As the Oliver David era drew to a close with his accepting an assistant coach’s job with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League earlier this week, a critique of the coach’s four years at the helm of the Kenai River Brown Bears is in order.
It’s tempting to remark upon game-management strategies of David. Did he use his experienced players too much in Games 4 and 5 of a playoff loss to Fairbanks this year, running those players out of gas and exposing the Bears to third-period comebacks in both games?
Was David too reluctant to take enforcement matters into his own hands when the other team got cheap and the often-inexperienced refs of the North American Hockey League seemed incapable of catching it?
Those avenues of inquiry are tempting, but a review of David must start in October 2009.
The Bears were early in their third season, and they were far from being the organization that would have their head coach snapped up by a squad that has won two of the last three league titles in the USHL, which is the top junior league in the United States.
The on-ice product was in free fall.
Mike Flanagan was coach and general manager the first season, went 12-38-8, and was relieved of his duties. Brent Agrusa stepped up to the plate next season and left after going 14-36-8.
Next up was Marty Quarters. He went 2-9-1 on a season-opening road trip and was fired, though Quarters said at the time it was not the team’s record, but some “petty things” that occurred on the road trip that led to his dismissal.
Into this maelstrom waded David, elevated to interim coach from assistant coach.
The only notable thing on David’s resume regarding junior hockey at the time was that he played for the Junior B Peninsula Chinooks in 1998-99.
Skeptics at the time might have said that tie to the Kenai Peninsula’s junior past was perfect. That past included the Peninsula Hellfighters lasting for a year and the Chinooks lasting for two seasons.
Would the Bears be good for just three?
The 2009-10 campaign did not engender much confidence.
Just a month after Quarters was fired, leading scorer Dajon Mingo said he wanted out and he was traded to division rival Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild, the team that would sweep the Bears out of the playoffs after a 12-40-6 campaign.
But rather than panicking as players begged off the ship, David, just 30 at the time and with no junior hockey head coaching experience, was learning.
“These guys I don’t think ever fully committed to Alaska,” he said at the time of the Mingo trade. “We want guys who want to be here.”
When David was kept on for 2010-11, fans couldn’t be blamed for wondering whether it was because the organization had burned through so many coaches, it couldn’t hire anyone better.
But general manager Nate Kiel, with deep roots in hockey and education, saw something he liked.
“Even when he started, I was confident,” Kiel said earlier this month. “He didn’t have the same expertise as some of his counterparts, but Oliver was cool, calm and collected — mature beyond his age.”
Kiel got to see David work up close and personal in the summer of 2010.
As any fan who has watched David huddle to face the cold whenever he takes the Soldotna Sports Center ice can attest, David is fond of his California roots.
But he stayed up in Alaska that summer of 2010 and with Kiel laid the groundwork for a system of finding players that would work on the central Kenai Peninsula.
The Bears would be looking for a particular player. First of all, that player had to want to be in, as Fighting Saints head coach Matt Shaw called it earlier this week, a “geographically challenged area.”
And the job of the player would be to more than win games. The player would have to be committed to classroom and community.
The plan worked. The Bears improved to 27-24-7 in 2010-11, 31-25-4 in 2011-12 and 29-25-6 this past season.
In the community, the Bears were active enough as volunteers to earn awards from both the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce.
The Bears also became adept at sending players on to college, including some Division I schools (such as, in a historical irony, Jesse Ramsey, who arrived in that Mingo trade.)
All seven of the players that aged out from the team last season earned college commitments, and Albin Karlsson earned a Division I commitment for sometime after next season.
David had neutralized the geographical isolation, and arguably turned it into an advantage, using a tightknit community and volunteer network to create a businesslike and family atmosphere around the team that midseason acquisitions, like goalie Marcus Zelzer, raved about.
But it was not until the final third of the season that David and the Bears kicked it into a high gear that would lead to David getting a plum USHL assistant’s job under Shaw, who has been an assistant in the NHL for five years and left an assistant’s job with the New Jersey Devils to take over the Fighting Saints.
The Bears closed on a 15-6-2 kick, establishing an even footing with league powerhouses Fairbanks and Wenatchee. The massive improvement of the young Bears over the course of the season was a topic of discussion that traveled beyond the Peninsula and even beyond Alaska.
David may not have had the resume of an NAHL coach when he took over the team in 2009, but he had grown into an NAHL coach now.
“He’s consistently wanting to study film and go to coaching seminars,” Kiel said. “That speaks huge volumes about the coach he’s becoming, and I’m excited about it.”
After the NAHL draft this year, I had a talk with David about how he uses games in tight areas in each practice to more efficiently wrap the neural circuits of players’ brains with myelin, creating a better player.
Those wanting a better explanation can read the compelling book by Homer author Daniel Coyle called “The Talent Code.” Those not wanting a better explanation can take my word for it — David is into his profession.
And it showed on the ice as the Bears got the first two playoff victories in franchise history and twice had the lead in the third period with a chance to close Fairbanks out before falling in five games.
“We didn’t get the result we wanted, and I’m still bitter about that,” David said.
But being bitter about that is better than a 12-40-6 record, or players that don’t want to be in the community and aren’t interested in working in the classroom.
And therein lies Kiel’s challenge. He needs to hire more than a hockey coach. He needs a leader that will continue the unique organizational structure that David helped build after taking over a team in free fall in October 2009.
“He has bought into what we are trying to do wholeheartedly,” Kiel said. “He’s really molded this program into his own program. He has a moral compass and he has what it takes to lead these young men in a small town.”
Suddenly, worrying about line-change strategy or on-ice enforcement issues doesn’t seem so bad.