When New Year’s Day dawned and 2014 arrived, John Carlson didn’t yet know his fate. Would he move through the ensuing months with only his day job, that of Washington Capitals defenseman? That is plenty, given the amount of time he spends on the ice and the variety of his responsibilities.
But by the end of that day, there was another possibility. He could be an Olympian. The U.S. hockey team was announced at the conclusion of this year’s Winter Classic, played at Michigan Stadium in front of some 105,000 people. The crowd watched as kids wearing hockey sweaters — sweaters bearing the names of each member of the team — skated from the blue line and turned around to reveal the selection to a television audience.
On his couch in Arlington, Carlson squirmed. “Could someone just text me, ‘I see your name on a jersey?’” he thought. He had been fending off messages all day. “You have to know, right?” they said. “Someone must have tipped you off.”
He had no idea.
In New Jersey, where he grew up, his father, Dick, watched too. But he couldn’t imagine his son’s nerves, even as the announcement approached. When John was young, Dick coached his elite travel team. Not infrequently, the father might fret about how his son was playing, about a loss, about something that went wrong.
“And he’d always say, ‘Dad, what do you get so worried about?’” Dick Carlson said. “‘We’ve got another game tomorrow.’”
Dick Carlson grew up in a hockey family, and even as he moved his family from the hockey hotbed of Massachusetts to New Jersey, he was going to replicate that feel with his own boys, John and his older brother Andrew. They found the New Jersey Rockets, who traveled to all the places hockey families must travel, beginning at age 7 or 8. Detroit. Toronto. New England. Beyond.
“People would say it’s child abuse now,” Dick Carlson said, laughing. “ ‘How could you ever do that?’ But given that’s how I was brought up, it’s what we all enjoyed, we became a hockey family as well. Of course, you never know at the end of the day how it will all work out.”
What they knew, though, was that they would pursue the best competition possible so that all the Rockets would know where they stood.
“There weren’t going to be 20 teams within 20 miles just like us, like there would be in Canada or something,” John Carlson said. “But we were good.”
At the helm of John’s team was Dick, who had a certain way he wanted things done. Their relationship has been duplicated across the country in sport to sport — a father doesn’t want to be seen as favoring his son, so he rides him.
“It probably wasn’t easy for him, because I was very hard on him,” Dick Carlson said. “There’s probably a lot of days he didn’t really like me. But he always listened, even though maybe we fought about it a lot — or I didn’t think he was listening. He was always a dependable kid, came to play and had fun, which is the most important thing.”
Through his teens, as he cast aside baseball and lacrosse to focus on hockey, his father’s coaching worked. John grew into a dangerous defenseman, one who began attracting the attention not only of college recruiters, but of scouts from the Ontario Hockey League, the best feeder to the NHL.
“He knew a lot, and he helped me out,” John Carlson said. “It was a little bit different of a situation than normal. He was very serious, and he was hard on me — but in a good way.”
John, though, didn’t always let his feelings be known. When he was visiting the University of Massachusetts on a recruiting trip, he accepted a scholarship offer onsite — before he had even divulged his intentions to his family. When he decided instead to play in the OHL — eventually going to the London Knights, where he was coached by former Capital Dale Hunter — he told his father only of his intentions, not of the reasons behind them.
“You don’t realize it at the time, but he was absorbing everything at every level, and it kind of fed into all these decisions he made,” Dick Carlson said. “He probably doesn’t realize that, but everything in his mind was calculated and mature — kind of beyond his own maturity level. I sit back and think about it: He had kind of a game plan in his mind, and he was just going a step at a time.”
By the time Carlson arrived for his first training camp with the Capitals — having played two years in Indiana in the United States Hockey League, then a year for London in the OHL — the game plan included only one thing: an NHL career. Still a teenager, veteran Capitals noticed him immediately.
“You could see the raw abilities,” Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. “He could shoot the puck. He was big, he was strong, he could skate. You could tell he had the ability to elevate his game, which some people always play here,” and he held his hand at a middling level, “but can’t take it up. He could. The raw material was fantastic.”
There was, though, the matter of converting that raw material into something productive. In 2009-10, he split his time between Hershey, the Capitals’ top minor-league affiliate, and Washington. By the following season, he was in the NHL full-time, thrust into the lineup of a team with Stanley Cup aspirations. He was 20, and he played alongside 21-year-old Karl Alzner. They are, in the minds of Capitals fans, joined at the hip — Alzner the classic defensive defenseman, Carlson his more explosive partner. But they weren’t just an on-ice pair. Neither knows how he would have adjusted to life in the NHL without the other.
“Any little problem that I had, he also had it usually,” Alzner said. “If I was thinking something, he was thinking along the same lines. So that was easy to kind of vent about things together and be happy about things together. We were both in the awe stage together.”
They didn’t, though, have much time to remain there. Carlson averaged nearly 23 minutes of ice time as a rookie. And his responsibility now, in his fourth full season — during which time he has never missed a game — has only grown. Coach Adam Oates has moved Carlson onto the top power-play unit. He plays on the penalty kill. He plays when the Capitals are two men down.
“There are no more situations in a hockey game to ask the guy to play, aside from goaltender,” Laich said. “And he’s a young defensemen still developing.”
Which put him in good position to make the U.S. Olympic team. Before the season, the entire Carlson family spent some time gauging where John might fit among American defenseman. The feedback: He was in the thick of it.
“In my mind, that really made that goal tangible for me,” he said. “It was really in front of me and I really wanted to go out there and grab it.”
So before the season, Oates spoke with Dan Bylsma, the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins who will also coach Team USA. If there were doubts, Washington’s coach tried to erase them.
“I told him that he will love him,” Oates said, “because he can do anything you ask him to do.”
Four years ago, Carlson took his first step on an international stage: Canada vs. the United States for the gold medal at World Juniors. Packed house in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, so many waving maple leaf flags. A back-and-forth, rapid-fire game went to overtime tied at 5. And here came Carlson down the left wing, carrying the puck into the offensive zone.
“I don’t know what happened, to be honest,” Carlson said to an on-ice interviewer. “It was a whirlwind for me. I just shot it.”
That gold medal-winning goal stands, to this point, as an on-ice highlight of Carlson’s career. But beginning Feb. 13, when the U.S. opens the Olympic tournament against Slovakia, he will have a chance to replace it completely. He expects that he’ll return to the Capitals better for the experience.
“You play with other elite players in the league, a two-week window,” Oates said. “There’s a pressure. You might learn something off other guys. You might learn something off another coach. It might re-energize you because of the pressure of the moment. Maybe he has success. You never know.”
Back on his couch on New Year’s Day, Carlson watched as those kids skated forward. And here, as Dick Carlson said, “came a little chubby kid.” He turned around, and the name “Carlson” was scrawled across his back. The nerves slipped away, and John Carlson was an Olympian.
“What a great feeling,” Carlson said. “I can’t wait.”