Traveling through the cornfields of Iowa, there’s never a shortage of time to think, ponder, and reflect. As Oliver David, Associate Head Coach and Assistant General Manager of the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, rides over the picturesque Midwestern landscape en route to his team’s next playoff game, he can’t help but do just that – think, ponder, and reflect. How did a SoCal kid that grew up with a single mom working multiple jobs now find himself helping pull the strings for one of the preeminent Tier I Junior Hockey franchises? And so quickly? Some might say it’s a wonder, achieving such great heights despite facing such seemingly insurmountable odds; but after spending a few mere moments talking to David, you’ll quickly realize that his accession upwards through the junior hockey ranks shouldn’t be a surprise, and it certainly hasn’t been by accident – if anything, it’s been destiny.
Growing up in the 1980s, hockey was still not in the forethoughts (or even the recesses) of Southern Californian’s minds, at least not most of them. Lucky for Oliver, Larry Bruyere wasn’t one of them. As the Pacific District Coach-in-Chief and a hockey legend on the West Coast, Larry is renown for his role in growing youth hockey in the LA basin. At age four, with Oliver lacing up a pair of ice skates for the very first time at Burbank’s Pickwick Ice, David and Bruyere’s paths crossed, a chance encounter that turned into perhaps the most pivotal moment in David’s life, kicking off a relationship with the game of hockey (and with Larry) that has endured more than three decades, and counting. “My feeling of love and passion for LA hockey stems long before Gretzky showed up,” David says with a chuckle, “and I owe a lot to Larry for helping my mom out and getting me on the ice.”
“Oliver was a special kid,” Bruyere recalls. “Every now and then, you see one of these kids that just take to it like a duck on water. He was one of those kids that got on the ice and just started skating. And even at that age – five, six years old – you didn’t know if it was because he was shy or because he was focused, but he seemed to have that ability to pay attention when you’re telling him what to do, and frankly that’s hard to do when you’re young and fidgety,” a fact youth hockey coaches everywhere know all too well to be true, another of which being that not all kids come from glamorous backgrounds. “He had a lot of adversity growing up,” Bruyere recollects. “I remember helping him find gear and find sponsors to help him stay in the game, so to see him sticking with the game so long, not only excelling as a player but as a coach, too…” Bruyere pauses, with an audible sense of pride beaming through his silence, before continuing on a separate thought, “I remember introducing him at the Level Four (Coaching Symposium) and getting a frog in my throat, and I remember thinking that this is a kid who has come full circle, and it’s just so rewarding when you see that.”
From there, like so many hockey parents can probably guess, David was hooked. He played youth hockey for the Pasadena Maple Leafs and California Golden Bears, then later on to Alaska for a season of Juniors. Right around the same time, David began to dabble in inline hockey for the very first time and – as the California kid says nonchalantly, almost completely glossing over it – he quickly found himself on the USA National Inline Hockey Team. Yes, you read that right, the national team.
“We went over to Germany for the IIHF World Championships, and the town that we were playing in had a pro (ice hockey) team,” David recalls. “At this point, I hadn’t really been on the ice in a couple years, but I was looking for opportunities and hoping to just land somewhere.” Unsurprisingly, David wowed coaches and quickly found a roster spot in Germany, trading his blades back in for skates as he hoped to revive his ice hockey career on the other side of the world.
However, the German experiment was short-lived as a Grade 4 AC joint sprain suffered during his first season season sidelined him for nine months, rendering him unable to play or even hold a hockey stick for the majority of that time. As the offseason arrived, David journeyed back to California to rehab and spend time with his mom, who had since moved north to Monterrey, where yet another watershed hockey moment was waiting for Oliver in another unsuspecting, unfamiliar place.
“Soon enough, I found myself in a NorCal roller hockey rink, Water City Roller Hockey Rink,” David recalls with an affectionate, nostalgic tone in his voice, “and I literally started at the bottom. I carry a picture with me, to this day, of a few kids – about seven or eight of them, probably right around that age, too – sitting in regular clothes with roller blades and hockey helmets, staring up at me at the coaching board, and I probably had no idea what I was doing at the coaching board, but that’s the greatest picture I have. It’s just the most inspirational and humbling thing, and it serves as a pretty easy reminder to literally don’t forget where you came from.”
Thirty two years after first lacing up skates at tiny Pickwick Ice in Burbank, California, it’s clear that Oliver David still hasn’t forgotten where he’s come from, even though he may not always know where he’s headed. After catching the coaching fever in Northern California, David headed back south to his native Los Angeles to fully immerse himself in coaching. First, it was working with various youth programs in the area, including the California Wave (2005-07), Anaheim Jr. Ducks (2006-07) and LA Selects (2007-09) which included four California state championships, two Pacific District championships, two trips to the USA Hockey National Tournament quarterfinals, and one USA Hockey National Tournament Championship during those few seasons.
From there, it was on to the North American Hockey League, the United States’ only Tier-II Junior Hockey league, where David traded in views of sandy beaches for snowcapped mountains to serve as an Assistant Coach for the Kenai Brown Bears. But after a lackluster start to the season, a coaching staff shakeup by management left David with a new title only 11 games into his NAHL career – Interim Head Coach. The midseason move proved tough to recover from, particularly for a first-time head coach, and the Brown Bears limped to a 12-40-6 record (10-31-6 under David) in 2009-10. However, the first season woes would soon be forgotten as David more than doubled the Brown Bears’ win total in 2010-11 (27-24-7) before setting a franchise-best mark of 31-25-4 during the 2011-12 season. Coaching a team with no history in a market that many regarded too geographically isolated to succeed, David had defied the odds and turned Kenai into a winner on one of the biggest stages in Junior Hockey, but after four seasons, the always-eager David sensed a new challenge was needed. Enter: the USHL.
Like the opportunities that had presented themselves to David in the past, and like many of the opportunities coaches and players find everyday in hockey, the primary factor that led to his move to the Midwest revolved around one central theme: relationships. Perhaps more than any other sport, hockey’s foundation is built upon tight-knit bonds that often develop by pure chance or circumstance, and David’s detour to Dubuque is another perfect example of just that.
“The way that it all happened is really just based on a relationship I had with a family of a player that I coached in LA, and he ended up playing here in Dubuque for a year and absolutely loving it.” That player in question is Matthew Caito, a native of Coto de Caza, California who recently concluded a stellar four-year career with the Miami University Redhawks. “Paul Caito, Matthew’s dad, used to be an assistant coach with me, and Paul is one of those guys out there that is praising everything that is Dubuque. He and I kept in touch for the four years I was in Kenai, and when that first staff transitioned out – Jim Montgomery to DU and Joe Coombs going to the NAHL – Dubuque was literally looking for an entire new staff. (Paul) immediately called me, planted the seed with the owners, and I started fishing around,” David says, pausing to chuckle for a moment before adding, “very much like a parent researching a junior team for their child would.”
The rest, as they say, is history. What David did in Los Angeles and Kenai has continued in America’s heartland with the Fighting Saints, who currently find themselves among the league’s elite. What’s different for David this time, though, is rather than developing a team from scratch or overseeing a program with minimal history, he now finds himself helping run what many view as the leading Junior Hockey program in the nation. After all, Dubuque certainly isn’t short on history, and rich history at that. A charter member of the USHL when it was founded in 1980, the Fighting Saints won the league’s very first championship and have gone on to win four more since, battling through ups and downs and even dormancy during the recession, only to remain as a shining symbol for what a Junior Hockey franchise should aspire to be, both on and off of the ice.
“It’s quite the place, quite the experience,” David explains, as if taking a brief moment to soak it all in. “Obviously, we all feel very fortunate to be a part of this organization. It’s because of the groundwork laid by previous coaches and how everyone operates, from our ownership to our business staff to our hockey ops. It almost feels like I’ve landed on Could Nine.”
Now in his third year on the bench in Dubuque, the Fighting Saints have seen their win totals increase in back-to-back seasons (33 in 2013-14, 36 in 2014-15, 39 in 2015-16) and they currently find themselves in the conference finals for the third consecutive season. “Year One, we lost to the eventual champs (Indiana Ice). Year Two, we lost in Game Five on home ice by a goal,” David recalls with just a tinge of bitterness. “So, a little improvement year-by-year. This year, if we have a little more improvement on last year, which has been the trend, that would mean… Well, you know,” David says cautiously, hoping not to sound over confident or perhaps (more likely) hoping not to jinx himself.
Yet, after talking with David, one can’t help but get the feeling that a thousand black cats could cross his path and he still wouldn’t bat an eye. After all, David’s career has been founded on defying the odds, coming from a non-traditional upbringing in a non-traditional market, even with a period that included non-traditional hockey, and still, he’s continued to not just survive, but thrive. Now, when he’s not instilling winning principles with the Fighting Saints in Iowa, he can often be found back on the West Coast helping USA Hockey’s Pacific District continue to grow and gain influence in the region.
Like many great coaches throughout the USA Hockey ranks, David’s affinity for his home and the kids that play there would make even the most ardent hockey hater a bit misty-eyed. “For instance,” David expounds, “Brannon McManus. He plays in Omaha, unfortunately…” David says with a humorous groan. “I coached him his first year of squirts here in LA. We still keep in touch. Obviously, we’re in the same league so we’ve seen each other a few times, but I consider Brannon and his family to be personal friends of mine, and even though he’s playing on another team, I love looking at our scores at the end of a night during the season and checking to see if my little Brannon got some points that night.”
“It’s the same with Cole Guttman (Northridge, California native that recently joined the Fighting Saints), and it’s the same with all of our guys,” David continues, with a noticeable sense of gratification echoing in his voice as he speaks about Pacific District players. “Even guys I don’t know personally. Nick Rivera is the captain at Omaha, and when he does well, I give a little fist pump. All of these guys, kids I don’t necessarily know. Maybe some of them think it’s weird that a guy is looking at their stats and thinking of them, but they don’t know that there’s always somebody out there that’s interested in what they’re doing, that cares about them and hopes that they’re well and doing what they want and accomplishing what they want to accomplish. Even the guys that play Major Junior. Call it what you want it, maybe that’s our competitor, but those guys are making their way just the same and I follow those guys and love to hear stories of them succeeding.”
Again, the passion and emotion in David’s voice is apparent as he happily opines about up-and-coming players from the West Coast, especially those from his home state of California. “That’s probably the thing that excites me the most,” David concludes, “is being in a position to be able to be a part of an opportunity for a kid from the West Coast, from the Pacific District.”
Now, looking back on a career that has already seen so many accomplishments, one can’t help but shake their head and wonder, “How the heck has he done it?” If you ask David himself, the answer is quite simple, and it all circles back to that tiny roller rink in Northern California where he was first handed a clipboard while a group of rag-tag, hockey-hungry kids eagerly looked up at him. “My coaching career started in a little, itty-bitty, never-heard-of-it roller hockey rink in Northern California that probably has less than a hundred people playing hockey at all, let alone ICE hockey,” David explains, almost taken aback by his own words as he reflects at how improbable his path has been.
“Of all the clichés from any business book you read, of all the advice your parents might give you, to get started you just have to put one foot in front of the other and just start. Just start,” David says with conviction. “Even if you don’t know a thing, people along the way will see your fire, see your passion, and they’ll recognize that. You may stumble, but they’ll help you along, and that’s how I literally fell into coaching. My real passion and what I take a great sense of pride in is being where I’m from and being in a position to help these kids reach their dreams. That’s something I don’t take for granted, and sometimes I can’t believe I’m really in that position, and I never forget that. I just love being a part of these kids’ lives, and helping them along the way.”
A rising star on the coaching scene, it’s hard not to wonder what great things the future may hold for this California kid. While others may ponder David’s fate, there’s only one thing currently on his mind: the Bloomington Thunder. David and the Fighting Saints will face off against the Thunder in the USHL Conference Finals this Friday for Game Three in a best-of-five series (tied 1-1), and interestingly enough, Bloomington boasts a whopping six players that hail from the Pacific District, more than any other USHL team. Just how hard will David be rooting for those West Coast kids? After all, this is the postseason; when friendships, relationships, and especially geographical allegiances are tossed aside and rendered meaningless. We may never know the answer to that one, but one thing is certain: the West Coast is certainly rooting for Oliver David.