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The Washington Capitals' John Carlson

How He Balances His Life On and Off the Ice

Article by Marie Robey Wood

Photography by Tony Powell

Originally published in Potomac Lifestyle

For professional athletes, life can be a balancing act as they focus on competing in their sport and family life at home. For the Washington Capitals’ number one defenseman and alternate captain John Carlson, his hockey career is an example of dealing with unforeseen challenges that have impacted both his team and his personal life.

Carlson, 33, was born in Massachusetts and raised in New Jersey. He says hockey has always been in his blood: “My dad played Division 3 hockey at Framingham State and I grew up having a passion and obsession with the game.” John played high school hockey with his older brother Andrew for one year, then his brother went on to play in college.  

He says he has always been competitive in everything: “Whether in school or sports, I had a burning desire inside to compete no matter what it was for – the competitive side of me is important for me as a human being.”

Carlson has spent his entire NHL career as a defenseman for the Capitals. He was selected by the Capitals in the 2008 NHL entry draft and made his NHL debut in 2009. From 2010 through 2022 Carlson played regularly except for an injury in late 2015, but he still scored 39 points by the end of the 2015-2016 season. In 2018, the veteran blue-liner was key to the Washington Capitals’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship. His playing record continued to stand out as he became the first Capitals’ defenseman to reach 600 NHL points in 2022.  

The real challenge for Carlson and the Capitals came on December 23, 2022 when he suffered one of the worst injuries in NHL history: a 90-mph slap shot hit him directly in the head, sidelining him for three months.

As Carlson later described it, he felt like he was hit by lightning. He realizes how fortunate he was that his injuries weren’t worse. As any bystander can attest, hockey is a tough sport and it’s easy to forget how much of a risk players take just stepping out onto the ice. Unfortunately for his team, when he was injured the Caps were in a playoff position in the midst of an impressive 11-2-2 games. Carlson’s injury marked a turning point of the season; it was the first time in eight years that the Caps did not go to the playoffs for the Stanley Cup.

To get back in the game he started riding a stationary bike and lifting light weights, gradually working with the team’s skating coaching to ramp up the intensity until his final return to the ice. Carlson shone in his comeback game against the Chicago Blackhawks, recording two points after picking up an assist on a goal and scoring his own goal – his ninth -- of the 2022-23 season.

At home Carlson and his wife Gina are parents to three young boys – Lucca, Rudy, and Sawyer, and are expecting their fourth child (a girl) in early June. He reflects that “in my line of work I am gone a lot in terms of being out of town, but I can be very flexible on the days I am home and I try to be as present as I can.” He adds that the constantly shifting scenario of being home, say, for the summer months, and then being absent again is challenging. He is quick to credit his wife Gina: “She is unbelievable in how she is able to maintain the household and keeps everything together in the midst of my erratic schedule.”

Needless to say Carlson and the Capitals are looking forward to a healthier and more successful season ahead.