second in the league with 38 goals, one marker behind Krog.
Players who are “goal scorers” can sometimes be termed a bit selfish – after all, you don’t score too many goals by passing the puck to someone else – which is why it is interesting to note who passed the puck to Krog for that 39th goal in 2008.
It was Sterling.
The duo entered the final game of the season tied for first in the league with 37 tallies each. Krog was also leading the AHL in assists and points at the time, and a goal-scoring title would make him just the third player in league history to earn the “triple crown” of scoring. For Sterling, it would mean leading the AHL in goals each of his first two years as a pro.
“It was funny, guys were joking about it before the game,” Sterling remembered. “Krogger scored in the first or second period to go up and then I scored to make it 38 even. There was an empty net with like a minute left and Johnny goes ‘Krogger, Sterls, get out there.’ The whole bench was rolling knowing what he was doing.
“Basically, the puck came up the wall, I got it, took a few strides and both D started to come to me. As much as I’d like to say I was doing this severely unselfish thing by passing the puck, it was the right play at the right time. Could I have gone to the net? Sure. Would I have hit it? Who knows. It was a great thing for Jason to win the triple crown. He deserved it that year. I’m not too worried about that one goal. He thanked me for it after and it was the least I could do for him after he had set me up for so many goals.”
“It was really unselfish on his part and it showed a lot of character,” Krog said. “It really exemplified our team and why we had so much success that year. It didn’t matter who got the individual accolades, it was all about the team stuff.”
When it comes to helping the team, Sterling has a tendency to come through. Twenty-four of his 125 goals as of press time were game-winners – eight of them in overtime.
Despite having scored hundreds of goals in the last seven years, Sterling still gets excited every time he puts the puck in the net.
“It never gets old, and I don’t think it ever will,” he said. “Everybody loves scoring goals, whether you score one a year or 50 a year, I don’t think it really matters.”
Back in his current spot atop the league’s goal-scoring rankings once again, the only people who are sorry Sterling’s childhood dream of being a goaltender was short-lived are the goaltenders he faces each night.
His only complaint? Occasionally, he enjoys his job too much.
“When I celebrate, it’s never planned. It’s spontaneous,” he said. “Sometimes I look back and I’m slightly embarrassed by my actions, but it’s just that pure emotion from everything that goes into scoring a goal.”