By Mish DeCarlo/El Inde
The offseason came early for athletes this year amidst the coronavirus pandemic, but the routine has stayed the same for junior hockey player Andrew DeCarlo. As he has every offseason, DeCarlo uses this time to refocus, recharge, and rehabilitate his body. Every morning starts with a run around his Southern California neighborhood — for stamina maintenance — followed by a hearty breakfast substantial in protein.
“Then I hit the weights and always end the day with yoga,” says 19 year-old DeCarlo. His brown curly hair flows wildly out of the baseball cap sitting backward atop his head, which reads ‘NAHL.’ His phone, sitting next to the open flame cooking his six over-easy eggs, has an ‘NAHL’ sticker on the back, matching his hat.
His dewy brown eyes caught light through the kitchen window as he stuck one hand on his hip, and the other under his chin, leaning into the counter. “Ya know,” he said, as if appealing to an audience, “a champion is a balance between a healthy body and a motivated mind.”
But every champion was once a kid.
Back in 2004, DeCarlo received a pair of inline roller skates as a Christmas gift from his godfather, Mark DeCarlo. Once skating in circles around the garage began to bore him, he insisted on playing hockey. Instead, his father, Michael DeCarlo, bought him a surfboard. “We live half-a-mile from the beach,” Mr. DeCarlo said, “and the kid wanted me to find a hockey rink.” And yet, through a quick Google search, five year-old Andrew would find a roller-hockey rink tucked away between industrial storage buildings seven miles from home. The surfboard has now been collecting dust on a garage shelf for 15 years.
“At that age, you’re just a kid having fun,” DeCarlo says. “And when people ask you what you want to be when you’re older, you give them the cute answer: you tell them you want to be a hockey player. No adult takes that answer seriously, but I was serious.”
After three years of roller hockey, the call inviting him to play ice hockey came. “Every day for three weeks straight, I’d get a call from this coach in Los Angeles asking for Andrew to play for him,” Mr. DeCarlo said. “I’d tell him the same thing every time, ‘You haven’t even seen him play,’ and he’d tell me, ‘Don’t need to, I’ve heard enough.’” That’s when it all started.
Starting in 2009, DeCarlo’s middle school days were cut short 30 minutes –– with the last class of the day being P.E. –– so he could make it for daily practice in Los Angeles by 3:30 p.m. He’d spend countless hours training, conditioning, and practicing with his newfound ice team, the former LA Selects, now known as Jr. Kings. The long weeknights turned into even longer weekends due to the west coast’s hockey culture — or lack of it. Ice rinks are never close to home, and teammates come from all over the map, making gameplay and tournaments solely travel dependent.
From Boston to Detroit, Chicago to Minneapolis, Buffalo to Toronto, Quebec City to Vancouver, DeCarlo’s weekends would soon consist of red-eye flights, time-zone adjustments, and homework completed in a hotel room, only to wake up on Monday morning, back home in California, to do it all over again. “Do you know how many miles I had by the time I was 13?” DeCarlo asks, opening his eyes wide. “But seriously, I went from being just a kid having fun, to a serious athlete.”
In 2012, the phone started ringing again. “They wanted him playing here; they wanted him playing there; they wanted him playing everywhere,” said Mr. DeCarlo. “But, then when the Jr. Ducks called, it just made sense to go play there.”
DeCarlo played for the Jr. Ducks, a competitive Orange County hockey organization, until 2016 when South Kent School, an all-boys New England preparatory academy — known for providing hockey players an educational environment without disruption while playing for their program — rang. It is ranked among the top ten in the nation.
South Kent is a hockey player’s utopia. Everyone lives on campus and together. And while the dorm facilities have been well-lived in by the burley ghosts of teams past, the rink is state-of-the-art and just a five-minute walk from any one of their dorm doors.
“I begged my parents to let me go,” DeCarlo says while putting his eggs onto a plate over toasted sourdough.
A year of thoughtful dinner conversations and convincing PowerPoint presentations later, DeCarlo finally received the nod of agreement from his family. He transferred to South Kent for his junior year of high school. “All of my friends from home were stoked because they could go to prom that year,” DeCarlo says with a growing smirk. “I was stoked because I no longer had to get on a plane every weekend.” All of the games were just a bus ride away –– even the national championship game where DeCarlo and his team won the gold, crowning them the champions of the most rigorous high school hockey league in the country.
In April 2019, the phone started ringing again. This time, it was Dan Wildfong, head coach of the Lone Star Brahmas, a junior hockey team in Fort Worth, Texas, part of the North American Hockey League (NAHL). There was an upcoming NAHL draft, and eyes were on DeCarlo.
Junior hockey acts as a developmental purgatory for players between their high school and college careers. It introduces players to a professional playing environment while fostering Division I collegiate scouting. Players are eligible to participate in the league for a maximum of three years, leading them to enter college at age 21.
“I fell in love with hockey super young and just did what I needed to do to keep her around. That’s what people in love do.” — Andrew DeCarlo.
In August 2019, DeCarlo was drafted to play for Brahmas. Although he still had one year of high school left, and a rigorous training schedule –– Monday through Thursday during business hours and weekends spent on the road traveling to games –– DeCarlo took to his senior year online.
“I’ve never looked at my life as the giant sacrifice everyone always makes it seem like,” he says. “I fell in love with hockey super young and just did what I needed to do to keep her around. That’s what people in love do.”
And while his love never failed, this past season, DeCarlo endured adversity through injury unlike ever before. During an October game, a puck came soaring at his face –– unprotected by a helmet cage –– breaking his jaw, thus putting him out of play for six weeks. Amidst his recovery, a fluke accident sent a skate directly into the front of his neck, slashing a deep cut that meant yet more facial stitch work, adding an extra week off the ice.
Finally healed by late November, DeCarlo returned to regularly scheduled programming and made up for the missed time by adding points to his stat sheet every game. In March, the Brahmas were ranked number one in the league, favoring them for the Robertson Cup –– the junior league’s version of a Stanley Cup. But then, the unexpected happened.
“When I got the call that the season was over because of coronavirus, so close to the end and probably a pretty good end,” DeCarlo says between bites. His breakfast was half-devoured, and his phone was now turned upright on the table, showing an email with an outlined workout regimen. “All I could think of was how I can make sure that a year from now, I’ll be able to call myself a champion.”
DeCarlo is now preparing for his third and final year with the Brahmas. This is the year when college offers become the pinnacle of a player’s hockey career, but “I can’t tell you what exactly is going down because I don’t want to jinx anything,” DeCarlo says. “All I can say is I’m taking care of myself and I hope the phone rings again soon.”