It’s the ultimate “rags-to-riches” story in sports: Athlete “X” gets cut from a high school team or a professional tryout, and somehow manages to defy the odds and reach a height that wasn’t even thought to be imaginable. It’s a story that permeates into every sport and its subsequent levels, a story of how compete level, perseverance, and a positive mental attitude go a long way in achieving personal success.
Michael Jordan, considered the best basketball player in the history of the world, was cut from his high school’s varsity basketball team and went on to win 6 NBA Championships with the Chicago Bulls. Five-time MLB All-Star Mark Buehrle, who threw both a no-hitter and a perfect game, in addition to winning the 2005 World Series with the Chicago White Sox, was cut from his high school’s varsity baseball team as well. And who could forget NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner? He was stocking shelves at a grocery store after getting cut by the Green Bay Packers, only to make his way to the St. Louis Rams, quarterback “The Greatest Show on Turf”, and win Super Bowl XXXIV and its MVP honors.
Rush goaltender Adam Carlson has a very similar path to the aforementioned athletes. Hailing from the “State of Hockey”, Carlson’s interest in the sport developed at an early age. After learning to skate at 3 years old and play at 4, he ultimately turned hockey into his life’s work, playing professionally while also coaching youth goaltenders and running a goaltending equipment business on the side. His success, however, was met with countless challenges.
After getting cut from both junior varsity and varsity high school hockey in Minnesota in his junior and senior seasons, Carlson fought his way up the gauntlet to achieving his ultimate hockey success to date: earning a maximum entry-level National Hockey League contract with the Washington Capitals in 2016, and becoming a professional hockey goaltender.
Carlson’s story begins in his junior year at Edina High School. He held a job at a local sporting goods store and met Ryan Ess, the Founder, President, and Head Instructor of Devenir Goaltenders.
“For me, it all started with meeting Ryan Ess. He became my first real goaltending coach,” Carlson said. “It was my junior year of high school, the 2011-12 season, and it was that year that my game started to really take off, especially with Ryan’s help.
“Ryan and I thought I was going to make a big push to make the varsity hockey team. Unfortunately, I got cut,” he explained, somberly. “I came up a man short on making the goaltending tandem. In my exit interviews with Curt Giles, the Head Coach of the team and a 16-year NHL veteran that played the majority of his career with the Minnesota North Stars, he told me that I had made vast improvements and had a bright future in hockey. ‘Keep on trucking with this game, Adam,’ I can remember him telling me.”
Most players take a cut from varsity hard, especially during the impressionable years of high school. What was even more disappointing for Carlson was his cut from the junior varsity team shortly after varsity tryouts subsided. Despite all of this, and at the behest of his Coach’s words of encouragement, Carlson continued to hone his skills in any way possible.
The hierarchy of hockey in Minnesota is unique. There are three levels of competition: varsity, junior varsity, and Junior Gold-A. Varsity is considered the top tier of high school sports, which in all reality is a nationwide standard. In terms of junior varsity, most states and athletic associations my consider it second tier. However, in Minnesota high school hockey, it’s different. Depending on the quality of the program where you play, either junior varsity or Junior Gold-A is considered the next step to competition. For Carlson, that level debate had a “2a and 2b” feel to it, that you could play either and still have a fulfilling and successful career at the high school level. Carlson played Junior Gold-A in his junior and senior seasons.
“It wasn’t easy by any stretch to continue to play outside of varsity high school hockey,” Carlson recalled. “Junior Gold-A was still a ton of fun, though. I played with some great friends, and we were a competitive team, winning the state title my senior year. I’d still be willing to bet that our Junior Gold-A team could compete with a number of varsity teams in Minnesota.”
Once he graduated from Edina High School, Carlson set his sights on the next stage of his hockey career: junior hockey. Junior hockey in the United States is divided into tiers: Tier 1 with the United States Hockey League, Tier 2 with the North American Hockey League, and Tier 3 with the NA3HL, where players pay to play on their respective teams.
“After high school, however, it was tougher. The stakes were higher with junior hockey because I was competing against other players that had legitimate high school careers, or were younger talents in hockey,” he continued. “I’d try out for NAHL teams and make their final scrimmage in camp, but would ultimately end up getting cut. Coaches would tell me it was tough to sign me just because I had no true resume as a goaltender. They’d add in the line that I never played varsity high school hockey, and the conversations would end there.
“Eventually, I had an opportunity to play in the NA3HL with the North Iowa Bulls. I was relegated to third string goaltender, which didn’t sit well with me,” he continued. “I realized that if my family was going to pay so much money to have me play junior hockey, I was going to get their money’s worth, so to speak, and play every night. I needed to play to prove I could compete, so I asked for a trade and ended up playing for the Steele County Blades, a team in its inaugural season in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League.”
Carlson won 13 games with the Blades, compared to only playing one contest with North Iowa. He ended the 2012-13 season with a 3.14 GAA and .914 SV%, in addition to 5 starts in the playoffs and a spot on the MNJHL All-Star Team. That was enough to catch the eye of a coach from the MNJHL, who made it to the North American Hockey League and recognized Carlson from coaching against him.
“The next year in 2013-14, the Coulee Region Chill, a now defunct NAHL team from La Crosse, Wisconsin, gave me a call. Specifically, it was their new assistant coach, Lincoln Nguyen, that recognized me from the MNJHL. Lincoln, still to this day, is a great friend of mine that I golf with whenever I go home in the offseasons,” Carlson elaborated. “He was responsible for beginning the tryout process for me. I made the final scrimmage of their training camp, and he and the head coach, A.J. Degenhardt, gave me a shot to play on their team.
“I never thought I’d make an NAHL team, given how the previous experiences had gone in tryouts. Coulee Region was the fourth team I tried to make,” he continued. “I thought I’d only play tier-3, then NCAA-III at Gustavus Adolphus if I was lucky. Thankfully, the Chill offered me a chance to prove that making the team wasn’t a fluke.”
Carlson was selected to start in net for the Chill during the 2013 NAHL Showcase, a “tournament style” beginning to the season with every team in the league playing in Blaine, Minnesota. It attracts scouts from virtually every college at the NCAA Division 1 level. In the Showcase, Carlson made an immediate impact, winning both of his starts while only allowing 3 goals in 152:53 of playing time over four games.
Needless to say, the college scouts took notice.
“The major epiphany I had with that showcase came when I garnered interest from colleges,” Carlson recalled. “Specifically, Providence University first showed interest, and it hit me at that moment: I could really do something for myself with the game of hockey. From there, I used that as motivation and did my best to earn the starting goaltender spot on the Chill. Along the way to that goal, I went through a ton of highs and lows, but thankfully, by the end of my first season in Coulee Region, I had earned the starting position in net.”
It was a great start to his NAHL career. In 32 appearances with the Chill, Carlson went 13-12-1 with a shutout, a 2.67 GAA and a .919 SV%. Even with his contributions in net, the Chill narrowly missed out on the 2014 Robertson Cup Playoffs.
Carlson exploded to begin the 2014-15 season, earning a 56-save shutout against the Janesville Jets in a 2-0 win in the first game of the year. From there, he nearly doubled his win total from his first year, earning a 25-15-9 record in 49 games with 6 shutouts, a 2.44 GAA and a .930 SV%. He led the Chill to the 2015 Robertson Cup Playoffs, but the team fell to the eventual champion Minnesota Wilderness in the first round, going the distance to five games.
Despite the first-round exit, there was some good to come out of the 2014-15 season for Carlson. He committed to play NCAA hockey at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.
“Right after that shutout against Janesville, I had interest from multiple colleges,” Carlson said. “Honestly, it was a pretty cool feeling to have this interest, considering all the cuts from high school and other junior teams along the way. I had interest at one point from 12 different schools, including powerhouses like Minnesota, Boston University, and Michigan to name a few. However, it was Greg Gardner, the goaltending coach of Mercyhurst, that gave me this sense of hope and made me feel like I had this great opportunity to start as a freshman. Our encounter really made me step back and think on the offer.
“In the context of both going to college and maybe even turning professional one day, my dad gave me this great piece of advice growing up in life: if you’re good enough, they’ll find you,” Carlson expanded. “In tandem with that, you have to go to where you’re most wanted, considering that, theoretically, you’re committing the next four years of your life to the college you choose. I ended up turning that advice around and applying it to my situation: I went to where I was most wanted, and if I was good enough, people would find me. That’s why I ultimately chose Mercyhurst.”
Carlson made the trek from La Crosse, Wisconsin, to Erie, Pennsylvania to become a Mercyhurst Laker in the 2015-16 season. His first start wasn’t until October 14, 2015, eight games into the season against Army West Point.
“My first start was a night I’ll never forget. It was a home game against Army, my grandparents came out all the way from Minnesota to watch, and the place was just rocking,” Carlson recalled fondly. “Army is always such a tough game because they play a ‘run-n-gun’ style of hockey. They’d just throw bodies everywhere on the ice, very similar to the ECHL style of play, in my opinion. They constantly battle for 60 minutes. We won 5-2 and I made 33 saves in earning the win. Little did I know, a scout was watching me play that night, and proceeded to call me after the game with a proposition that I never dreamed was possible.”
Following the game, the freshman goaltender, fresh off his first start and his first NCAA win, received a call from the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals.
“Wil Nichol, a scout at the time with the Capitals, gave me a call after the game and offered me a spot in the team’s development camp,” Carlson remembered. “To this day, I swear I thought I was getting pranked. I thought it was a fake call from Anthony Mastrodicasa, who was my Captain and eventually a Rush defenseman, and another Captain, Kyle Cook. I really thought they were messing with me. I had no idea that after one start in college I would receive a look from the NHL. Sure enough, Nichol’s call to me was just as real as his offer to skate in Capitals development camp that summer.
“What I find even crazier about this situation was how the scouting process began. Nichol told me he was at Michigan’s home-opener when we played them in Ann Arbor the week before my first NCAA start,” he continued with the anecdote. “Despite being outmatched by a perennial powerhouse, we played a great weekend of hockey and lost both games by a combined 3 goals, 6-4 on the home-opener and 3-2 in the rematch.
“Throughout my whole life, especially in my goaltending career from my younger days to now as a professional, I was always taught to be prepared for anything and be ready to go. Nichol saw me stretching on the ice at Michigan’s home-opener, and because of my routine and how intensely I was preparing in warmup, he was thoroughly convinced that I was the team’s starter that night. Come to find out, he was disappointed I didn’t start or play the entire weekend, and he followed me until I finally got a chance in net. After that start, Nichol offered me the spot in development camp later that year. I didn’t stop hearing from the Washington Capitals from that moment.”
Carlson used his NHL development camp offer as momentum to a great showing in his freshman year. He appeared in 17 games, starting in 16, and went 7-7-3 with a 2.85 GAA and a .919 SV%. His efforts helped the Lakers finish 4th in the Atlantic Hockey Association with a 15-9-4 conference record, and an overall season finish of 17-15-4. He led them to the AHA Conference Tournament Quarterfinals, where their season ended in a 2-0 loss to Rochester Institute of Technology.
Following the conclusion of the season, Carlson took some much-needed vacation, and received yet another call regarding the Capitals. This one turned out to be the phone call of a lifetime.
“After our season ended, a few teammates, some who would later re-join me on the Rush in 2018-19, and I went to Myrtle Beach for a spring break golf trip,” he began. “As we drove our carts up to the first tee box at the first course on our trip, I got call from my agent. The Washington Capitals had offered me a maximum entry-level National Hockey League contract.
“I was speechless,” Carlson added, emotionally. “Think about how this story has gone to this point. Four years ago, I was considered not good enough to play either junior varsity or varsity high school hockey in my home state of Minnesota. Now, I’m being offered a National Hockey League contract. I sat there and thought to myself ‘how in the heck did my fortune change like this in four years?’ I was floored, humbled, blessed…you name it. I felt so many different emotions in that one phone call. Needless to say, we turned the rest of the trip into a party to celebrate. I took that time to think over the offer, then signed my contract, and left Mercyhurst after my freshman year to turn professional.”
Carlson immediately reported to the Hershey Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Capitals, in Hershey, Pennsylvania, roughly a five-hour drive from where he played his lone NCAA season. The Bears made a run all the way to the 2016 Calder Cup Final, unfortunately suffering a sweep to the Calder Cup Champion Lake Erie Monsters in 4 games. Carlson didn’t appear in any regular season or playoff games, but rather served as a “Black Ace”, or an extra player on a playoff roster.
“It was definitely a culture shock, but my goodness was it a rush being a part of a pro team that went on a run,” Carlson said. “I barely knew what the college hockey lifestyle was, and now all of a sudden I’m thrown onto a professional team that ended up four wins away from lifting a Calder Cup. It was a great way to start my professional career, even though I didn’t play immediately. I got to learn simultaneously what it took to be both a professional and compete for a championship. My next challenge, however, coming into my rookie year in 2016-17 was cracking a professional lineup and proving that Washington wasn’t wrong in offering me my contract.”
From there, Carlson started his professional career as a goaltender, of which he is now entering his fifth season. He spent his rookie year with the South Carolina Stingrays, where he posted a 9-11-1 record in 23 games with a shutout, a 2.97 GAA, and.895 SV%. He made his pro debut on October 25, 2016, and earned his first professional win three days later, stopping all but one of 32 shots in a 2-1 overtime victory over the Florida Everblades.
Although his career has primarily been in the ECHL, Carlson has AHL experience with the Hershey Bears, Manitoba Moose, and Milwaukee Admirals. In 8 games, Carlson is 2-5-0 with a 3.03 GAA and .893 SV%. He simultaneously made his AHL debut and earned his first AHL win with Hershey on October 21, 2017, a 4-2 victory against the Grand Rapids Griffins with 24 saves. He never received playing time with the Milwaukee Admirals, but was once again called up as a “Black Ace” for their 2019 Calder Cup Playoff appearance.
At the NHL level, Carlson skated in two Washington Capitals training camps in 2016 and 2017. He did the same with the Winnipeg Jets in 2019, and represented both teams in pre-season prospects tournaments those same seasons.
Carlson’s ECHL path, on the other hand, took him to the South Carolina Stingrays, Indy Fuel, Kansas City Mavericks, Jacksonville Icemen, and the Rapid City Rush. In his ECHL career, Carlson has a record of 55-46-10-6 in 125 games with 7 shutouts, a 2.93 GAA, and a .906 SV%. In 2018-19 with the Rush, he put together a career campaign, earning 21 of the team’s 30 wins that season in 45 games with 4 shutouts to his credit, which tied a single-season franchise record. That was enough to earn an AHL contract with Manitoba the following year.
Coming back to the Rush on an ECHL contract in 2020-21, Carlson still believes that he can earn another AHL or NHL contract. With respect to his personal goals, he understands that no matter where he plays or whose jersey he wears, he has one job to do: win.
“That one goal of mine, to just win, is enough to keep me mentally stable as a goaltender. As much as I can feel dejected not earning an AHL or NHL deal in any given offseason, or even going back to when I got cut from varsity in high school, no one else will feel sorry for you. With that being said, you can’t feel sorry for yourself either,” Carlson stated. “My mindset at each one of those adverse moments was to have fun, and for me, that means playing the sport that I love more than anything in the world. Building further, if you play, you get to compete, and if you compete, you have a chance to win. I love winning, and I just tried to do that everywhere I’ve been. Luckily, that attitude and the success that came with it got me to where I’ve been and where I am today back with the Rush.”
Reflecting on the journey all these years later, one thing is certain for Carlson.
“I wouldn’t change a damn thing,” Carlson emphatically concluded. “The experience I went through was so important to my development as a person. Hockey is such a humbling sport, and teaches valuable lessons everywhere you go. And the people? That has to be the most important aspect to me! The people I’ve met and those relationships I’ve created have provided me with so many stories and memories that will last with me forever. I’m proud of the path I’ve taken, and proud of the path I’m on. I have faith that I can make it back to earning an NHL or AHL contract with a team. Until then, I’m going to continue to work and build off of the experience that has led me back to the Rush, and help this team win as many games as possible. Additionally, I’ll continue to share my story with younger players as well in the hopes that they keep their faith and continue to pursue their goals, whether they be in hockey or in life.”