Photo provided by Fighting Saints Former Brown Bears head coach Oliver David prepares to take the bench as an associate head coach for the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League earlier this season.

Photo provided by Fighting Saints Former Brown Bears head coach Oliver David prepares to take the bench as an associate head coach for the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League earlier this season.

Former Bears coach David uses his Kenai River experience to help him ascend coaching ranks

Amidst the quickening pregame hubbub, Oliver David reclines in a bright red seat above center ice at the Resch Center, the sparkling, 2002-built, 9,000-seat venue that got a high-definition video scoreboard this year and sits across the street from towering Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Fit, trim and a fresh father at 37, the associate head coach has bussed almost four hours from Dubuque, Iowa, with his Fighting Saints to take on the Green Bay Gamblers on the night before a major holiday — what most call Thanksgiving but what those in Green Bay this year were calling Brett Favre’s number retirement ceremony.

The Gamblers would top the Saints 3-0 in front of 3,017 fans to take over first place in the Eastern Conference of the United States Hockey League, a 17-team collection of the top junior, or under-21, hockey teams in America. The USHL boasts 212 alumni that have made the NHL and sends 95 percent of its players to NCAA Division I hockey.

It’s a long way from the North American Hockey League — which has the next 22 best junior teams in America — and the Kenai River Brown Bears, where David was named interim head coach in the 2009-10 season, then served as head coach for three years after that.

David never saw crowds of 3,000 or high-definition video scoreboards at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex. He never sent nearly his whole team on to play Division I hockey. And a good deal of his road trips were hours on a plane and then on a bus, not just on a bus.

But as David will make clear in a 50-minute interview before the game, all those things don’t make his Brown Bears and NAHL experience any less valuable.

Talk with David as recently as last season, and his future plans were blurry. Yes, he liked coaching in the USHL, but he also had fond memories of coaching youth hockey in the Los Angeles area where he grew up.

But those future plans are now written in pen, not pencil.

“Make no mistake,” David said. “My ambition and my drive is to be a head coach in this league or beyond at some point.”

By “beyond,” David says he means minor pro hockey, pro hockey in Europe and even the NHL.

When asked what has changed in the last several years, David returns to what has become a theme for him — the value of experience.

“What’s changed is just gaining the experience and the confidence, the knowledge of the game,” he said. “(This league) really puts you in a fraternity of coaches and you realize you are capable and you are at a certain level. Your interpretation of the game is a good one.

“You realize, ‘Hey, I can do this. This is something that’s definitely doable and something I potentially could not just survive in doing, but thrive in doing.’”

The plan

Among the experiences on which David leans most heavily is his leading role in turning around the Brown Bears organization.

“It was awesome,” David said. “I’m really, really fond of my time in Kenai. I can’t say enough about it.

“It gave me the experience of showing people that you mean business by going to a hockey club that isn’t a first-choice destination, and isn’t the first-choice destination for players either.”

When David took over the club in 2009, doubts were high that the Bears could even survive in the NAHL.

Two previous attempts at junior hockey on the central Peninsula had failed to last more than two years.

In their first season, the Bears were 12-38-8 and sacked Mike Flanagan. In 2008-09, the Bears went 14-36-8 and head coach Brent Agrusa resigned. Kenai River then started 2-9-1 in 2009-10 before Marty Quarters was fired and David was named interim coach.

David’s total experience as a junior hockey coach at that point was just his 12 games as a Bears assistant. All his previous coaching experience was with youth hockey in California. The Bears would finish the season with a 12-40-6 mark, yet general manager Nate Kiel decided to stick with David.

“He helped groom me, gave me my first shot, no way to thank him except to thank him,” David said. “We flew around that first summer of 2010, he came to every camp with me, we sat together on planes and stayed in hotel rooms together and talked and talked and talked.”

The key thing the duo came up with was a plan. It had already been set in motion in the supposedly lost 2009-10 season.

“The ultimate thing was we had a plan,” David said. “It was embarrassing at times, and I questioned my ability at times that first year, and at times I couldn’t wait for the calendar to tick away and for the season to be over.

“The guys that came back, I owe a lot of my success to this point to them returning and trusting in our conversations that we were going to turn it around.”

That speaks to David’s ability to win over players. David said the ability comes from growing up in Los Angeles skateboarding, surfing and listening to music kids still listen to today.

David also grew up without a father — his dad split after his parents divorced when he was 3 — and he said that challenge also helps him coach.

“Honestly, part of becoming a high level coach, a good father, a role model to other kids, is being right with yourself and accepting who you are,” David said. “You discover all those things along the way early in your career, and you discover those things on a hockey bench every single night.”

That first season, David said young players with a lot of potential were intentionally mixed with veterans that set a great example of how to play junior hockey. The coach said a prime example of such a veteran was Brad Fusaro, a Kenai Central product.

“You threw Brad Fusaro over the boards when you were losing by five goals and he played and he played,” David said. “That rubbed off on guys.”

David believes players like Soldotna product Brad Duwe, Doug Beck, Brett Lubanski, Jake Musselman and Jesse Ramsey were watching. Despite the team’s poor record in 2009-10, all five of those players were on the roster and would eventually use the Bears to advance to Division I hockey.

After 2009-10, Beck had one more year of junior eligibility, Lubanski had two more years and Duwe had three more years.

In 2010-11, Beck would have 64 points, Lubanski would have 63 points and Duwe would have 50 as the Bears improved to 27-24-7.

“They were legitimately the top line in the (league) that year,” David said.

The Bears also sought to bring “buddies and brothers” to the team, and to get players with Alaska connections, or at least players with the experience of living in the harsh environment of the North. Anchorage’s Sean Muller, Matt Thompson and Bobby Murphy fit both of those bills and were fourth, fifth and sixth on the points list in 2010-11 behind the Beck-Lubanski-Duwe line.

Lubanski would be the team’s leading scorer and Muller, Thompson and Murphy would play key roles as the Bears upped their win total to 31-25-4 in 2011-12.

David said another key during this time was establishing an identity as a hard-working group that would try to be as tough as possible to beat.

Off the ice, the Bears were sending players on to college hockey and being active enough in the community to earn awards from the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce.

“We skated and practiced every day for 90 minutes,” David said. “There was very seldom a day we didn’t use our entire 90 minutes of ice, even on a Thursday leading into a three-game set.

“I’m not saying we didn’t lose games because we practiced so hard, but ultimately it defined our teams and we became known for being hard to play against.”

The payoff

Despite all the improvement under David, the franchise had yet to win a playoff game as it entered 2012-13 — its sixth season in the league.

The 2012-13 season saw more of the same Alaska and “buddies and brothers” philosophy with the arrival of Anchorage’s Alex Jackstadt and Alec Butcher, and Kenai Central’s Zack Zulkanycz. Anchorage’s Conor Deal also took on a leading role in his second season with the team.

David said role players like Chris Nuth and Ryan Walker also were believing in the program and playing key roles.

Jackstadt (39 points) and Butcher (30 points) were paired on a line with Sweden’s Albin Karlsson (29 points), who represented the final peg of the plan.

Starting with acquiring Johan Skinnars in the 2009-10 season, David built a relationship with Kalle Larsson, who was then with Scandinavian Hockey Consulting. A string of high-level Swedish players followed, with Karlsson inking a Division I deal within a few weeks of starting to play for Kenai River.

“The other important thing was building relationships, and a guy like Kalle Larsson really helped by trusting us way up in Kenai River,” David said. “It’s somewhere he probably never even heard of, and he sent players from Sweden to play for us, before we even made a splash.”

The relationship continues to this day, with Larsson serving as the director of player personnel in Dubuque.

With all the pieces in place, the Bears finished 29-25-6 in 2012-13, but closed on an intoxicating 15-6-2 kick in which they were on even footing with division and league powers Fairbanks Ice Dogs and Wenatchee (Washington) Wild.

“I have fond memories of going into Wenatchee and winning games in front of sellout crowds, of going into Fairbanks and competing … and winning here and there,” David said, completing the statement with a mischievous smile.

The Bears would cap the season by going to Fairbanks and notching the first playoff win in franchise history. Kenai River would be up 2-1 on Fairbanks in the five-game series, but would fail to hold third-period leads in Games 4 and 5.

“Those are actually great memories,” David said. “It’s not always about winning and losing. We played for each other.”

Being a Saint

It’s not really necessary to try and describe the ripple that the Bears’ finish to the 2012-13 season created in the junior hockey world.

All that’s really necessary is telling what happened next.

David was hired by Matt Shaw to be an assistant with the Fighting Saints. Shaw had been an NHL assistant for five years and was leaving his job as a New Jersey Devils assistant to come to Dubuque. The Saints had won the Clark Cup, given to the winner of the USHL playoffs, in two of the previous three years.

“We spoke for a week straight every day for a considerable amount of time,” David said of the interview process with Shaw. “It became something that was absolutely worth it.”

Shaw led the Saints to the conference finals in the playoffs in each of his two years before leaving after last season to become an assistant at the University of North Dakota.

“Under Shaw I learned how to be a professional and what it means to do your work as a coach,” David said.

He said Shaw skipped the junior ranks, going straight to college coaching and then the NHL. He said being around someone with that pure pro mentality was invaluable.

“On your lazy days, not your best days, you still have a choice to do your work and be a pro or you can let other things stand in your way,” David said. “He never let anything stand in his way. That’s obviously a valuable lesson for any endeavor.”

When Shaw left after last season for North Dakota, David faced a potential crossroads in his career but again was helped by his time on the central Peninsula.

David applied for the head coaching job, a process that he said was invaluable.

“At this point and time it wasn’t right in the eyes of the ownership to turn it over to a young, two-year assistant in the USHL, which is completely understandable and why I don’t feel slighted in the least,” David said.

When David learned he wouldn’t get the head job, he faced the possibility that a new head guy would be brought in and want his own assistant.

But another finalist was Jason Lammers. David knew Lammers because in David’s first season with Kenai River, Lammers — then an assistant at Colorado College — was one of the few college coaches to check on Kenai River players.

“In the hockey world he’s a unique personality in that he’s legitimately genuine and legitimately caring and legitimately passionate about being a head coach and a lifelong learner,” David said. “Once I knew he was a finalist, and I definitely don’t mean this to take anything away from his process, but I definitely stamped the potential of us working together and the synergies that could create.”

Lammers was named head coach and general manager while David was promoted to associate head coach and assistant general manager. The Saints are 11-8-0 and in third place in the Eastern Conference.

With a limit on four 20-year-olds per roster, the USHL is set up to limit experience. Of the 21 Saints on the game sheet on that night before Thanksgiving in Green Bay, four are 20-year-olds, 10 are 19-year-olds, four are 18-year-olds, two are 17-year-olds and one — Joey Keane, brother of Brown Bears defenseman Thomas Keane — is 16 years old. Fifteen of those 21 Saints playing against the Gamblers already had Division I commitments.

The Saints also have six players on the roster with NAHL experience, including former Brown Bears defenseman Carson Vance. With Lammers spending a lot of time recruiting from the NAHL at colleges and David coming from the NAHL, David said the connection is no accident.

“There’s something to be said for knowing how to be a junior hockey player and make no mistake, we think about winning here,” David said. “All these fans filling in around us —there’s probably 1,500 people here 45 or 40 minutes before puck drop on a Thanksgiving weekend — they’re here to watch the home team win, not develop.

“You spend a year or two in the (NAHL) becoming a junior hockey player and you develop that grit, that ability to travel and play hockey and get off a bus.”

As David moves forward in his coaching career with his wife, Denee, and 5-month-old son Oden, he said he will do it knowing the NAHL does more than toughen up players. It toughens up coaches, as well. Especially a coach that was able to turn around the Brown Bears.

“It brings me strength and it brings me confidence to know what we were able to do there, and I rely on that in a lot of ways,” David said. “It was an unbelievable experience for me.

“It was very difficult, especially for my wife, who was then my girlfriend. It goes without saying the commitment she made. But to know that’s my starting point at this level, I’m very, very proud of it.”

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