Gulls still doing business in shadow of arena redevelopment, name new head coach

Photo courtesy San Diego Gulls Gulls President of Business Operations Matt Savant, right, introduces Roy Sommer as the team’s newest head coach

With redevelopment of the sports arena site in San Diego’s Midway District gaining momentum, the American Hockey League’s San Diego Gulls, the top developmental affiliate of the Anaheim Ducks of the National Hockey League, continue to operate in its shadow.

The Gulls have been a perfect fit for both the Ducks (in terms of proximity) and the AHL (in terms of drawing fans) since their arrival in 2015.

Though the first shovel to break ground on a new state-of-the-art arena is likely still some time away, when it does happen, San Diego’s historical hockey timeline will be interrupted once again. Professional hockey had been an integral part of the San Diego sports scene — and the arena — from 1966 when the puck first dropped on the original Gulls of the Western Hockey League to 1979 with the demise of the Pacific Hockey League, a two-year venture to entertain fans after the San Diego Mariners of the World Hockey Association faded from memory following the 1976-77 season.

It would be 11 long years before the Gulls were reincarnated in the International Hockey League for the 1990-91 ice campaign. Those Gulls delivered a power-packed punch with a league record 132 points and an appearance in the 1993 Turner Cup Finals. But their lasting power proved fleeting when they left town following the 1994-95 season to become the Los Angeles Ice Dogs, and a year later, the Long Beach Ice Dogs.

The IHL Gulls were immediately replaced by the Gulls of the fledgling West Coast Hockey League, a step lower at the AA level in pro hockey’s hierarchy, and they proved even more successful on the arena ice with five Taylor Cup championships and one Brabham Cup trophy in their 11-year history, which included eight WCHL seasons and three in the ECHL.

Those Gulls faded from memory with the specter of redevelopment hanging over their heads. That site makeover never transpired when the economy went abruptly south but it precipitated nine long years without a pro hockey tenant before the arrival of the current iteration of the Gulls.

The AHL Gulls showed how hockey starved the region had become by regularly packing the arena with weekend crowds of 11,000-plus. The large crowds played to the Gulls’ favor while serving as a hostile environment to visiting clubs.

The Gulls averaged 8,675 fans during their inaugural season, second in the league, and upped that to 8,876 their second season and 9,305 their third season. The team averaged 9,021 its fourth season. Sizable crowds were buoyed by success on the ice.

The Gulls advanced to the AHL’s Western Conference Finals as the Pacific Division playoff champion in 2018-19. The Gulls have qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs in all but two of their six seasons in San Diego (the 2020- 21 season was played on neutral ice because of COVID-19 protocols), making them the division’s winningest team over that span with three appearances in the division championship series.

While the city mulls over its redevelopment options, the Gulls continue business operations – and a commitment to fans to put a winning team on the ice.

The 2021-22 season wasn’t one of the club’s best in recent years with a seventh-place finish in a nine-team division. The Gulls qualified as the division’s final playoff entrant and were swept out of the playoffs in a best of-three opening round series against their Southern California archrival, the Ontario Reign, the top developmental affiliate of the NHL Los Angeles Kings.

The Gulls finished 28-33-4-3 in 68 regular season games — 34 standings points behind the first place Stockton Heat, which finished six points ahead of the runner-up Reign. The Heat went on to defeat the third-seeded Colorado Eagles in the Pacific Division Finals before eventually scoring a runner-up finish in the conference finals to the eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves.

The Gulls are moving in a new direction for the 2022-23 season after the parent Ducks dismissed the Gulls’ entire coaching staff, including head coach Joel Bouchard and assistants Daniel Jacob and Max Talbot, on May 11.

“This was a tough year for everyone, and we feel a clean slate is needed in San Diego,” Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek said. “These are extremely difficult decisions, but we are committed to returning to our winning ways in San Diego for our great fans.”

Bouchard had replaced head coach Kevin Dineen, who directed the Gulls’ fortunes for two seasons following four years behind the bench by AHL Gulls founding head coach Dallas Eakins, who earned promotion to the parent club after four seasons and three playoff appearances in San Diego.

The Ducks hope to benefit from their new hire in legendary bench boss Roy Sommer, who enters his first season with the Gulls as the winningest coach in AHL history. Sommer, an Oakland native, has compiled an overall regular season record of 808 wins, 721 losses, 159 overtime losses and 48 ties in 24 seasons as the head coach of the San Jose Sharks’ top AHL affiliates: the Kentucky Thoroughblades (1996-2001, Cleveland Barons (2001-06), Worcester (Mass.) Sharks (2006-2015) and San Jose Barracuda (2015-22).

Besides the record 808 wins, he also tops the AHL coaching ranks with 1,736 games coached.

Sommer, the AHL’s Coach of the Year in 2016-17, guided the Barracuda to the Western Conference Finals at the expense of the Gulls during the 2016-17 season in which the Cuda finished on top of the Pacific Division with a 43-16-0-9 regular season record.

Sommer, 65, has been a winner throughout his long 29-year head coaching career, which included 176 wins in five seasons in the East Coast Hockey League, a Kelly Cup championship with the Richmond Renegades in 1994-95 and ECHL Coach of the Year honors in 1995-96. Overall, he spent 26 years in the Sharks organization, including two as an assistant coach and part of another season as an associate coach with the NHL club.

The Barracuda made the Calder Cup playoffs in five of Sommer’s seven seasons at the helm (excluding the canceled 2020 playoffs). Sommer’s last two seasons with the Barracuda were not as successful in the win column as the Sharks’ talent pool included younger recruits. San Jose did not qualify for this past season’s Calder Cup playoffs with a dismal 20-42-4-2 regular season record that placed the team dead last in the division standings.

But the Gulls’ newest head coach has a track record that is hard to beat after coaching more than 150 players to NHL rosters.

The AHL is all about player development for NHL teams and Sommer has been a master at that.

“Roy brings invaluable experience behind the bench as the winningest coach in the history of the AHL,” explained Anaheim assistant general manager and San Diego general manager Rob DiMaio as Sommer was introduced to the San Diego media at a July 12 press conference at the arena. “His strong track record of developing players ready to play in the NHL will help us continue a winning culture in San Diego for the league’s top fans.”

“It’s an honor to be chosen as coach of San Diego,” Sommer said. “It’s probably one of the most sought-after positions in minor league hockey and, when they told me I got the job, I was fired up.”

Sommer looks to take over a roster with a bit more talent than he’s had to work with the past few seasons. The Cuda’s last winning season was in 2018-19 when it posted a 0.625 winning percentage and runner-up finish in the Pacific Division standings.

The Bay Area team finished at an even 0.500 mark in 2020-21. The 2021-22 Gulls finished 17 standings points ahead of the Barracuda this past season.

Sommer will also be coaching in front of a lot more vocal fans. The Gulls averaged 6,993 fans last season as one of the AHL attendance leaders (tops in the Pacific Division) while the Barracuda averaged 1,789 fans while splitting time between the SAP Center and the Sharks’ practice facility.

Sommer, who had moved into a senior advisor role with the Cuda, will now be out to develop talent for the Ducks and not the Sharks.

“I’ve coached on the East Coast, in the middle of America and here on the West Coast, and by far, the best fan base in the American Hockey League has been the San Diego Gulls,” Sommer said. “I really look forward to being behind the bench with the support (these fans) give this organization,”

He won’t have long to roll up his sleeves and get to work. The 2022 NHL Entry Draft took place July 7-8 with the Ducks picking 10th overall. Anaheim selected eight players through the seven rounds. The AHL has a minimum age of 20 to compete, meaning that not all those draft picks will be immediately available to Sommer and his staff.

The Ducks held their annual development camp for incoming draft picks and rookies July 12-16 in Irvine. Seven of Anaheim’s eight draft picks took part. Also included were eight players off last season’s Gulls roster, highlighted by first-round picks Brayden Tracey (29th overall in 2019) and Jacob Perreault (27th overall in 2020), both forwards.

The Ducks have been active in free agent signings and have brought in several well-known veteran players to help buttress the Gulls on two-way contracts, including former San Diego fan favorite and Southern California native Chase De Leo, who chalked up 45 goals and 115 points in 154 regular season games for the Gulls over three seasons (2018-21) to rank fourth in goals, points and assists and seventh in appearances among the Gulls’ all-time franchise leaders.

NHL training camps are set to open in mid-September, followed by shortened AHL camps prior to the start of the AHL’s 87th season on Oct. 14.