TAMPA — It was the worst day of his life.
David Carle was 18. All he wanted to do was play hockey, just like older brother Matt, who was in the NHL. His dream was coming true. He had a college scholarship to one of the best programs in the country. He was about to be drafted into the NHL.
Then his life changed in a heartbeat. A doctor came through the door and told him that he could never play hockey again. If he did, he could die.
His dream was crushed.
"It was all just so sad," said his mother, Karen. "Just so sad. It's still sad."
But this is not a sad story.
It could have been. It could have been a tragedy. David could have given up, felt sorry for himself, turned to the things that people turn to when their dreams are stolen.
Instead, he had himself a good cry. For five minutes.
Then he picked himself up and moved on with the rest of his life. That life now includes being an assistant coach at the University of Denver, which plays tonight in the semifinals of the Frozen Four at Amalie Arena.
"I can tell you that he handled it better than his mother and I did," his father, Bob, said. "It's really hard to watch one of your kids have everything pulled out from under them. And the way he handled it, he taught us all some pretty valuable lessons. He's a special person."
This is the story of that special person.
• • •
There's a plaque in the Carle home in Anchorage, Ala., that reads, "God has a purpose for your life. Nobody can take your place."
For the Carle kids — Matt, David and Alex — that purpose was hockey. Matt was the oldest. David was five years younger than Matt, and Alex, now a player at Merrimack College, was five years younger than David.
"It was a fun dynamic growing up," said Matt, now a defenseman with the Lightning. "David would pick on the little one, and I was always sticking up for the younger one. We were all close."
Morning, noon and night, indoors and out, it was hockey.
Matt moved away when he was 15 to play for the prestigious U.S. national developmental team, then went on to star at Denver, where he won the Hobey Baker Award, given to the best college player in the country.
David was on the same path. He moved to Minnesota to play at the Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school and earned a scholarship to Denver. He was so good that he was invited to the NHL scouting combine and probably would have been a second-round draft pick in 2006.
Then came that worst day ever.
During a routine physical at the combine, doctors noticed something abnormal. David was immediately sent to the Mayo Clinic where it was discovered he had a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a thickening of the part of the heart responsible for pumping blood to the rest of the body.
His career was over. His life was not.
"For people who have this, sometimes their first symptom is their last symptom," Bob Carle said. "He was blessed and lucky enough that he was good enough to go to that combine and have the doctors find this condition. … It might have cost him his life. That's how he reasoned it out. That's how he looked for that silver lining. He made me so proud the way he dealt with it."
David allowed himself a brief moment to mourn, then started asking questions to learn everything he could about his condition.
"Certainly you have moments of weakness where you think, 'What if?' " David said. "But I always tried to have a good attitude with it, and that was my way of beating the disease. It is a disease that is never going away. So I thought if I let it consume me and how I acted and how I lived my life, then that was the disease's way of winning.
"I tried to always be grateful for the fact that I was diagnosed. I have a pretty mild case of the disease. I can live a totally normal life. All I can't do is play hockey. I still have it better than a lot of people. You try to think about that. Just because I can't play a sport doesn't give me an excuse to feel sorry for myself."
• • •
David had help moving on to the next phase of his life.
The day after the bad news, David had to inform the NHL that he was no longer eligible to be drafted. Although, in one of the most touching moments in Lightning history, then-part-owner Oren Koules drafted David in the seventh round in 2008. David can always say he was drafted.
"The drive was there, the passion was there and he was well on track to make something special of it," Matt said. "To have everything ripped away in one fell swoop was pretty tough. He's a very mature kid and our family knew that whatever he put his mind to, whether it was hockey or not, he was going to be successful.
David had no idea what he would do next. That's when he got a call from George Gwozdecky, head coach at the University of Denver at the time.
Gwozdecky told David, "We are going to honor your scholarship. You have a home to come to. You have a family here in Denver. We will find a role for you."
"David hung up," Bob remembers, "and said, 'Dad, I think I picked the right college.' "
David flourished as a de facto assistant coach. By his sophomore year, he was running video sessions and giving scouting reports on the opponents.
"For me, being around the game was therapeutic," David said. "I was still a part of the team, and each year my role expanded. I would say by the time I was done with my sophomore year, I was far enough along in school and far enough along in my role with the team that I knew I wanted to stay involved in hockey, and coaching is the avenue that has worked out."
He also matured away from the rink. Bob recalls visiting David during his sophomore year. David invited him to go on a ride down to Colorado Springs for a "meeting."
"So we hop in the car and drive the 45 minutes there," Bob said. "I couldn't believe what I saw."
David, just 19, walked into an auditorium and delivered a 30-minute speech on HCM to the state's high school physical education teachers.
"One guy came up to me and put his arm around me," Bob said. "He had a tear in his eye and he says, 'That kid is something special. You don't know how special he is. I just lost my 32-year-old son. He had HCM and never even knew he had it. You take care of that kid.' "
In many ways, David has taken care of everyone else.
"As a dad, I can't be more proud," Bob said. "As a parent, all you want for you kids is for them to find something meaningful in their lives and be happy pursuing it."
• • •
For David, his pursuit has been coaching. Only 26, David is a top assistant at a top program and appears well on his way to becoming a head coach in college and, perhaps, the pros.
"One of his biggest strengths when he was playing was his ability to read plays," Matt said, "so it's not a surprise he is a coach. We talk hockey on the phone all the time. Sometimes I laugh and have to remind him to think like a player sometimes."
David no longer thinks about what might have been.
"I love what I do," he said. "It's as close to playing as you're going to get. I'm having a great time. I love it."
He also loves where this all happened.
"All these crossroads run through Tampa," Bob said.
David was drafted by Tampa Bay. Matt plays for Tampa Bay. Gwozdecky spent two years as a Tampa Bay assistant. And now this year's Frozen Four is in Tampa.
"Tampa always holds a special place in our lives," Bob said.
The only bad part is Matt's Lightning is out of town on a road trip.
"We play in Montreal on Saturday night, the night of the final," Matt said. "We're going to get in late that night, and hopefully Denver will still be up celebrating."
Win or lose, Matt will get together with David. Win or lose, there is plenty for the Carle family to celebrate.