In 2012, David Carle graduated from the University of Denver. Six years later, he became the ninth head coach in program history, while also becoming the youngest active head coach in NCAA Division I hockey at just 28 years old.
His journey to becoming such has a bit of an unfortunate twist to it, however. See, originally, Carle was actually supposed to play for the DU Pioneers. A graduate of the prestigious Minnesota-based hockey high school known as Shattuck-Saint Mary’s — where greats like Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon also call the school their alma mater — Carle was committed to play for Denver and was projected to be a high draft pick in the 2008 NHL Draft. However, during routine medical testing at the NHL combine, doctors found Carle’s heart was slightly enlarged, and he was subsequently diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
Carle was still drafted in the seventh round to the Tampa Bay Lightning but was forced to retire upon his diagnosis. Former long-time Denver coach George Gwozdecky, however, still wanted to honor Carle’s scholarship and commitment and offered him a position as a student assistant coach. After his graduation in 2012, and after a two-season stint as an assistant coach of the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers, Carle was invited back to serve as an assistant to the newly-hired Jim Montgomery, who, as it would turn out, would become his head coaching predecessor.
Carle’s unique story to becoming DU’s coach also came with a unique outcome that he’d become the NCAA’s youngest coach. Given he’s just a few years older than the players he’s coaching, it’s also a unique situation for the players on the team.
“I’ve never had a coach that young, I don’t think any of us have,” said senior assistant captain Michael Davies. “But definitely the way he connects with us, he’s very personable, especially for a guy who wasn’t here too long ago as a student so he knows what we’re going through. Especially for the younger guys, when the freshmen come in, I think you notice they feel a lot more comfortable right away, just having a guy that’s easy to talk to and a guy that they know has been in their shoes before.”
It’s hard to not point at Carle’s age as a factor in his ability to connect with his players. Given the small age gap, naturally, it feels closer to a friendship from player to coach rather than a “boss,” per se. Carle, however, doesn’t see it that way.
“I think you could draw comparisons that way,” said Carle of his ability to better connect with his players given his smaller age gap. “For me, age doesn’t really have much to do with success. I talk about my two assistants, they’re old enough to be my dad, but that doesn’t mean I’m any better than them because I act younger.”
Tavis MacMillan, one of Carle’s assistants, will turn 50 later this year. And while he doesn’t attribute it to his age, MacMillan says Carle is just naturally a people-person.
“He gets people. He has a feel that’s special that a lot of people just don’t have. It’s a situational-feel, it’s a people-feel,” MacMillan said. “A lot of people are good in [some] situations but not [others] and are ok in some but every situation he’s in, he excels at. I heard this from someone some time: he excels in being uncomfortable. In uncomfortable situations, he’s so good. He deals with stuff head-on and doesn’t hide behind stuff. Whether it’s people, situations, whatever it is, like I said, he has this feel on how to deal with different things at all times and he’s so good.”
MacMillan added that Carle’s knowledge of the game is top-notch.
“Whenever he does something, like I think I never would’ve done that and then it’s like now I know why I’m not a head coach,” he laughed. “Those days are gone because he’s so good at that...I used to sit at meetings with the two of them (Montgomery and Carle) and just shake my head because the best thing I could do was just not say anything and keep my mouth shut and listen to them.
“If one needed coffee, I’d get coffee.”
His players, who affectionately refer to him simply as “DC,” add that he is an incredibly approachable person and that’s one of the reasons why this team has found much success under his leadership.
“He’s a players coach. He knows he’s younger, we know that too. But he’s able to keep things serious when it needs to be, but he’s also a guy you can talk to about anything,” said senior forward Liam Finlay. “He’s very personable and he’s easy to talk to. I think that blend of seriousness but being easy to talk to just creates a good atmosphere for our locker room...he just keeps a lighter atmosphere. He wants guys to be themselves and to have fun during the games. I think that’s a big part of it.”
“He’s super easy to talk to, you can joke with him and stuff,” added junior D-man Griffin Mendel.
Carle’s senior captain Mitchell says “he does a really good job of balancing connecting with us and also being the head coach...For being such a young guy, he’s extremely mature and he definitely has the respect of the room.”
While Carle is hesitant to attribute his success in connecting with his team to his age, one thing is for sure, and that is his players enjoy being coached by him. The tight-knit culture Carle has created in Denver’s locker room has already been paying dividends. Carle led the Pioneers to the Frozen Four last year in his first season at the helm and were one goal away from the national championship.
This season, the Pios are finding more of that success and appear poised for another tourney run come spring under the leadership of their now 30-year-old coach.
“I think age is a number,” Carle added. “If you’re good at what you do, if you connect with people and build relationships, I think you’ll be successful in whatever you do in life.”