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Sterling hopes big season yields big things

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Scott Wilson

Scott Wilson is the NHL, boxing and MMA editor at FOXSports.com.

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Brett Sterling had always been a star on whatever team he played with growing up, be it as a kid playing in California, later with the U.S. National Team Development Program or at the top level of NCAA hockey at Colorado College. So when he got benched three games into his professional career this past season while playing with the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, he figured something was wrong. Sterling knew he had made a mistake on a play that cost the Wolves a goal. He was told by Chicago coach John Anderson he wouldn't be playing the next game. "I went to the coach and I said, 'I want to watch this play,'" Sterling said. "And he said, 'First of all, it's not the play. You're going to make mistakes, that's fine. It wasn't the play.' "I said, 'Well...what was it?' He said, 'You're not playing with tenacity. I'm not seeing what I saw in training camp.' "Fortunately for me, we lost the next game, because I was able to get back in the lineup. From then on things seemed to click." Saying things "seemed to click" could be a bit of an understatement considering the season Sterling went on to have. The 2003 fifth-round pick of the Atlanta Thrashers led the AHL with 55 goals, becoming the first rookie to do so since 1989. Sterling never thought he'd see such gaudy numbers in his first season as a professional. "It was unreal. It was better than I could have ever expected," Sterling said. "Playing a game for a living, it's a nice opportunity for me right now. And having the kind of year I did, playing with the guys I did, it was awesome." Thankfully for Sterling and the Wolves, Anderson's benching obviously seemed to do the trick and the message got through to the rookie left wing. "I realized that if I'm going to keep my position and stay where I am, I've got to play my game," Sterling said. "In college, I could make mistakes and there was no chance I was going to get (benched) by my junior or senior year. I didn't have to worry about that. I could take some risks and not have to worry about it. "Now that it's a job, there's 10 guys behind me wanting to take my spot. You've got to be smarter about it. You've got to help your team, whatever you've got to do." Helping his team is something Sterling's always been able to do, usually by scoring goals. "That's always been my M.O. I've always been the guy who scores goals," he said. "Growing up, I usually doubled my goals to assists. Whenever I got an assist, people would say, 'You passed the puck? It had to be a rebound.'" After growing up in Pasadena, Calif., Sterling went on to play for the U.S. NTDP in Michigan before making the jump to college hockey. Sterling put up great numbers during his four years at Colorado College, playing with and against some of the best the NCAA has to offer. He scored 184 points in his 150-game collegiate career on 108 goals and 76 assists. His career at CC included a trip to the Frozen Four in his junior season in 2004-05, during which he was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA hockey player in the nation. His teammate Marty Sertich won the award. Sterling says playing with players of that caliber at all levels, from his days at CC to last season with Chicago, has been a big factor in his ability to score goals. "I can't say it's all me, because I've been blessed to be able to play with some great players," Sterling said. "Over the last five years, between (linemates Darren) Haydar and (Jason) Krog, playing with Sertich who won the Hobey Baker, and (Peter) Sejna who won the Hobey Baker, and Noah Clarke (at CC)... You look at these guys who are doing good things, I've just been able to get in there and finish it when they give me the chance." One thing that helps Sterling "get in there" is the fact that he's usually one of the smaller players on the ice and can find his way into open spaces. Standing at 5-foot-8, Sterling is far from the prototypical hockey player fans have come to expect. But there are several NHL stars who have made those size expectations things of the past, like Brian Gionta of the New Jersey Devils (5-foot-7) and Martin St. Louis (5-foot-8). Playing on the large ice sheet at Colorado College helped Sterling learn how to use open spaces. But the NHL's stricter enforcement of obstruction rules has given its smaller players more room to work on the smaller NHL rinks. Sterling said he's glad to be compared to players who have become NHL stars, but there's also some pressure that comes with those comparisons. "Those guys are top-notch in the NHL. Those are NHL all-stars right there," Sterling said. "That's a tough goal to aspire to, especially right now when my goal is to make it into the league. But, hopefully in a few years, I can be there with those guys. Hopefully my name can be mentioned in the same sentence with them." But he does see some similarities in his game. "I'm a smaller guy. I'm kind of a skilled guy. I'm a guy who's usually up there putting up points," he said. "And that's always been my game. I really like the way Gionta plays. St. Louis is such a skilled player. He's unbelieveable. But Gionta's always in front of the net. He plays in that high-traffic zone. That's really where I've gotten a lot of my goals." This fall, Sterling would love to be scoring those goals in Atlanta. Scoring 55 goals in the minors should go a long way to proving to the Thrashers brass that he's got skills that should translate to the NHL, but he'll have to show them he's ready in training camp in September. Sterling spent two weeks in the Thrashers camp last September, playing in three exhibition games before being sent to the minor league camp. He said being on the same ice as Thrashers stars like Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa opened his eyes. "You can't even speak about how much I learned there," he said. "You train constantly. You're pushing yourself to the max, thinking you can't do anymore. Then you see you're out there with some of the top skaters in the NHL, and you say, 'OK, I can push myself a little harder. I've got to get myself here.' And you just learn what it's going to take to get to that level. Because it is a completely different level. When you're on the ice with guys like Kovalchuk and Hossa, you say, 'OK. I know why there're here now. What's it going to take to get me here?'" Sterling got to skate on a line with Hossa and his former CC teammate Joey Crabb in his first exhibition game last year, scoring a goal against the Florida Panthers. "I remember I scored against Alex Auld. He was on my fantasy team the year before, so that was pretty entertaining," Sterling said. "In the next period (Crabb) scored. And we're sitting there listening to the announcement: 'Atlanta goal scored by Joey Crabb, assisted by Brett Sterling and Marian Hossa.' We both just looked at each other like, 'This is just too weird. This is not real. Come on.'" Having seen what it takes, Sterling has been focused on advancing in his pro career. He said he's improved his defensive game and has worked on his conditioning. Coming from collegiate hockey to the professional game, he had to make his body able to handle almost three times as many games. "I was told by Atlanta, 'You need to work on your conditioning. You did well in the college game, that's great. We hope it can translate. But if you want to be successful in the program, you've got to be able to play 80 games-plus,'" Sterling said. "That's one thing I've been doing. I'm in the weight room, I'm working trying to get quicker, but I'm also working on conditioning so that when the 50th, 60th game comes around, I'm not hitting the wall for a little bit instead of being able to go through the whole season." Sterling said he did hit a lull last season, but that was more because opposing teams realized the kid can play. "Coming into the league, no one knew who I was. No one cared. It wasn't a big deal," he said. "Then I think I had 35 goals in 34 games. All of a sudden, everyone was like, 'OK, maybe we need to give him a little more attention than we have.' Krog, Haydar and I faced every top defensive line. That always puts a little bit of a damper on it. Even though I didn't keep scoring at the same pace, I ended up at a number I like. Absolutely. I have no complaints." Sterling said he had a great time last year in Chicago. He loved the city and the organization. But, obviously, his goal is to stick with the Thrashers this coming season. "I see spots where I think I have an opportunity. Hopefully with the year I had and what I was able to accomplish this year — not only with the points, but with my game in general — I'm hoping to get a shot," Sterling said. "Last year I got to play three exhibition games, which was a huge step for me. I think that did a lot for my confidence, being out there playing with those guys. We'll see what happens in camp. Obviously, I want to come in and have a great camp, have them keep me around as long as possible. If that makes it into the regular season, I'm a happy guy, making part of my dream come true."
Tagged: Lightning, Brian Gionta, Brett Sterling, Panthers, Noah Clarke, Alex Auld, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jets, Devils, Martin St. Louis, Marian Hossa

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