David becomes first California native to lead USHL team
Oliver David has bucked the odds for a long time, so it should surprise no one that he became the first California-born and –trained coach to take over a team in the United States Hockey League (USHL) when the Dubuque Fighting Saints hired him as their head coach in early June.
The generosity of others helped David, who grew up in a single-parent household, get into – and stay in – the game as a youth. Roller hockey helped him develop further as a player and gave him his first opportunity to coach, at a community rink near Monterey. He’s played pro beach hockey and he’s played in Europe.
But unlike the previous hires at Dubuque, he didn’t have NCAA Division I playing or coaching experience, nor did he have NHL experience, or anything close to it outside of spending this past season as an assistant to Mike Johnston with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
And incredibly, he was hired despite not applying for the job this time. Two years ago, he was a finalist when the Fighting Saints hired Jason Lammers. David, who had been an assistant the two previous seasons, stayed on as associate head coach before his year in Portland. When Lammers landed Niagara University’s coaching job, opportunity knocked for the affable David.
“I didn’t apply, but everyone involved with the team said, ‘This is our guy,’” David said. “The owner (Brad Kwong, the managing partner of Northern Lights Hockey, LLC) called and asked me what my interest level was. I said it was high, but I didn’t think it was an option.
“That said, Dubuque has this tradition of success, and I know everything that’s happened. My advantage is I know the day-to-day structure and operations. That’s where I can put my fingerprints on it, on the development of the kids.”
David enters a situation with a franchise that has not missed the playoffs in its first seven seasons since being rebooted and won Clark Cups in two of its first three seasons under now-University of Denver coach Jim Montgomery.
“Just to have this opportunity is a tremendous honor,” David said. “There’s only 16 teams (in the USHL), and the turnover is low. It’s a very humbling thing to be given this opportunity.”
Fighting Saints assistant coach Matt Millar, who is also from California, said what David brings off the ice is just as important as his tactical acumen.
“Oliver is unbelievable at building relationships,” Millar said. “These guys don’t care what you know until they know you care. Even though they’re kids, they’re smart and they’re watching you.
“Another one of his strengths is his ability to put effort and thought into practices. And he’s willing to share every piece of information he’s learned.”
David, who is an avid reader, has had the benefit of learning from a couple of California’s most knowledgeable coaches – Mike Lewis and Igor Nikulin. His first Tier I job was as an assistant to Lewis with a California Wave Midget 16U AAA team that won a USA Hockey Youth Nationals title in 2006. When he moved to LA Hockey Club, he often coached with Nikulin, the cerebral and disciplined coach whose teams repeatedly won state and district titles.
In 2009, David was hired as an assistant with the North American Hockey League’s (NAHL) Kenai River Brown Bears. In his second season, he was elevated to interim coach and helped the Brown Bears reach the playoffs, something they did the next two seasons as well. He remains the franchise’s all-time wins leader (87).
In 2013, Dubuque coach Matt Shaw hired him as an assistant and two years later, he coached with the man he’s succeeding. In the process, David has become one of the few Americans to coach in North America’s three biggest junior circuits – the WHL, USHL and NAHL.
But that’s not his focus.
“We’re looking to surround kids with people who care for them,” David said. “We have two games per week, but the other five days, you can make an impact on areas that last long after hockey.”
A strong advocate for players from California and the West, David will have one of them – recent Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick Cole Guttman – as his captain next season.
“I was definitely really excited when I heard the news,” Guttman said. “I met him when I was drafted to Dubuque, and I’ve heard nothing but great things about him as a coach. I’m really excited to get started with him.”
Oliver David’s junior teams have had winning records and made playoff appearances every season since 2010.
Season, Team (league), record, playoff results
*2016-17, Portland (WHL), 40-28-1-3, second round
*2015-16, Dubuque (USHL), 39-19-1-1, Clark Cup final
*2014-15, Dubuque (USHL), 36-19-1-4, second round
*2013-14, Dubuque (USHL), 33-23-0-4, second round
2012-13, Kenai River (NAHL), 29-25-3-3, first round
2011-12, Kenai (NAHL), 31-25-2-2, first round
2010-11, Kenai (NAHL), 27-24-4-3, first round
— Chris Bayee