At this stage of his hockey career, Wolves left winger Brett Sterling realizes how much his priorities have shifted.
Sterling is winding down his eighth AHL season and is the Wolves’ longest-tenured player. But after appearing in 30 NHL games – the last which came with the St. Louis Blues during the 2011-12 campaign – Sterling, 32, has transitioned from chasing NHL dreams to being an elder statesman of a franchise he returned to after playing the last three years overseas.
Sterling now logs minutes in a league that, at its core, is about developing talent. Yet, after the Wolves locked down a playoff spot last month after failing to do so last season, Sterling tows the line between being the veteran who helps mold youthful talent around him and being the competitor who longs for another Calder Cup title before his career ends.
“Every time you win a championship, everybody says you should be happy with what you have,” said Sterling, who won an AHL title with the Wolves in 2008 and captured Austrian Hockey League championships the last two years with EC Red Bull Salzburg. “And you are, but you want more.”
But how Sterling goes about reaching his end goal is different than it once was.
Despite being the Wolves’ second all-time leading scorer, Sterling has registered 29 points (11 goals, 18 assists), well off the pace set by Kenny Agostino’s 79 points. Sterling’s role is now more of a supportive one rather than being the one in which his ability to produce was a must.
Yet, coming off a season when the Wolves finished under .500 for the first time in franchise history, Sterling serves as a constant reminder of the team’s playoff past. But part of his responsibility is to inspire his teammates toward how bright their future can be.
Although Sterling’s on-ice role isn’t what it once was, first-year coach Craig Berube has looked to veterans like Sterling to help set the tone in other ways. Sterling still gets regular ice time and is part of the Wolves’ power play, but his leadership has gone a long way in getting his teammates all on the same page.
“Having a guy that has experienced that and has won, it’s important for the younger guys to see that,” Berube said. “That is competitiveness is what we really like.”
Sterling’s inner drive is also what keeps him pushing for more as his playing career winds down. He acknowledges that accepting a lesser role isn’t always easy. He knows, however, if he doesn’t take what he is given, it could mean the end of the road before he is ready.
Sterling believes he still has a few years of hockey left. But because he refuses to take playoff trips for granted, Sterling will enjoy every moment of the journey ahead.
For now, Sterling won’t concern himself of how much longer that journey lasts.
“If you have a chance to get to the playoffs and make some noise, you don’t want to waste that,” he said. “Because you don’t know if you’ll ever be back there again.”
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