It’s March 26, 2016 and the DU Pioneers are taking on the Boston University Terriers in the West Regionals of the NCAA Division I tournament at Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. As anticipation builds before the Pioneers take the ice against BU, then-assistant coach David Carle holds his usual pre-game penalty kill meeting with a few of his players in the locker room.
As his players gathered around the whiteboard, Carle erases the “Trust the Process” slogan that is scribed on the board in preparation to draw up his PK gameplan. It’s a mantra implemented by then-head coach Jim Montgomery. It’s a seven-point checklist that lays out a number of objectives the team should aim for in a particular game in order for a greater chance of success. For instance, things like winning greater than 50 percent of face-offs or not taking any bad penalties are a couple of goals on the seven-pointed plan.
Since Montgomery joined DU in 2013, it was always a point to write “Trust the Process” and its seven points on the board of whatever locker room the team was in before each game. It’s a reminder of the Pioneers’ path for success.
On this particular gameday, Carle erases Monty’s motto in order to make room for drawing up a plan for his penalty-killing unit. When the strategizing was done, Carle re-wrote the team’s slogan back up on the board. Only this time, it didn’t quite look right:
Trust the Proscess.
“No, leave it, leave it,” yells a player upon realizing the misspelling, as assistant coach Tavis MacMillan recalls. “He was going to change it and then it kind of became our mantra after that, with the misspelling.”
“That’s one thing he’s not good at, spelling.”
At the time, the misspelling was a comical blunder on Carle’s part. And as it would turn out, it’s become a culture-changing mishap for the DU Pioneers under Carle’s leadership.
“The misspelling would’ve started in 2016,” recalls Carle. “We were playing BU in St. Paul and the guys they would write ‘Trust the Process’ on whatever board there was in the locker room. I did my PK meeting with the guys and I erased everything on the board, including ‘Trust the Process.’
“I attempted to write it back up there, as it was, and I’m not a great speller and I misspelled it. We won the game, we won it handily against BU and the boys kind of just stuck with it ever since. That’s where the misspelling originated.”
“I was there,” recalled Colorado Avalanche forward Logan O’Connor. “He went to go write up the process or ‘Trust the Process’ on the board and he happened to misspell it. The Process has always been a big thing at DU so we’ve always sort of stuck with that. It’s been a joke ever since. Like, the coach graduated from DU, so (it was funny) watching him mess that up.”
A running joke among the team has turned into a full-blown culture-defining mantra for success that stems from that mishapped moment in St. Paul.
Following Carle’s clerical error on the pre-game whiteboard against Boston, the Pioneers would trounce the Terriers 7-2 to move onto the Elite Eight against Ferris State. And for what it’s worth, whatever Carle’s pre-game penalty kill game plan he wrote when he erased the process, worked. DU successfully killed off both Boston power-play opportunities in the game.
His game plan worked, and the misspelling also worked in its own sort of way. What Carle had done had redefined an identity and culture within DU’s locker room, albeit inadvertently.
“In the process, it’s never perfect, but you’re always striving for perfection. They all thought that the misspelling was a good representation of the imperfection of it, but that we are chasing the perfection of it,” added Carle.
“It was a big thing my freshman year,” adds senior forward Tyson McLellan. “I think it gives everybody something to fall back on. If you’re struggling or you’re succeeding, you never want to get too high or too low. It’s always something you can revert to and think about and try to be the best that you can be.”
Whether it’s perfect or not.
As McLellan mentioned, the misspelled slogan was a big thing his freshman year, which for him was the 2016-17 season. And that was a big year for the Pioneers, in general, who would ride their new “proscess” all the way to winning the NCAA National Championship.
“It gained more life in 2017 during our championship run,” added Carle. “Will Butcher was our captain and he decided he wanted that put with the misspelling on our playoff shirts.”
The misspelling also remains emblazoned in large back-lit letters in Denver’s locker room at Magness Arena. It’s a daily reminder for all players of DU’s culture. When Montgomery moved on to a position as the head coach of the NHL’s Dallas Stars ahead of the 2018-19 season, Carle took over the reigns as the team’s head coach and the Pioneers moved into a newly-renovated locker room, complete with their new head coach’s now-famed misspelling.
When Montgomery moved on, Carle adopted and re-adapted his predecessor’s seven-point process. For starters, it’s a simplified five-point process now.
Win 55 percent of face-offs; give up three or fewer odd-man rushes; win the battle in front of the net; win the special-teams battle; and don’t take any bad penalties.
But do hitting these points really work?
“Oh yeah,” exclaimed Carle. “Usually if we get three out of five at home it will result in a win. On the road, you need at least five, if you get four, you’re probably still winning. At home if you get two, it’s usually going to be a tighter game.”
“I think it’s just something we really focused on day-in and day-out in practice,” agreed O’Connor. “Like if guys were struggling, we’d just say ‘get back to the process’ and it’s sort of a reset button because we know (the process) gives us success.”
The process — and, moreover, the misspelled variation — has forged a new culture and identity for DU. It’s really a perfect representation of how imperfect a process really is. A process, after all, is an act of taking steps in the right direction — it’s never the end result.
“I think it has a lot to do with our program’s culture,” Carle said of his spelling error. “I think each year, the team’s identity changes and morphs within that...I think the process is a part of that. It’s a part of looking in the mirror and honestly evaluating yourself, and then taking responsibility for things you did well or things you didn’t do well. And then, how do you look in the mirror as an individual to help the team collectively achieve our team’s objectives.”
They say in life that we all learn from our mistakes. For the Pioneers under Carle’s leadership, the understanding is that nobody — not the team, nor its individual players — are perfect. Mistakes are made on and off the ice, in the locker room, on whiteboards and in just about every other aspect of life. We’re all not perfect but, still, we can all strive to be. That’s all part of life’s proscess.