David Carle had a budding hockey career when, in April 2008, he signed his National Letter of Intent to play for the University of Denver.
He was eager to follow the decorated tracks of his older brother, Matt, who won two NCAA titles and a Hobey Baker Award with the Pioneers before becoming an established NHL blueliner.
He was also primed to join fellow DU recruit Joe Colborne on the NHL draft board. The Central Scouting Service’s final ranking had him placed at No. 60 among North American skaters.
But even before the prologue to his promising story was complete, Carle’s hockey career took an unforeseen turn.
One day prior to the draft in Ottawa, Carle anxiously awaited the results of a test at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., ordered after something suspicious had emerged at the pre-draft scouting combine. Upon hearing from the medical staff, he learned he had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart that can trigger cardiac arrest during strenuous activity.
That meant instant retirement and a future of uncertainty.
“You could see the pain in him when he had to tell me that,” Carle said of the Mayo Clinic nurse who broke the news that his playing days were over.
After 20 minutes alone to sort out his emotions, Carle chose to turn the page without hesitation.
“Obviously, the initial reaction was sheer heartbreak and disappointment, but that probably with time has gotten a lot better,” Carle said.
“It was like, ‘Let’s try to regroup and figure out how I’m going to live with this disease, because it’s not going away.’ ”
Off the draw, it helped that all parties concerned were already formulating a Plan B of sorts. Having known the younger Carle since Matt’s collegiate career and having prior notice of the grim discovery at the combine, Denver head coach George Gwozdecky convened with his staff.
It was quickly determined that Carle’s ice would not melt, but rather resurface with a new career path. With his legacy and scholarship still valid, Carle enrolled and began a new hockey chronicle as the Pioneers’ student-assistant coach.
Gwozdecky admitted that it began as a tentative title. But now, in Carle’s senior year, his position is a far cry from a misnomer.
Over the three-plus years in between, his approach has burgeoned to an equal extent. Carle went from wondering if he would stay in Denver through four years of college to making regular rounds in the community to raise awareness for his condition in addition to enthusiastically fulfilling his role on campus.
“The first half of that first year was more difficult,” the Anchorage native confessed. “But the more I thought about it, it wouldn’t feel right not going to the rink every day. As those feelings started to arise, I started to accept the role more.”
“I think what really helped us was knowing the character of David and his family background,” added Gwozdecky. “He would come in and probably not work truly as a coach that first year, but he knew that if his interest was in it, he would do a good job of evolving into a really good student-assistant.”
Carle’s role has gone from primarily a passing-drill partner to a full-time participant in video studies, drawing up drills, assembling depth charts and tutoring defensemen. This season, a typical day has classes sandwiching an average of six hours at the rink.
“I don’t think for a minute we doubted that David could do it,” Gwozdecky said. “Our only concern was whether he truly wanted to make this change in his career. But once we knew he wanted to continue his commitment, we knew that it would work out.”
Unlike the 18-year-tenured Gwozdecky or his long-time assistants, Carle’s run on the Pioneers’ staff is only as good as his undergraduate term, which expires this spring. But because he has enriched his coaching portfolio, the prospects of a career in hockey appear to be promising.
Besides expanding his influence on the Denver program, Carle has kept his hockey head in shape by instructing and counseling at offseason camps. Last summer, he flexed his skills on the international platform, serving as the video coordinator for the U.S. Select Team at the 17 & Under Five Nations tournament.
“Thanks to all the people at USA Hockey, they recognized his talents and they gave him an opportunity,” Gwozdecky said. “I think he enjoyed the opportunity to take on that challenge and work with young elite-level players in an international competition. I think it whetted his appetite for more.”
Carle confirmed his craving with no qualms about the hand he’s been dealt or how his career path has taken such a dramatic turn. From his family’s support to the opportunities provided by everyone involved with the Pioneers, USA Hockey and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that drafted him as a goodwill gesture in the seventh round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, Carle has too many supporters to consider an unrelated field.
“Three-and-a-half years ago, I had my whole life planned out [until the diagnosis],” he said.
“So now I don’t really close many doors. I’m pretty open to anything, whether it would be scouting, an office position, coaching, or [as a] video person.
“The game has been way too good to me.”
Photos By Rich Clarkson & Associates