California’s Oliver David continues blazing a trail behind the bench

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

This quote came to mind recently when I was thinking about my friend Oliver David , the most idea-driven coach I know.

David, as you may know, was introduced as the coach of the Dubuque Fighting Saints, one of the premier junior hockey teams in the United States Hockey League, on June 5.

David_largeA passionate native of California, David is (to my knowledge) the first California-born and -trained coach to advance to a head-coaching position in our nation’s top junior hockey league.

His path has not been easy. He didn’t have the pedigree of an elite player. He didn’t play AAA hockey throughout his youth, high-level junior hockey or even college hockey. While he was a decent enough ice player to spend some time playing professionally in Germany, he made more of an impression on wheels. In the legendary, if short-lived, Pro Beach tour (yes, beach roller hockey!), David was the youngest player on the circuit, which in reality was a few weekends of inline hockey captured for months of ESPN programming.

The game’s lure prompted David to turn his attention to helping younger players achieve their dreams in this great sport, and he found himself in what would turn out to be a perfect spot to learn about teaching the game – Southern California. He was able to grow at a time when the game was growing in the Golden State.

One of the biggest early influences on David was Larry Bruyere, the former USA Hockey Pacific District Coach in Chief. The understated Bruyere has been seminal in providing opportunities and coaching for so many from California over four decades, and he’s never sought accolades. He and David crossed paths in Burbank in the early 1980s, and David has told me several times that Bruyere’s influence and assistance was key to getting him playing – and keeping him there.

While recovering from an injury during his short-lived pro career, David decided to coach. He landed a spot with the California Wave, helping Mike Lewis coach a 16AAA team that went on to win a USA Hockey National championship with a predominantly 1990 birth year group that included numerous players who went on to play Division I college hockey, including Brett Beebe, Matt Leitner, Troy Power and Steven Weinstein. The focused and somewhat elusive Lewis is one of the better coaches to emerge in recent times in the California youth circuit, and today is helping head up Tahoe Hockey Academy.

From there, David teamed up with a man who is one of the most insightful coaches I’ve ever met – Igor Nikulin – at LA Hockey Club. It was a cerebral match made in heaven. A curious, eager and intelligent learner paired with a veteran coach who played and studied the game at its highest levels in his native Ukraine. Like David, Nikulin began at Burbank before joining forces with James Gasseau and Andy Cohen with the then newly repurposed Los Angeles Jr. Kings in the late 1990s. He and Gasseau led the Jr. Kings to the first three AAA USAH National titles in state history in 2000, 02-03.

A brilliant tactician with a steel-trap mind that features almost other-worldly recall, Nikulin’s studious influence helped David get to where he is today. The two talked for countless hours, often during commutes in L.A. traffic. The subjects ran the gamut, but the one constant was hockey.

David has told me many times over the years his passions beyond hockey and California are learning and helping young people. To that end, David read … and read … and read … anything he could get his hands on about hockey, about coaching and about teaching.

In 2009, at age 30, David traded the warmth of California for his first junior coaching job, with the Kenai River Brown Bears of the North American Hockey League. The coastal Alaska outpost is a 3,500-mile-plus drive from L.A. but might as well have been a galaxy away. Sun tans were traded for occasional sun sightings.

After the Brown Bears got off to a rough start, David was promoted to interim head coach, a title that was removed the following season. He guided the downtrodden franchise to an above-.500 record over the next three seasons, including a franchise-best 31-25-4 mark during the 2011-12 campaign. All the while, he continued his education through working camps and conferences.

When newly named Dubuque coach Matt Shaw was looking to fill out his staff four years ago, he looked West, far West, and found David. Shaw, now an assistant at the University of North Dakota, had succeeded Jim Montgomery, who had won two Clark Cup titles in three years in Dubuque before winning an NCAA title in his fourth season with the Pioneers.

David continued doing what he he’d always done – listening and learning, coaching and challenging, and at least as important, investing in his players. He was retained when Shaw left for North Dakota in 2015, serving a season under Jason Lammers as associate head coach and assistant general manager.

David’s focus primary was on defense, and the early returns suggest an impressive body of work. His charges include Denver standouts Michael Davies and Blake Hillman, former Dubuque captain Keegan Ford, North Dakota’s Casey Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning draft selection Ryan Zuhlsdorf (Minnesota), and Edmonton Oilers draft selection William Lagesson (UMass-Amherst).

A year ago, David had the opportunity to go work for former NHL coach Mike Johnston in Portland. The jump to the Western Hockey League put David and his wife Denee and their two children much closer to their West Coast families. It also offered a fresh opportunity to learn more about the game from a well-respected veteran coach. During one of our conversations last offseason, the excitement in David’s voice was noticeable.

A crazy spring in college hockey opened up coaching opportunities from Omaha to Michigan to upstate New York, and several points in between. Lammers landed one of them, at Niagara University.

The Dubuque opening piqued David’s interest, and obviously the feeling was mutual.

The life-long learner and exemplary coach and leader continues his journey, climbing the ladder one patient step at a time.

From a state known for setting trends, Oliver David is at the forefront of a new one – producing high-level hockey coaches.

©Chris Bayee 2017

Kerdiles, Haar survive US WJC cuts

Forward Nic Kerdiles and defenseman Garrett Haar survived the first round of cuts Tuesday at the USA Hockey National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.

The former LA Selects were among four players with ties to California originally invited to the 45-man camp. Forward Adam Reid, also a former Select, was among Tuesday’s cuts, and forward Rocco Grimaldi, who played for the California Wave, did not attend the camp while he rehabs a knee injury.

Kerdiles (’94) was a second-round selection of the Anaheim Ducks in June’s NHL Entry Draft. The leading scorer for the U.S. National Team Development Program’s U18 squad last season, he will begin his freshman season at the University of Wisconsin in the fall.

Haar (’93) emerged as a force on the blue line for Western Michigan University last season after being a seventh-round selection by the Washington Capitals in the 2011 Entry Draft.

Reid (’93) is entering his second season at Northeastern University, while Grimaldi (’93) — a second-round pick by the Florida Panthers in the 2011 Entry Draft — will be a redshirt freshman at North Dakota after injuries limited his true freshman season to four games.

 

Three Californians win gold with U.S. U-18 team

A trio of California-born hockey players helped Team USA win the gold medal in the World Under-18 Championships in Crimmitschau, Germany, over the weekend.

Rocco Grimaldi (Rossmoor) had two goals and six assists in Team USA’s four preliminary games and two playoff games — a 5-4 semifinal victory over Canada in overtime on Saturday and a 4-3 overtime victory over Sweden in the gold-medal game.

Grimaldi played for the California Wave and was coached by Jack Bowkus.

Adam Reid (Chino Hills) added two goals. He is a former LA Selects player mainly coached by Igor Nikulin.

He and Grimaldi are ’93 birth years and are  NHL Entry Draft eligible in 2011 and both are projected to be taken in the first three rounds. Reid has committed to play college hockey at Northeastern, while Grimaldi signed with North Dakota.

Nic Kerdiles (Irvine) was playing up with the U18s after spending much of the season on the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 team. He chipped in two assists.

He also is a former LA Selects player and was primarily coached by Louis Pacella. He is draft eligible in 2012 and has committed to Wisconsin.

The gold medal was the third in a row for Team USA, an unprecedented accomplishment for USA Hockey at the U18 level. Grimaldi was part of last year’s championship team.

It also bodes well for future U.S. World Junior Championship teams. Team USA has won consecutive medals in that prestigious event for the first time ever (gold in 2010, bronze in 2011).

Nine California prospects on THN’s radar

The Hockey News’ annual Future Watch issue (which features Kings prospect Brayden Schenn on the cover this year) is a must-read for those wondering what their team’s future looks like.

I also enjoy scouting it for Californians viewed as up-and-coming players by the magazine’s panel of experts. Each of the 30 teams’ top 10 prospects are profiled, but the real selling point is who are the top 50 overall prospects.

There are nine players with ties to California listed among the 300 (1o for each of the 30 teams) in the publication, and one — Beau Bennett, a 2010 first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins — in the top 50. I have not gone back and compared how those number stack up to years past, but it would make for an interesting study.

Bennett, who just finished a strong freshman season at Denver University, was ranked No. 46 overall and the Penguins’ top prospect. Fellow 2010 first-round pick Emerson Etem was rated No. 57 overall and was slotted as the Anaheim Ducks’ second-best prospect.

Other prospects “ranked” by their respective teams included:

Calgary Flames — C Mitch Wahl was No. 8. Wahl struggled through an injury-plagued season, but with the Flames up against the salary cap and needing an infusion of youth, the former California Wave and LA Jr. Kings prospect should go into camp with some sort of shot at a roster spot next fall.

Colorado Avalanche — C Mark Olver was No. 8. A one-time Wave player, Olver had 40 points as a rookie in the AHL and also scored during a brief call-up to the Avs.

Nashville Predators — D Jonathon Blum was No. 2 (I did not count him in the overall totals because he is in the NHL to stay at this point).

New York Islanders — RW Rhett Rakhshani was No. 5. He tied for the rookie scoring lead in the AHL with 62 points, had four points in the AHL All-Star Game and made a two-game NHL appearance.

Minnesota Wild — C Casey Wellman was No. 4 and LW Jason Zucker was No. 6. Wellman also battled injuries but posted 35 points in 42 AHL games and played in 15 games for the Wild. He’s considered a strong bet to stick in Minnesota next season. Zucker might have been Denver University’s best player as a freshman, posting 45 points in 40 games, and he again shone at World Juniors.

Phoenix Coyotes — LW Viktor Tikhonov was No. 5. The former San Jose Jr. Shark seemed to find his game in the AHL this season, getting 33 points in 60 games. The Coyotes have said they rushed him to the NHL after being a first-round pick in 2008.

I’ll take a look at other players from California whose rights are owned by NHL teams in the next post.

A closing note: inclusion is no guarantee of anything. And the turnover of prospects is quite high year-to-year. Just a few years ago, one would have seen Brett Sterling, Brian Salcido and Gabe Gauthier among the Thrashers’, Ducks’ and Kings’ top prospects. Sterling signed with the Penguins last summer and has played some in Pittsburgh, Salcido played in Europe this past season and Gauthier suffered a season-ending shoulder injury and only played a few few ECHL and AHL games.

A happy homecoming for Blum

ThePostGame.com reached out to me earlier today to ask about Nashville Predators defenseman Jonathon Blum, and I was all too happy to oblige them.

How fun is it for Jonathon and his family and friends to have the opportunity to see him play in the NHL — in Anaheim — in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Has there been a California-born hockey player who has made a more seamless transition to the NHL than Jonathon? Blum, who is from Rancho Santa Margarita in Orange County, put up eight points in 23 regular-season games and went plus-8 in Nashville’s second D pair. The one-time Jr. Duck (as well as California Wave) minor player added an assist in Game 1 against the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night.

***

I’m going to go off topic just a bit here, but I have to wonder out loud (or on-screen as the case may be), how the skyrocketing gas prices are going to affect youth hockey in California.

Remember, many, many families have to drive a long, long way to rinks for practices and games multiple times per week. That already added up.

Factor in higher jet fuel costs, and traveling to tournaments gets even more expensive.

One of the common themes among the hundreds of people I’ve spoken to the hockey book is that cost containment is one of the keys to helping grow the game in the Golden State.

The recent spike in gas prices certainly won’t help.

***

Working on draft-related stories this week, and I’ve unearthed some information on many players with ties to the NHL that I will share here in the next few days. …

Plugging away on the book as well. Dedicating portions of three days per week now to work on it, and I’m more optimistic now about how it’s coming together than I have been in many months. Here’s hoping we can keep “old Mo” going!

California’s three-headed AHL Monster

This is a follow-up to my post earlier this week on Californians who have made the most of their NHL call-ups. That wasn’t a comprehensive list, only a few of the notables. Several others have played NHL games this season, and even more are thriving in the American Hockey League this season.

Let’s take a closer look at three more players with California ties who are playing for the Lake Erie Monsters, the top farm team of the Colorado Avalanche, this season.

Defenseman Raymond Macias of Long Beach had 13 points through 38 games, and he has battled through a few injuries. Ray played six games for the Avs at the end of the 2008-09 season. He’s a steady two-way defenseman, and with the Avalanche rebuilding, perhaps he will get another shot. Ray also might be one of the few players whose mother is more well-known in California hockey circles than he is. Helen Alex is a longtime team manager for the LA Jr. Kings, and has had a huge impact on hundreds of players’ careers through her caring ways.

Rookie Mark Olver spent a season with the California Wave, and teamed with, among others, Huntington Beach’s Rhett Rakhshani, to help the 88 birth year win a Bantam AAA national title in 2003. Through 58 games, the forward led the team in goals with 23 and had 40 points.

The third Monster has what I consider one of the more compelling stories of a pro from California.

Forward Matt Ford of West Hills has worked his way into a steady gig in the AHL and has 32 points, including 20 goals, through 63 games. That’s good, but how he got there is the impressive part to me.

Matt — whose father still can be found tending goal at rinks throughout Southern California — and his good buddy Brian Salcido , a one-time Ducks prospect, attended Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep in Minnesota, where they won a national title with a guy named Crosby on their team (as well as a King named Jack Johnson and a Sabre named Drew Stafford).

Matt then won a national championship in 2006 with the Wisconsin Badgers (which as a native Cheesehead I need to personally thank him for). In between he was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks and never really given a look. He pressed on and stayed in school all four years (by the way, that’s a great idea kids).

Matt started his pro career with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL and played well enough to win All-Star Game MVP honors in 2009. He had a couple of cups of coffee with the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack (a NY Rangers farm team) and a warmer with the Monsters later that season.

He got a camp invite from the Vancouver Canucks that summer, but found himself back in Charlotte however briefly before sticking with the Monsters last season, when he put up 27 points in 43 games.

His 20 goals this season are two off his pro high (21 of which were scored in the ECHL) in 2008-09. Matt is a study in perseverance and hard work, and he’s just one call away from the NHL.

Opportunity knocks, Blum, Martinez and Sterling answer

I wondered if this might be the season that a bunch of players with ties to California youth hockey finally broke through into the NHL. There were more than a dozen such players in the American Hockey League at the start of the season, and lo and behold, several have received call-ups, and a trio have made the most of it.

Defenseman Jonathon Blum made his NHL debut for the Nashville Predators in late February and has been so good the Predators traded away another defense prospect to make room for him in the lineup.

Through Sunday, Blum had played in 10 consecutive games, got his first NHL goal and was a respectable plus-1 for a team vying for a Western Conference playoff spot. You can read much more about Blum in a profile I wrote about him for California Rubber Magazine.

Blum, who was the No. 2 scorer for the Milwaukee Admirals, was the first California-born and -trained hockey player to be drafted in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft (in 2007). Rest assured, the former California Wave ’89 player’s compelling story is part of the hockey book, Palm Trees and Frozen Ponds, that I continue to work on.

Another player who made the most of an opportunity, though he currently is back in the AHL, is forward  Brett Sterling. A prolific scorer at the collegiate and AHL levels (he was the A’s rookie of the year after a 97-point outburst in 2006-07), Sterling had five points — including three goals — in a seven-game call-up when the Penguins were decimated by injuries earlier this year. He played for the Pasadena Maple Leafs and the LA Jr. Kings before going into the U.S. National Team Development Program in 2000.

Those point totals exceeded Sterling’s output in 19 games with the Atlanta Thrashers over two seasons (07-08 and 08-09) and served notice to the NHL that his ability to score translates well on any level.

The third player, and the one who has demonstrated the most staying power is LA Kings defenseman Alec Martinez, who after a four-game audition last season, has played in 46 games and has 12 points (4 goals-8 assists). He consistently gets power-play time but he also boasts a plus-6 and at times has been paired with 2010 Norris Trophy finalist Drew Doughty.

Martinez played youth hockey in Northern California for three years — two seasons for the Santa Clara Blackhawks and another for the San Jose Jr. Sharks — before a job transfer brought his father back to the family’s Michigan home.

Three for the show … and more where they came from!

California Midget Hockey

So much for the restful offseason, at least for the Midget hockey ranks in California.

Several developments have taken place that will profoundly affect the 2009-10 season.

This starts with the Jr. Kings, who participated in the Tier I Elite Hockey League this past season at the 18U level. Their 16U team will join the league this coming season. This adds a travel burden, but the pay off, and Jr. Kings coaches told me this all season, is their teams will play five games guaranteed in three days, and play them against a quality caliber of competition. Those are important distinctions because most tournaments only guarantee three or four games, and unless it’s an elite tournament, it’s tough to anticipate what level of competition you’re going to face.

Shortly thereafter, the LA Selects 18s and 16s were invited to join the Tier I Elite league. This makes sense given that program’s track record of success and the desire to cluster teams geographically. What I will be interested to see is how they match up at 18s because the Selects are typically so strong at Bantam and 16U that most of their best players move on at 16. But it can only help hockey in Southern California to have two teams in that league. The Jr. Kings played host to the Detroit division in a showcase event last December, and it featured some terrific hockey.

This past week, the Southern California Titans and San Jose Jr. Sharks announced they were joining the new North American Prospects Hockey League at the 18 and 16 Tier I levels. That league includes 20 programs from all over the country. Just like the Tier I EHL, the NAPHL will have showcase weekends, though not nearly as many to start. One of those will be in San Jose in February, just before the state tournament.

The new league is part of the NAHL junior circuit, which battles the perception it is inferior to the USHL. In theory, this could give NAHL teams a distinct recruiting advantage with some programs. Really, it gives Jr. A hockey a bit more of a foothold in a state where the trend of late has been to have top-end prospects head to the WHL.

The fifth 18UAAA team last season was the California Wave, and I wondered aloud over the weekend – what about the Wave? That question was answered Sunday night when the Jr. Kings announced a partnership with the Wave at the 18U Tier I and Bantam Tier II levels for the 2009-10 season.

I have a few more questions – what about beyond next season? Could it become a permanent merger? Team managers I’ve spoken with recently expect numbers to be down in travel hockey because of the economy.

My other question is what about the “mid majors”, programs like the California Stars, OC Hockey Club, Tri Valley Blue Devils, California Heat, San Diego Jr. Gulls? All have had very good AA and AAA squads, though not at every age level every year. How do they fit into this new midget world order?

Stay tuned.

Cepek in training camp with Red Wings

Defenseman Cameron Cepek (Huntington Beach) is attending the Detroit Red Wings training camp as a free agent.

Originally a seventh-round Entry Draft pick of  Montreal in 2006, the Canadiens did not sign the veteran Western Hockey League blue liner.

Cepek has had a busy month. On the 8th he was traded from the Edmonton Oil Kings to the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. This week he played for the Red Wings’ team in the annual Traverse City (Mich.) Prospects Tournament. NHL Network broadcast the games and Cepek held his own in the action I saw.

Jonathon Blum ‘one to watch’ at Predators camp

Defenseman Jonathon Blum, the first player born and developed in California to be drafted in the first round of the Entry Draft, is featured on the Nashville Predators’ Web site as a player to watch in the team’s traning camp. Click here to read the story.

Blum (Rancho Santa Margarita) was taken in the first round of the 2007 draft after leading the Vancouver Giants to the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup title. Blum was the second-highest-scoring defenseman in the Western Hockey League in 2007-08 and has been named the Giants’ captain for the upcoming season.