Defenseman Brandon Carlo (No. 25) rests with fellow Boston Bruins teammates on the bench during an NHL game last season. Photo courtesy of the Boston Bruins
Looking back, Brandon Carlo said he never expected to make the National Hockey League. But now that he’s there, it’s easy to see that his time in Colorado’s amateur hockey world helped prepare him to compete with the best.
Whether it was as a kid in street hockey games in his Colorado Springs neighborhood, or as a shutdown defenseman for the Boston Bruins in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, Carlo has always been a competitor bent on getting better. But it was his time in Tier 1 hockey — namely, his time with the Colorado Thunderbirds — that shaped him both on and off the ice, readying him for the next level.
Now, fresh off his first Stanley Cup playoff experience three years into his professional career, Carlo can say he's faced some of the world’s best. From Toronto’s Auston Matthews to St. Louis’ Ryan O’Reilly, the 22-year-old Carlo has proven he belongs among hockey’s elite.
“I love every second of it because that’s the thing I’ve been doing since I was 16, 17 years old,” Carlo said.
Photo courtesy of the Boston Bruins
Named captain of the 2012-13 Thunderbirds U16 program, Carlo notched 47 points for a team that the year prior won the Tier 1 Elite Hockey League championship, and helped put on the hockey world map players like Sweden's Fredrik Olofsson, a Chicago Blackhawks prospect, Anaheim Ducks forward Troy Terry, and Michael Eyssimont, a Littleton native playing for the American Hockey League’s Ontario Reign, a Los Angeles Kings affiliate.
Carlo entered the Thunderbirds program as a tall, lanky, glasses-wearing kid, coaches and former teammates said. He left as a strong, confident defenseman who, through hard work, dedication and, yes, some good fortune, was given the tools to patrol the blue line at hockey's highest level.
“He got better and better each year,” friend and former teammate Brendan Smith said. “I think it kind of hit everyone that, ‘Wow, this guy’s going to be a good player because of his size and skating ability.’ He grew into his body and was much more coordinated at that age.”
Smith, who recently finished his senior campaign at Cornell University, a hockey program that was one win away from a NCAA Frozen Four berth, was paired with Carlo on defense. It’s no surprise to him that Carlo reached the pinnacle of hockey.
“We knew he was going to play in the NHL at some point,” Smith said. “We all knew.”
Before his time in the WHL and NHL, Colorado Springs native Brandon Carlo was named captain of the 2012-13 Thunderbirds U16 team. Contributed photo from Youth Sports Photography Network
Carlo played 186 games in the major junior Western Hockey League after his time in Colorado. Then, in 2015, the Bruins drafted him in the second round, No. 37 overall, in a class with Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers), Jack Eichel (Buffalo Sabres), Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes) and Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs).
Reilly Hillis, who skated alongside Carlo beginning at age 12 and then into their years together for the Western Hockey League's Tri-City Americans, said major juniors is where Carlo continued to show off his skating ability, his physical presence on the back end and his poke check that disrupts any prowling opponent.
Now a regular contributor to the Bruins’ penalty kill unit, Carlo finished his 2018-19 campaign with a plus-22 regular-season rating (tied for second-best on the team behind Selke Trophy runner-up Patrice Bergeron) and spent an average of 20 minutes, 55 seconds on ice per game, fourth-best behind fellow defensemen Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara.
“I’ll be honest,” Ricci said, “three or four months into our season, he was too good to be in U16 hockey.”
With the Thunderbirds, Carlo took his time to ensure he was properly progressing and working on different aspects of his play, Ricci said. It’s a similar avenue the coach tries to instill in both players and parents associated with the Thunderbirds.
“He allowed his game to develop and he let his offense develop,” Ricci said. “That’s where he really took some huge strides as a player. His confidence grew and his game got better.”
In his time with Ricci, Carlo developed off the ice, too.
Ricci saw how Carlo treated people, from “the rink staff, the hotel people to the bus drivers” and paired it with Carlo’s desire for more team responsibilities as a way to hone the now 6-foot-5 Carlo into a stand-up person.
Carlo’s mom, Angie, drove him to practice every day — about an hour commute one way — which provided a lot of time for roadway conversations.
“It’s a very special time period in my life, not only in the hockey aspect but as growing as a man,” Carlo said. “My parents had to work so hard to provide for that, and my relationship with mom grew. It built me as a man.”
Carlo said his parents raised him to be a good person and he points to the people he associated with as other key factors in shaping his character. The group of “96ers” — players who were born in 1996 and came up through the Colorado hockey ranks together — still hang out today, whether it’s going to shows at Red Rocks or knocking around the golf ball. The friendship was berthed through hockey.
“In Colorado Springs, even in school, you don’t necessarily find those kids who have the same mindset and goals as you do,” Carlo said. “With the Thunderbirds, it’s not just hockey; it’s off-ice stuff, too.”
Carlo skates in front of his team's bench during the 2019 Stanley Cup FInal. Photo courtesy of the Boston Bruins
Carlo has proven himself as a stout, towering defenseman with spurts of energizing offense. Although he tallied just 14 points in the 2018-19 NHL season, two of those came when his team needed them the most.
In Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, down 2-1 and on the penalty kill, Bruins forward Brad Marchand seized the puck from a St. Louis Blues player and entered the offensive zone. Marchand passed to Bergeron, who fired a shot on goal. The puck bounced off St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington and Carlo was there for the rebound.
“Honestly,” Carlo recalled with a chuckle, “I kind of blacked out after that.”
The short-handed goal was Carlo’s first in postseason play. He also scored the Game 6-winner in the Bruins 4-1 win over the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Blues.