Since the age of 15, Kenai River Brown Bears defenseman Sam Sterne has worked in his family’s concrete business, spending up to nine hours a day five days a week in concrete-encased holes in the height of Chicago’s summers, which feature high humidity and temperatures than can get up to 90.
So if you guessed Sterne, 18, is some pretty, free-flowing hockey player with preternatural skills, you guessed wrong.
“He’s old school, and he puts the team first,” Kenai River head coach Jeff Worlton said. “That’s one thing he really takes pride in is blocking shots and being a team guy.
“His dad is a cement contractor in the Midwest and him and his mom instilled in him a work ethic. He does cement in the summer, and he brings that workmanlike attitude to the rink every day he plays hockey.”
The Bears became aware of Sterne, who is from the Chicago suburb of Batavia, due to player adviser David Maciuk, who also serves in that role for current Bears players Jake Friedman, David Kaplan, Anthony Tzveyn and Luke Radetic.
When the team was in Springfield, Illinois, in February 2016, Sterne attended a practice.
“They said they were interested and I should go to their main camp, but they’re not going to draft me,” said Sterne, the son of Beth and Shane Sterne. “I’m not a pretty hockey player.
“I’m a stay-at-home defenseman, and those aren’t in huge demand these days. The game is changing. They’re looking for defensemen that can move the puck up the ice, jump in the rush and put the puck in the net.”
Sterne is the third of four boys in the family. All play hockey, with Sam taking up the game to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers. Sam learned the game from programs like Chicago Mission and Chicago Young Americans.
“I just started playing defenseman at a young age,” Sterne said. “I never had the best hands.
“My strength was always staying at home and not doing much. Why change if it’s not broken?”
Sterne augmented that persona at 15 when he started working for Sterne Construction Group LLC.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “Some days really suck. You’re just sweating for eight or nine hours a day in a hole.”
But even while working concrete, Sterne still found the time to skate and work out.
It’s also no surprise Sterne has earned a reputation with the Brown Bears for doing the dirty work — namely blocking five to eight shots a game, according to Worlton.
“There isn’t much technique to it,” Sterne said. “I play it like a goalie. I use my body to shadow him, and if he pulls, I stick an arm or a leg out.”
The results can be painful. Sterne took a shot to his inner thigh in a Feb. 10 and 11 series in Fairbanks, and the softball-sized bruise finally cleared this week.
Sterne’s toils in the summer with concrete crews also have helped him become a popular locker-room figure as the Bears toil through a 60-game North American Hockey League season.
“He has a big heart and he’s a very lovable guy,” Worlton said. “He’s very sincere and when he tells you something, he does it.
“It goes back to being old school. He’s a smart guy and he doesn’t have a problem telling guys on the team he’s right and they’re wrong. His heart is as big as can be and he’s a good person.”
The Brown Bears have announced plans to go inactive next season, meaning all the players on the team will be free agents. Sterne has two more years of junior eligibility left after this season.
“Sam is one of those kids that would have made this team next year based on his team-first attitude, his willingness to get better and his willingness to be coachable,” Worlton said. “It sucks that fans won’t continue to get to see him grow.
“If he trains hard during the summer, he’s set himself up to play in this league next year.”
As is the case for any athlete, Sterne’s ceiling will depend not on his strengths as a gritty player, but upon improving his weaknesses.
“Things like skating, shooting, passing, the little things,” Sterne said. “I’m getting better at them, but with two hours of ice time a day, I should be getting better at them, even if I didn’t work hard in practice.”
Sterne said spending a year under Worlton, himself a former professional defenseman, has helped his development.
“He probably had a similar style to me — keeping it simple and doing the little things,” Sterne said.
The defenseman said his goal is to play Division I hockey and major in construction management, though he is not sure about taking over the family business.
But no matter what the future for Sterne and the Brown Bears holds, the billet son of Soldotna’s Natalie Merrick said this season can’t be taken away from him.
“It’s been a life experience living in Alaska,” Sterne said. “I’ve really enjoyed living in Alaska for a year. It’s a different life and it’s been great.”