“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.
A 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 an 18AAA 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.