Summit hockey player Ben Carlson grows as player, person during year in Virginia
A college essay can say a lot about a kid. For Ben Carlson of Breckenridge, it spoke to his passion for not only hockey, but the Summit County hockey community as well.
When Carlson typed up one of his essays earlier this school year, part of it touched on how, when he was a kid, he’d prefer to go to Summit High School hockey games rather than Colorado Avalanche National Hockey League games. That’s because it felt like he kind of knew the Tigers players he idolized. They seemed like the kind of hockey heroes he could emulate one day. They felt like him.
“I’d always be right up against the glass and pounding on it when they were right in front of me,” Carlson said. “And that got me so excited to play for the high school team.”
Carlson did eventually play for the high school team. He was one of its best players during his freshman, sophomore and junior campaigns from 2015 through 2018. His success, though, led the lifelong Tiger hockey fan to a positive yet precarious juncture in his young life and sporting career a year ago.
It was a fork-in-the-road moment where he had to decide if it was worth it to leave Summit County and the Tigers program behind to pursue an opportunity that could open bigger and better doors for him.
For many talented high school-aged hockey players like Carlson, they learn throughout the recruiting process that in order to play at a high-level college, it often is recommended to play at certain clubs before graduation. For hockey players, that often means relocating somewhere they’ve never been before and taking an alternative approach to their final year, or years, of high school education.
Carlson’s mother Margaret knew this all too well. That’s why before she sent her son off with Team Colorado to a hockey showcase in St. Louis, Missouri, last April, Margaret reminded her son of her outlook on the situation.
“’You can go and enjoy this experience playing a higher level of more competitive hockey,’” she said when he left, “‘and this will be a lot of fun. But you are not leaving senior year of high school to play hockey.’”
That was before Carlson received a text from a random number while he rested in the locker room after a Team Colorado showcase game. In that moment, Carlson felt the natural emotions any child would feel when he observes teammates being verbally called out to speak with prospective club coaches. But when he received the text, he figured something might be up.
The text was from R.C. Lyke, the head coach of the Richmond Generals, a U.S. Premier Hockey League club from Richmond, Virginia. Lyke wanted Carlson for the 2018-19 season.
Presented with the opportunity, Carlson’s mother’s reservations were soon quelled after research and speaking with a family from Gunnison. Their son had played for Summit High hockey coach Joey Otsuka while he coached in Gunnison. Carlson’s mother soon learned that Richmond was one of the most highly-thought-of clubs in the country, one that played in the elite 22-team USPHL that featured teams from New Hampshire, Florida and Chicago.
Still, the decision wasn’t an easy one for Carlson. At one point, he phoned Lyke to let him know he didn’t think he’d be able to pull the trigger. Then, after he did, there was a scare during his relocation to Richmond in August.
The Carlsons flew to Pittsburgh to stay with family before making the drive to Richmond. But once they touched down in Pittsburgh, they got a text from Lyke that Carlson’s “Billet,” or host family for the year had backed out at the last minute. The host family was their biggest concern for the entire situation, and Carlson’s mother justifiably panicked before she sent an emergency group text message to her nieces and nephews on the East Coast. She asked if anyone knew of a family in the Richmond area who may be able to house Carlson for the year. Luckily enough, the family soon heard back that there was a young family willing to help out.
That family, the Frankenfields, had a 2-year-old named Jordan — whom Carlson would soon grow close to — and another child on the way, Adeline, born on Dec. 26. Situated with the Frankenfields, Carlson soon had some welcome-to-adulthood moments, including bonding with Jordan and tending to medical situations with his family half a continent away.
“The whole experience was more of a life-learning experience,” Carlson’s mother said. “Certainly, it was about hockey. Hockey, sort of, was the vehicle. But it was an incredible experience to mature and become a little more independent too.”
Figuring out life on his own took some time for Carlson. He dropped his Colorado Mountain College online writing course in August when he realized the burden of hockey and virtual classes through both CMC and Summit High would be too much. As such, Carlson’s fall semester consisted of environmental science and speech and communication classes through Summit High’s “Edgenuity” online platform along with positive psychology through CMC.
That was off the ice. On the ice, Carlson’s education soon centered around his realization that hockey, as an individual, was about accomplishing his specific job within the context of the team. While other teammates may be tasked with being the goal scorer or enforcer, Carlson grew comfortable with becoming a playmaker. Comfortable with playing a physical brand of hockey thanks to his time on the Breckenridge Bolts youth club, Carlson focused on making more effective plays at a higher pace of play.
“It’s about keeping your head up and realizing you have to take hits to make plays,” Carlson said. “Which kind of stinks sometimes, of course. But once you learn how to take them the right way, it opens up.”
The Generals had such a successful season that they ended up winning the USPHL title in Boston earlier this month, a game where Carlson created a great give-and-go situation to open up the scoring in a 5-2 triumph.
After he was done celebrating with teammates in the locker room, he opened up his phone to find not one surprising text, like the April prior, but 50. They were from friends back in Summit County who had watched the live stream of the title game.
Knowing he had that kind of support back home, and with his time in Richmond now over, Carlson turned his attention to returning to Summit County. Here for the remainder of the school year, he’ll continue his online course work, though he’s now able to attend an advisory class and leadership club each week at the school. He can see his dog, Lord Stanley, each day as well. Yes, the golden retriever is named after the famous hockey trophy.
Carlson is also able to reconnect with his Summit hockey family. A year after the biggest decision of his life, he’s now focused on his next big decision: where to play in college. Though that decision has yet to be made, Carlson’s just happy to be back here practicing and playing with old friends in a spring hockey league. And he’s happy his creative approach to his final year of high school allowed him to take a step into adulthood while also, albeit in an atypical way, continuing his time at Summit High.
“When flying back all three times for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a couple of weeks ago,” Carlson said, “my heart always kind of skipped a beat when I saw these mountains.”
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