It happened over a bridge in Washington D.C.
Adam Carlson — a former goaltending standout of the Coulee Region Chill — was driving on a gorgeous day in September, taking in the sights. A new signee, he had just finished a full training session with the NHL’s Washington Capitals.
Out of nowhere, the emotions hit him in unexpected waves. First there was laughter. Then there were tears.
“I was driving to training camp, and I just started laughing, and then I started tearing up a little bit. It was just like, you’re driving in the middle of Washington, D.C., and you’re getting paid to play hockey; like, is this really happening?” said Carlson, who was cut twice by Edina (Minn.) High School during an abbreviated prep career.
“It really hits you, and it’s definitely humbling. It’s something that I’ll obviously remember for the rest of my life. I can’t even put it into words, honestly.
“It’s been a crazy ride.”
A ride most NAHL players never enjoy.
But Carlson worked hard to become one of a fortunate few. His pursuit of professional hockey was done the hard way. He even made a two-year stop in La Crosse during the process.
“You’d probably be hard pressed to find another one like him,” former Chill coach AJ Degenhardt said. “There have been a few, but it’s tough to find guys that have climbed up so many different ranks and excelled at each level the way he has in such a short amount of time. It’s really a testament to him and how driven he is. He’s just got the right mindset, and he’s having success because of that.”
Never say die
Carlson could have abandoned his hockey career more than once, and no one would have blamed him.
That was certainly the case in high school, as Carlson was cut by Edina — the winningest program in Minnesota history — as a sophomore.
He didn’t hang his head, though. In fact, Carlson used it as motivation, forfeiting his entire junior season to prepare for his senior-year tryout.
But that didn’t work, either. In his final season of high-school eligibility — two years removed from his initial disappointment — Carlson was cut again. At that point, most players take the hint and move on.
But Carlson knew he had something to offer.
“I’ve always been a competitive guy, no matter what. Even if it’s something as stupid as who gets their skates on first. Even that. I always want to be the best,” Carlson said. “I always want to be first in everything I do. It can be a bad thing, sometimes, but having that drive allows you to have that confidence, especially when it comes to a game like hockey.”
That drive pushed him forward.
His first bout of success came after high school, when he helped Edina’s Junior A Gold youth team — a senior-dominated group — to a state championship in 2012.
He continued his pursuit of a college scholarship in the junior ranks, shaking off a brief stint with the NA3HL’s North Iowa Bulls before helping the Steele County Blades — of the since-discontinued Minnesota Junior Hockey League — to a brief playoff appearance in 2013.
That’s when the Chill came calling.
Former Coulee Region assistant coach Lincoln Nguyen — who coached against Carlson in tier-three junior hockey — was the first to scout the Edina native. He later extended an invitation to main camp prior to the 2013-14 season, and Carlson gladly accepted.
“I had gotten cut a few times from a bunch of other main camps,” he said. “I was really the last guy they let into the camp, and it was two days before main camp started. I knew it was a good opportunity for me.”
Carlson seized that opportunity with both hands. He struggled at first, but he finished strong.
“We didn’t even give him much of a look in camp until the one goalie session when we did a breakaway drill,” said Degenhardt, who coached Carlson for two years.
“This is how (the drill) works. There are four nets, and each goalie takes on a breakaway, and if a player scores he moves on to the next line. But if he misses, he goes back to the same line. And at one point, Adam’s line had like 15 people in it the one time.
“We were like, ‘What the heck? We have to watch this kid.’ He eventually gave up a goal after like 50 shots, but then his next line had about another 15 guys in it, too. We were pretty surprised.”
Surprised enough to give Carlson a shot.
“From there, you could probably make the argument that he was the best goalie in camp at that time,” Degenhardt said. “He just really seized his opportunity.”
Carlson’s main-camp form booked his place on the Chill roster, but that was about it.
“When we took him, we planned on him probably playing 15-20 games his first season,” Degenhardt said.
It took less than half that time for Carlson to make his mark on the NAHL.
His first month in net was a very good one. After capping a successful Alaskan road trip to Kenai River and Fairbanks, Carlson was told he’d been named the NAHL Goaltender of the Month.
Then, before returning to La Crosse that very weekend, Carlson got more good news.
“Lincoln (Nguyen) looked at me down in the tunnel after a game in Fairbanks and told me that Providence just called and that they were looking at me. And this was a month and a half into my career in the NAHL,” Carlson said. “And that’s kind of when it hit me.
“Lincoln looked at me when he told me that, and he said, ‘I knew you were good, but I didn’t know you were that good.’ And then that’s when I got a little hunch, like, wow, I might have a chance.”
Upon joining the Chill, Division I hockey wasn’t on Carlson’s radar. His first goal was to land a Division III opportunity at Gustavus Adolphus, where his sister was attending college.
As the season progressed, his priorities changed.
“It didn’t really hit me until after my first year, when I was being scouted by a bunch of D-III guys I met in the summer and what not,” Carlson said. “They all told me, ‘Look, we’d love to scout you, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to get our hands on you.’ Once I heard those words come out of the mouths of D-III scouts, I was like, ‘OK, you just have to do it now. Now you have to be consistent.’”
Consistency was Carlson’s M.O. in the Coulee Region.
He made 32 appearances for the Chill in his rookie season, recording a .919 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.67.
The following year, he improved both of those figures with 17 additional starts under his belt, finishing with a 2.44 GAA and a .930 save percentage. Those numbers would rank seventh and third, respectively, in today’s NAHL.
“He never got comfortable with where he was at,” Degenhardt said. “He was always pushing himself to be better every day, and honestly, from the first day that he played under me to the last day that he played under me, the amount that he improved, I don’t know if I’ve seen that out of anybody.
“That’s what scouts at the next level want to see. They don’t want to see the player that comes in and is scoring 50 goals. They want to see the kid that comes in with OK numbers right away and then progressively improves over time. That’s the kind of track that Adam’s on right now.”
Sky’s the limit
Carlson needed two seasons and 86 NAHL appearances to realize his dream of playing Division I hockey.
The next step of his career took a lot less time.
After the 2014-15 season, Carlson accepted a scholarship offer to play at Mercyhurst University (Pa.), where he went 7-7-3 as a freshman while recording the Atlantic Hockey Conference’s fifth-best save percentage (.919). He did that in 17 games.
That’s all the Washington Capitals needed to see.
“It’s a pretty clear sign when an NHL hockey team signs you as a freshman in college. They obviously have high hopes for him to make it the NHL,” said Ryan Warsofsky, coach of the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, Carlson’s current minor-league club.
“I think Adam has all the mental tools, and he has the athletic ability. Now it’s about listening to his goalie coaches and playing games at the professional level that will help his development.
“From there, it’s up to Adam. He has to put the work in.”
On March 28, 2016, with just one collegiate season under his belt, Carlson became the sixth Mercyhurst player to sign a professional contract. His was a two-way deal, meaning his pay was, and still is, based on the level in which he plays.
Right now, he’s set up in the ECHL — the third rung of American professional hockey — where he ranks 13th in goals-against average (2.70) and 19th in save percentage (.906) through 15 starts. After that, an extended stint with the AHL’s Hershey Bears is in the cards.
Long story short, Carlson is still a few years from being NHL-ready.
But there’s a reason Washington came after him so quickly. There’s a reason he isn’t playing his sophomore season at Mercyhurst. He has what it takes, Warsofsky said.
His high school coaches may not have noticed, but his professional coaches certainly do.
“He has a lot of work to do, but it’s Step 1 right now. He can’t really worry about where he’s going to be in four years,” Warsofsky said. “He needs to worry about his upcoming start and taking care of his body and being ready every time he’s asked to play between the pipes.”
“The sky’s going to be the limit for him,” Degenhardt said. “It’s going to be up to him how far he’s able to go. The kid’s just so driven. That’s probably his biggest attribute. … He’s probably not the most technically-sound goaltender in the world.
“He’s good, but I think why he’s able to stop as many pucks that he does is because of how hard he competes on them. If he can keep that mentality going, I think he can go a long way.”