Born and raised in the sunny climes of Southern California, Brett Sterling left home for the first time as a teenager to play with the US Junior National Team in Ann Arbor, Mich. And it wasn’t a very smooth transition.
“It was cold there. Very cold,” Sterling said. “The first time I drove in the snow, I did a full 360-degree turn and my housing brother and sister were like, ‘Hey, welcome to the snow!’ But I liked it.”
Some unsurprising enthusiasm from a guy who has built a professional career out of overcoming adversity. The Chicago Wolves left wing, who rejoined the team this fall after four productive seasons between 2006-10, has been called “too small” to be successful in hockey since he was a kid. But as much as others may have been troubled by his size, Sterling never let his 5-foot-7 height be a distraction, even if it hindered his original plan of playing goalie.
“I was too short to stand up in goal equipment when I started playing, so I switched to forward,” he said. “My height has never affected me mentally, although I’m sure it has affected a lot of other people, whether it was coaches, management or other players. When you’re a smaller guy, people are going to assume you can’t do certain things or that they can take advantage of you in certain ways. My goal is to dispel that notion and to prove people wrong; hopefully in a big way.”
He got off to a good start – in a big way - at Colorado College. During his collegiate tenure, Sterling had prolific success, accumulating 108 goals and 184 points in 150 games, leading Colorado in scoring three of his four seasons and earning a nomination for the Hobey Baker Award as a junior---a first for a California native.
“College was a great experience all around. But for me, the best part was making the Frozen Four my junior season,” he said. “Unfortunately we lost to Denver in the semi-finals, but all my years there we had unbelievable teams. We were slated to be the No.1 team in the country at times and when you get those chances to play great teams, it makes for a lot of great memories. Being a finalist for the Hobey Baker, that was great for me personally, but to see my teammate Marty Sertich win it was a special experience for me to share with him.”
Having been picked by the Atlanta Thrashers 145th in the 2003 entry draft, Sterling completed his college career and suited up for the first time with the Wolves in 2006, quickly working his way onto the franchise’s most unforgettable line.
“It’s weird to say, but I was fortunate not to score a goal the first three games of my rookie season and to be a healthy scratch my fourth game,” he said. “Luckily at that time, head coach John Anderson was switching lines if we lost. We lost that fourth game, and he switched the lines, and I ended up with Jason Krog and Darren Haydar. It was a line that complemented us all so well. They were so dangerous together already and I was the rookie, no one knew who I was, so they took all the attention and left me on the back side to score. It was a really fun year for us.”
Haydar and Sterling have played many games side-by-side since and while both have grown on and off the ice over the years, Haydar fondly remembers the eager young rookie committed to holding his own.
“It was a good situation for us all because Brett listened to us and took our advice and made himself better,” Haydar said. “He didn’t come in as a top guy but he worked really hard and worked his way onto that line with Jason and I and he had a fantastic year.”
And then some. At the end of his rookie season, Sterling amassed 55 goals and 97 points in 77 games and tacked on 12 more points in 15 playoff appearances. That was enough to earn him the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Trophy as the American Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year and the Willie Marshall Award as the league’s leading scorer.
“Those awards mean a lot to me,” he said. “There can only be one leading goal-scorer and only one Rookie of the Year and you only get one shot at that. It shows I was able to produce my first year and speaks to the type of player I am. I also hope it meant a lot to Darren and Jason, who were a huge part of why I did what I did. It was a fun year and a fun situation and it really set my career up. All I can do is control what’s around me and do the best I can and that’s what these guys really taught me. They are unbelievable players.”
The impact of playing with them was so immense that Sterling still points to Haydar as the teammate who has affected him most---in hockey and in life.
“It sounds like a cop-out answer, but I’ve been with him for so long and he’s a consummate professional on and off the ice,” Sterling said. “He’s been in my situation. He’s a guy who has put up really prolific AHL numbers, but hasn’t had a lot of chances in the NHL. I think my career has mirrored his in a lot of ways and so I’ve always looked to him as an example to follow and I see how he’s handled it so well and that’s an important part. There are a lot of great players who don’t make it full-time in the NHL because there are so many factors and it’s about opportunity and timing and those matter as much as anything. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out the way maybe it should.”
Sterling has had to deal with getting just a taste of the NHL over the years without ever finding a permanent home. He has spent time with the Thrashers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues, appearing in 30 total games and notching nine points. And while his approach to each call up has morphed over time, he has learned to remind himself hockey is still hockey wherever it’s played.
“Based on what role you’re being asked to play, you’re going to go into each situation differently,” he said. “When I went up to Pittsburgh they had so many injuries that I was playing on the first and second line and on the power play. When I was up in St. Louis I was a fourth line guy playing limited minutes and it was more like, focus on the defensive game, be accountable, get the puck out of the zone, because that’s what they’re looking for. My first couple years I didn’t get that but as you get older you come to realize hockey is the same game regardless of where you are and whatever role you’re being put into you have to accept.”
Playing his role is one thing. Coming to grips with being held out of play altogether because of injury, as he was for much of this season’s second half, was a different story. Suffering a groin pull in January, Sterling was about to come back in February when a setback put him in rehab mode again.
“That injury was the most frustrating thing to happen in my career. Getting sent down and all that stuff, it doesn’t compare to injury because it’s something so slow that you have no control over,” he said. “You can do everything you want to make your body heal; you can rehab, but you can’t speed it up. Watching the guys go out there every night was very difficult to watch. Being injured, the thing I looked forward to most is scoring that first goal and hopefully that it’s sooner rather than later.”
But Sterling has never relied on hope. Determined to light the lamp as soon as possible upon his return, he did just that right out of the gate on March 22, scoring not one but two markers and leading the Wolves to victory over the Toronto Marlies. Haydar, for one, was sure his long-time line mate would fall right back into the swing of things.
“Brett’s a great player. He’s a great finisher and a great teammate,” he said. “He gets the job done and he gets under the skin of opponents, so he’s a great guy to have on your team and he knows where to be out on the ice.”
Where he wants to be off the ice though, when his playing days eventually come to an end, is a different story. As much as Sterling loves the game, he’s not sure he’d follow in the footsteps of Wolves assistant coach Nolan Baumgartner and jump right behind the bench.
“I got my degree at Colorado in Economics, so my next career would be something in business,” he said. “I’d like to stay in touch with sports for sure on some level, but I don’t think I’d be a coach. It would maybe be something else in the sports world though. Still, as long as my body holds out, or my wife doesn’t kill me, I want to be a player. I think I have a bunch more years left in this body.”
Sterling and his wife Lizzy tied the knot last summer and have made a permanent home in her native Chicago for the offseason months. But for now, Sterling says his wife handles the nomadic hockey life as well as anyone.
“She’s so great,” he said. “I kind of put my life on hold to a certain degree for hockey and she has had to make a lot of sacrifices, too, so I’ve made it very clear to her that when I’m done playing it won’t be the moving anymore or the long hours, which is why I don’t want to go into coaching, and it’s going to be more of a focus on her and I’ll do more of the sacrificing and return the favor. Whatever she wants to do, that’s what we’ll do.”
As resolute as he always has been in achieving all his professional goals, Sterling has never lost sight of the most basic lesson his parents taught him, carrying it with him through every adversity.
“The biggest thing my parents told me is to treat others the way you want to be treated and that’s how I live my life,” he said. “Except when I’m on the ice. On the ice, it’s a little different. But for the most part, live to be a good person, especially to those around you and the ones you love most. You never know what’s going to happen in life or how long someone is going to be close to you so enjoy every day with them because you don’t know.”
And while it’s been thirteen years since he left home for Michigan and kick started his future career, Sterling is determined to embrace the job he has for as long as it will have him.
“I love the camaraderie of this game and being around the guys and coming to the rink with 25 friends to laugh and joke with,” he said. “I love scoring goals and I love the competition behind it and that’s what I’ll miss most when I’m done.”