SAN JOSE -- Dan Boyle looked across the Sharks locker room Saturday morning at the vacant cubicle where Bracken Kearns soon would be peeling off his gear at the end of practice.
"You hear of guys that play for a couple hundred games, but 600 -- that's a lot of years down there," the Sharks defenseman said in admiration of Kearns' perseverance. "From a guy that had his own struggles getting into the NHL, it's just amazing to see somebody get rewarded for so many years of effort and sacrifice."
Kearns, whose minor league resume shows 593 regular-season and 31 playoff games, might be the NHL's feel-good story of the moment.
After years in the lineup of teams such as the Rockford Ice Hogs and Norfolk Admirals, Kearns scored his first NHL goal this week at age 32. Then he notched two more in his next two games for good measure.
Throughout all those long bus rides in the minors -- Kearns can recall one playoff series where the teams traveled the 530 miles between Toledo, Ohio, and Gwinnett, Ga., by land -- he never lost the dream of playing in the NHL.
"Maybe when I was younger -- 18 or 19 when guys were getting drafted," Kearns said. "But not since I've turned pro. I just think I've slowly gotten better each and every year."
Kearns might have been genetically predisposed toward the NHL as the son of veteran Vancouver Canucks defenseman Dennis Kearns, who retired in 1981 after 677 NHL games.
The Sharks forward was born that same year, so he never saw his father play. But he does have childhood memories of going to NHL games at the Pacific Coliseum with him.
"We were just able to walk in -- my dad had an ID or whatever," Kearns said. "We'd go and watch one or two periods and then head out."
There was also access to locker rooms, where his father could see former teammates and old friends in the visitors' room such as Wayne Cashman, then an assistant coach with the New York Rangers.
"My dad was my hero and still is. I felt really special back then, being able to do that," said Kearns, who can relate when he sees teammates such as Patrick Marleau bringing their kids into the locker room now.
Golf, however, became a higher priority for Kearns as a teenager, and that meant junior hockey wasn't an option. That led him to the University of Calgary.
There he returned to hockey, playing four years before graduating in 2005 with an economics degree and a license to sell securities. With no NHL teams showing interest, Kearns signed with the Toledo Storm of the ECHL and felt lucky to be there.
"For me," Kearns said, "I wanted to be close to the AHL teams in case there was a chance to get a call-up."
There was a chance that first season, and it involved San Jose. The Sharks gave Kearns a one-game look with their development team, then in nearby Cleveland. He remembers two things from that unsuccessful tryout: meeting his future Worcester Sharks coach, Roy Sommer, and being dropped off afterward at an Ohio Turnpike exit where a friend took him the rest of the way home.
Kearns played four more years in the minors before catching on with the Phoenix Coyotes organization in July 2010. A year later he hooked on with the Florida Panthers, and it was there he played in his first NHL game at age 30 on Oct. 20, 2011.
Five games later, he was back in the minors.
The Sharks signed Kearns in July 2012 but called him up for only one game during the lockout season, a March 5 contest in Vancouver. Later, with the Sharks dealing with injuries and the Raffi Torres suspension in the playoffs, Kearns saw action in all seven games of the second-round series with the Los Angeles Kings.
That, Kearns said, gave him the confidence he brought with him on this call-up from Worcester, where his 18 points tie him for the scoring lead.
Kearns didn't wait for NHL recognition to start his own family. He and his wife, Julie -- a video of his proposal is on the Internet -- have an 8-month-old daughter, London, as well as Franc and Beans, a French bulldog and a mixed breed rescue from their time in Texas.
His father has yet to see him play in the NHL in person, having been in Southern California when his son played in Vancouver. That doesn't make him any less proud.
"We still have chills," Dennis Kearns, 68, said. "We're all very excited and happy for him."
Sharks (26-9-6) at Colorado (25-11-4), noon, CSNCA