Oliver David has stepped down as the head coach of the Kenai River Brown Bears to become an assistant coach with the Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League.
David said that he finalized the decision to move to Dubuque on Monday. The USHL is the only Tier I league in the United States and has just 16 teams. The North American Hockey League, in which the Bears play, is a Tier II league.
The Fighting Saints are one of the banner organizations in the USHL. They won the Clark Cup, given to the winner of the USHL playoffs, in both 2011 and 2013.
The Fighting Saints also have earned plaudits as a top organization, with their president being named the top USHL executive for 2012-13.
“In my opinion, it was arguably one of the best jobs in the country to have applied for, to put my name in the hat for,” said David, who coached the Brown Bears for four years. “I feel extremely humbled, honestly, I know that’s a bit cliche.
“I honestly can’t believe I am getting this shot. It’s bittersweet because I feel connected to the team and the town, but this is one of those opportunities that may not come next year.”
David’s resignation comes with the Bears’ main camp set to start Aug. 2 to 5 in Minnesota. He had recently signed a one-year contract to coach the Bears this season.
“It came as a bit of a surprise,” said Nate Kiel, the general manager of the Bears. “We knew this was going to happen at some point. We are a developmental league and Oliver had great success here and did a great job.
“At the same time, we had just been meeting to discuss goals for the upcoming season, and had just settled on a new contract with Oliver at the helm.”
The spin of the coaching carousel that would take David from the Bears started on June 11, when Dubuque assistant coach Joe Coombs was hired to be the head coach of the Rio Grande (Texas) Killer Bees of the NAHL.
The Killer Bees, formerly the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild franchise, moved to Texas due to an inability to reach an agreement with the arena in Wenatchee. Killer Bees owner and governor Bill Stewart is the one who hired Coombs.
David, 34, said landing a job with one of the top junior organizations in the country shows just how far the Brown Bears have come.
“For them to have recognized the Kenai River coach as a candidate speaks volumes for what the players have done,” David said. “I wouldn’t have been given this opportunity if the players hadn’t played every single night the way they played.
“If they didn’t play the way they did and start to get recognized on the national stage, Dubuque never would have called me. It’s a feather in Kenai’s cap.”
The hiring continues the rising trajectory of David’s coaching career. For the 2009-10 season, he came to Kenai River as an assistant coach after coaching midget hockey in the Los Angeles area. He served as an assistant on an Under-16 team that won a national title.
When Marty Quarters was fired shortly into the 2009-10 campaign, David took over as interim coach and the team finished 12-40-6. That came on the heels of 12-38-8 and 14-36-8 campaigns in the organization’s first two years.
“They’re not involved anymore, but I’d like to thank Barry Schoenly and Sylvia Lance,” David said of the Bears’ founders. “They ultimately believed in me four years ago and gave me a shot when we lost a lot of games.”
The other individual David specified for thanks is Kiel.
He said after that 2009-10 season, the two spent the summer side-by-side crossing the country, attending camps and designing an organization that could succeed in the unique setting that is the central Kenai Peninsula.
It paid off. The Bears were 27-24-7 in 2010-11, 31-25-4 in 2011-12 and 29-25-6 last season.
Last season, the Bears were a young team that played like one of the league’s best teams in the final third of the season. That was proven when the Bears lost a five-game playoff series to league colossus Fairbanks. In two separate games, the Bears failed to hold a third-period lead that would have closed out the Ice Dogs.
David said the organization has arrived at a point where there is no question it can compete for a Robertson Cup.
“I just looked at our registration sheet for main camp and it had more A players than in a very long time, in my opinion,” he said. “It’s all because the kids have decided to show up, really buy in, and develop something they really believe in.”
The challenge for Kiel and the Bears organization is to make a hire that continues the upward trend of the organization.
Kiel said there is no doubt the Bears will be attractive to candidates.
“Especially in the last two seasons, we’ve really turned the corner as an organization, and that’s in large part due to the efforts of Oliver,” Kiel said. “As such, we’ve formed alliances with players, programs and colleges across the nation.”
But Kiel said there will be challenges. For one, Alaska and its winters are not for everybody.
Second, the Bears are not about just winning hockey games. Kiel said the main thrust of the organization is developing student-athletes, and that means a coach must also care about the academic development and community service of the players.
“We want the complete coach,” Kiel said. “This is more than teaching hockey. It’s an all-encompassing program.”
David said Dubuque has been a first-class organization all the way. Dubuque is letting David come to the Peninsula on Wednesday to spend a week or so helping Kiel select his successor.
While Kiel said it’s tough to have the hiring process so close to the main camp, he said the bright side is the Bears got to have David’s services through the NAHL draft.
Kiel said he’s hoping to have a new coach in the next week and a half.
“I’d just like to thank everyone that did things that allowed me to stay in my office and work,” David said. “The only reason I’m able to do this is what I did in Kenai.”
Reach Jeff Helminiak at firstname.lastname@example.org.