When you’re only 5-foot-7, it’s easy to fly under the radar. But after an impressive college career and an award-winning rookie season in professional hockey, Brett Sterling is proving that big things can come in small packages.
Now, the California native is trying to prove he deserves a regular spot with the Atlanta Thrashers.
A fifth-round pick by the Thrashers in 2003, Sterling has put together a quiet but competent professional career with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League.
In his first full season in the Windy City, Sterling tallied a league-leading 55 goals, earned AHL rookie-of-the-year honors and a first team All-Star spot.
“I came in my first year and nobody knew who I was,” says Sterling, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award during his junior season at Colorado College.
“Coming in unknown was great, and I was playing with unbelievable players like Jason Krog and Darren Haydar. I had 34 goals in my first 35 games. All of a sudden teams started keying on me and the defense started to tighten up.”
Since taking the AHL by storm, Sterling has been threatening to cross the NHL threshold on a full-time basis. He spent his off-season working out and was committed to bringing himself to camp in the best possible shape.
After leading the Thrashers in scoring this preseason, the high-flying, left winger made the final cut and remained on the roster. Sterling saw action in 13 NHL games with the Thrashers last season and still hopes to build on that.
“I feel a lot more comfortable this year,” says Sterling, who has played in three games so far this season with the Thrashers. “Last year I was jittery, and we had a rough start. That never helps when your team starts out 0-6 and you’re getting shifted around a lot, playing on the right wing with a variety of players.
“I’m a confidence player so the earlier you get scoring like I did my first year in the minors, the better. In the NHL, guys are bigger and stronger and they put up a better fight. It’s a challenge, and I’m ready for it. I thrive on that.”
CENTERShoots: Left Hometown: Pasadena, Calif. Height: 5-foot-7 Weight: 175 pounds Birth Date: April 24, 1984 U.S. College: Colorado College NHL Draft: Selected in the 5th round (145th overall) of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft by the Atlanta Thrashers Did You Know: Brett was a member of the U.S. National Junior Team that won the first gold medal for the Americans at the 2004 World Junior Championship.
Sterling’s journey from the sunny beaches of California to the NHL has been an interesting one. His family was first introduced to the sport by his uncle who encouraged Brett’s cousin and older brother to play hockey. He soon followed, donning his first pair of skates at 2 and playing his first season of organized hockey at age 4.
He continued playing both ice and inline hockey in California until he was 16. That’s when he received a great opportunity to play with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“I wanted to go so bad; I actually called my parents to make sure it was OK with them after I already said yes to Ann Arbor,” recalls Sterling. “It was a big step but a great opportunity. You really develop as a player and learn about yourself.”
His experience in Ann Arbor led Sterling to Colorado Springs, where he notched 184 points as a four-year player with the WCHA powerhouse Tigers.
Though small in stature, Sterling is a solid competitor and not timid about going into high-traffic areas to gain a scoring chance.
In a league where it’s common to find 220-pound defensemen standing well over 6-feet tall, Sterling pulls his inspiration from some past NHL stars.
“The guys like Theo Fleury, Paul Kariya, Dino Ciccarelli, I watched them very carefully when I was growing up and tried to emulate them the best I could,” he says. “The NHL game has opened up for smaller guys these days.”
Although he has spent much of the season in Chicago, Sterling is on the fast track to gain a spot on the Thrashers roster. The team continues to rebuild around its young stars under the tutelage of Head Coach John Anderson, who was behind the Wolves’ bench during Sterling’s incredible rookie year in Chicago.
“Last year [and this year] I made the team out of camp, which is awesome,” says Sterling, who hopes to follow his coach from the AHL to Atlanta.
“That team last year struggled, and I struggled along with them. I went back to the AHL but now I’m back this year. I want to prove that I belong [in Atlanta] and want to prove to people I can play here.”