Editor’s note: The following story ran in the January, 2015 issue of Alaska Sporting Journal.
By Chris Cocoles
Photos courtesy of Matt Carle, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Icon Sports Media
You can take a young man out of Alaska, send him zigzagging across the Lower 48 starting at the age of 16, and groom him to be a successful professional hockey player.
You can take him out of the snow-shoveling winters of traditional hockey territory – locations like Ann Arbor, Mich. (he spent a couple seasons with the United States National Development Team); Omaha, Neb. (a year of junior hockey); Denver (three dynamic years of college hockey); and Philadelphia (where he nearly won a National Hockey League championship) – and find a home in, of all nontraditional markets, Tampa, Fla.
But you can’t fully take the Alaskan out of Matt Carle.
Almost every summer, Carle heads north from Florida – he and his wife, Clancey, live in her native Minnesota in the offseason – and returns to his roots in Anchorage, where he’s among a recent surge of NHL imports from the Last Frontier.
Carle’s passion for the outdoors, specifically fishing, provides him and a group of childhood friends – some NHLers like himself – with an opportunity to get out on a river or lake and reminisce about growing up in Alaska.
Carle, a 30-year-old defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning, displays his love for fishing in his Twitter (@mattcarle25) profile photo, where he’s holding a colorful rainbow trout caught in his native state.
“I do like filling up my freezer with salmon,” he says. “Fortunately for me, my grandparents have a boat out of Homer and they do a lot of halibut fishing. So they do all the work, and I get to reap the rewards of just picking up the meat.”
Such are the benefits of coming from a state where loving the outdoors and taking advantage of some of the world’s best fishing is part of the curriculum.
“I take a lot of pride in where I grew up,” Carle says. “My heart is always going to be there.”
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN. It’s the battle cry of hockey players. Get cross-checked into the glass? Shake it off. Take a puck off the kisser and lose a few teeth? Go see the dentist between periods and get back on the ice. When Matt Carle was 5 years old, he almost knew what his destiny was when he fished with his family on the Little Susitna River west of Anchorage.
“We’d go over to the Little Su all the time. My dad had, and I’m not sure what year the boat was, a C-Dory. There was a cabin with a door that would go out toward the back of the boat where we’d do all the fishing, obviously,” Carle says. “We had a fish on and everyone was racing around the boat to try and get to the pole. And when I jumped up from inside the cabin (to run out) my thumb got stuck in the door jamb. I smashed my thumb, and I’m sitting there crying my eyes out but still trying to reel in that fish. I ended up landing the fish, and a couple days later my fingernail ended up falling off. So I considered myself being pretty tough for going through such a dramatic experience. So I started pretty young dealing with pain.”
But that’s what made growing up in Alaska so much fun for Carle: the winters made it a natural environment to play hockey, and the summers provided enough daylight and surrounding water to grab the fishing gear and drop a line.
Matt’s the oldest of three boys, and all of the Carle brothers are hockey players. One of Matt’s younger siblings, David, was also a prospect whose career was cut short in 2008 when he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal condition for athletes. David is now an assistant coach for the men’s hockey team at the University of Denver, his and Matt’s alma mater. The youngest, Alex, played junior hockey in Youngstown, Ohio.
The Carle family, uncle and cousins alike, spent plenty of time traveling the Cook Inlet out of Anchorage to the Little Su. They also bought a cabin on Nancy Lake, 90 minutes north of Anchorage. That became a summer fishing and jet ski retreat – “I’m still shocked I would swim in water that cold,” Matt jokes – but also the occasional winter playground where snow machines were ridden around the frozen ground when Matt and his brothers had no hockey commitments.
Carle dabbled in snow skiing for a bit, but both the conflicts with hockey and fear of being injured on the slopes essentially eliminated breaking out the skis and boots.
”We’d do a bunch of salmon fishing. Those are some of my earliest memories of being in the outdoors. My dad really wasn’t much of a hunter, so we didn’t do a lot of that,” he says. “But we were big fishermen and it was something I was introduced to at a pretty young age.”
As was hockey. Bob Carle, Matt’s, David’s and Alex’s dad, had no experience playing the game, but Matt flourished right away.
“Sometimes, we could clear up the ice that we had our cabin on when the weather was nice,” he says of playing outdoor hockey, which is every young player’s dream in climates that allow for frozen ponds and lakes in winter.
“I’m not sure up until what age, but I remember some mornings parents would like us to practice outside because the ice outside made it a lot cheaper to practice on (than renting indoor rinks). And obviously, you’d just get your buddies together and get out and play. There was marsh in south Anchorage called Potter’s Marsh that sometimes we’d go out and skate around on. I do have a lot of memories of playing outdoors, and it’s been cool that I’ve been able to play in two (NHL Winter Classic outdoor games as a Philadelphia Flyer).”
At 15, he played on a talented local team, the Alaska All-Stars (along with good friend and future NHL teammate Nate Thompson), and then headed down to Michigan to play with the U.S. National Team’s Development Program.
“Fortunately for me, hockey was something that I was pretty good at as a kid. And I had a lot of fun playing it,” Carle says. “It was always about making it onto a team and then making the next level.”
What Carle wanted more than anything was to play college hockey. As a youngster he’d watch the hometown University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves, players who became idols. His performance with the U.S. National Team Development Program and a season of junior hockey in Omaha earned him a scholarship at the University of Denver (where he also met his future wife, Clancey Kabella). In 2006, his junior year at Denver, he was one of the nation’s top defenseman prospects. Carle was such a dynamic player, he won college hockey’s version of the Heisman Trophy, the Hobey Baker Award.
“As you get older your goals kind of change a little bit,” Carle admits of his rise to one of the best young American players by the time he was drafted.
The San Jose Sharks had drafted him in the second round in 2003, but after playing two full seasons there San Jose traded him to the Tampa Bay Lightning in July 2008. Twelve games into the next season, the Lightning flipped him to Philadelphia. With the Flyers, Carle had a memorable 2009-10, both on and off the ice. His team went to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks (Carle chipped in a goal and 12 assists in 23 total postseason games). That summer, Matt and Clancey were married in Minnesota and honeymooned in Bora Bora.
But even such a whirlwind schedule like that didn’t prevent an annual tradition of fishing and friendship in Alaska, even in this instance a combination fishing trip and bachelor party.
THEY HAVE GONE their separate ways now. Some of them, like Carle, have played at the highest level of hockey. But their Anchorage roots are never forgotten for long. A group goes back after the hockey season ends in late spring.
Thompson, the fellow Anchorage product and onetime teammate with the Lightning, makes appearances there. Ditto Tim Wallace, another Alaska Stars teammate who has played in the NHL.
“It’s been a year or two since I’ve been able to go, but I know the guys went last year. My wife and I had just had our first baby and I had to get my priorities down a little bit,” Carle jokes. “But we’ve all had great friendships (with each other). You look back on those trips, going fishing with your buddies, there’s no better time to spend, especially up in Alaska out in the middle of nowhere. It’s just a great time.”
Carle has struck up a friendship with Brian Kraft, the owner of the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge (888-826-7376; fishasl.com) on the Kvichak River in Bristol Bay.
“If I’m going to go fishing, that’s usually where you’ll find me,” Carle says. “They have so many different options there, depending on what time of the year you go. I’ve really gotten into fly fishing, and that’s my passion when I get out now. We’re trying to land a 30-inch rainbow. That is something I’ve been trying to go after since I started fly fishing.”
Carle compares the ups and downs of fly fishing to golf, a popular pastime for hockey players. Even if he had more opportunities to cast flies without any practice, he wouldn’t be very good at it. But like always wanting to break out a bucket of range golf balls that will, in theory, improve one’s swing and game, there’s an expectation that tying on a streamer and hoping something big devours it will become easier to master after getting into a groove.
“It’s something you have to stick with. When I go on a fishing trip I’m going to be terrible the first day or so. But by day two or three I’ll pick it up again,” Carle says. “When you’re fly fishing, it’s always more satisfying catching a fish on a fly rod. There’s nothing better.”
Unfortunately, getting out on a river is made tougher by the demanding schedule hockey players must adhere to. And Carle surely doesn’t mind when seasons extend well into June when teams are vying for the Stanley Cup. He came so close with Philadelphia, which fell in overtime of Game 6 to the Blackhawks in 2010. Carle returned to Tampa in 2012-13, when he signed a six-year free-agent contract worth $33 million.
“He’s not a big, flashy personality. He understands how the game is played. He plays lots of games, lots of minutes,” former Lightning teammate and defense partner Eric Brewer told thePhiladelphia Daily News. “You just get used to him playing, moving the puck forward. He handles the puck well, he makes a lot of good pinches, and he’s comfortable moving the puck in traffic. A lot of our guys have been able to get good looks from him.
He’s turned into a steady defenseman; he’s a fast skater, moves the puck in and out of the offensive and defensive zones – a must-have for quality defensemen – and is a reliable scorer. He entered this season with 41 career goals and 220 assists, plus 36 career playoff points.
Tampa Bay’s promising 2013-14 season ended in disappointment: the Lightning were swept in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, who benefited from a few questionable calls along the way over their four wins.
“The series just didn’t go our way,” is Carle’s diplomatic, no-excuses response, perhaps understanding the positives that carried over from the loss to Montreal. Tampa Bay seems focused on redemption. “In a way, I think it was more of a blessing. A lot of us went into the summer with a chip on our shoulder – go out and prove some people wrong.”
In mid-December, the Lightning were tied atop the Atlantic Division and led by some of the game’s best young forward talent, headlined by superstar Steven Stamkos, Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. At 30, Carle is an anchor of Tampa Bay’s defense core, along with Anton Stralman, Jason Garrison and Victor Hedman. Tampa feels like a third home for Carle, after his Alaska roots and life in Minnesota with his family.
“I feel fortunate to be in this league for nine years now. The moves that I’ve made and the trades that have happened, I don’t want to say they’ve made me a better person. But you don’t take things for granted,” he says. “Any day you’re playing in the NHL is a good day.”
The same can be said for fishing back in his roots to the north.
“To me,” Carle declares, “Alaska will always be home.”