“Gulls Good Season-San Diego Good Hockey Town”
Hockey pucks and palm trees, a strange combination. Hockey in the sunshine, not with snow falling outside, a pretty good combination.
Hockey’s return to San Diego, a big hit.
The American Hockey League San Diego Gulls are in the final push to lockdown a key postseason playoff spot, and secure some home ice advantage. Tomorrow night they host the San Jose Barracudas as the Gulls play five of their last seven games on home ice.
It has been some season. And opening night that was nearly cancelled by horrible ice conditions and heat and humidity in the Valley View Casino Center, the San Diego Sports Arena, to old-timers.
A wild (9-2) start right out of the gate, led by a 19-year old first round draft pick Nick Ritchie, out of the Ontario Hockey League. First weeks as a pro, no problem, 9-goals in 9-games.
But it’s never easy being the top affiliate of an NHL team. When the phone rings, and if caller ID reads (949) area code, it’s probably the parent Anaheim Ducks calling up one of your top players. And it happened here, time and again, but that is the blueprint of a minor league affiliate. Get them ready to go when the call comes.
The early season start was nearly eradicated when the Ducks got hit with injuries, and played poorly out of the gate. Gone within the first month of the season, never to be seen here again, was 22-year old goalie John Gibson. He had 4-shutouts in 2-weeks up top, and wound up getting named to the All Star Game.
Then Richie went up, came back, and went up again, totaling 31-games, scoring just one goal. He got lots of ice time, and now knows what the NHL level of play is like. He just returned, hopefully for the playoff run.
Top defenseman Shea Theodore, a lst round pick too, has gone back up, and just scored his 4th goal in limited ice time. He’s been brought up 5-times this season. We might not see him back either.
New York Rangers farmhand Chris Mueller has been steady all season, young defenseman Brandon Montour is a star in the making, and there could be talent surfacing in another young foreigner Ondrej Kase, beset by injuries.
It’s not easy being in the AHL. You’re either a young player learning the hard way about bus rides, playing against veteran players, being on your own for the first time. It’s not like playing at Dartmouth, where the bulk of your schedule is Friday-Saturday, the travel isn’t brutal, and you can excel. Young guys can get overwhelmed by the speed, physicality and wear and tear..
It’s not easy being in the AHL if you are a veteran. Some guys come in pissed-off that they are at the end of the road. Some guys come down energized to get back up. Most guys wonder if the parent club knows what they’re doing, and if anyone is watching. Goalie Anton Khudobin got moved from Carolina to Anaheim, and then shipped here to the Ducks. He has carried this team with rock solid performances all year. You need great goaltending on a team where young guys don’t score a lot. At the end of the road for Khudobin, knowledge, NHL expansion might be just around the corner, and another chance at going up to the show.
GM-Bob Ferguson, a Ducks employee, has seen it all, from being a coach and GM in the United State Hockey League in Iowa, to being a player who road buses in the lower minor leagues. He knows what it takes to survive and to improve.
Dallas Eakins, who was a journeyman player, has experienced it all too. A highly regarded minor league coach, he went thru the painful experience of lasting just a year and a half with the Edmonton Oilers, where they gave him lost of lst round picks, no goaltending, a leaky defense, and told him to win with 20-year old players. He’s a better coach now for what happened a year and a half ago. The job he has done holding the roster together has been something.
The Gulls have gone thru 45-players this season. The Ducks have called up 51-players. 13-Gulls players have been called up at one time or another this season. Anaheim also traded off one of his top young players Max Friberg early in the year.
The fans have responded, from the first day in February, when at the Fan Fest, 8500 showed up wearing old Gulls jerseys to wearing the crest of their favorite NHL club. It was amazing to see Leafs-Wings-Sabres fans show up in their gear. More amazing to see fans wearing old Mariners jerseys and the colors of the Quebec Nordiques, rest in peace.
Team VP of Business Ops Ari Segal has gone thru an eye-opening experience, dealing with the arena issues, the business of being a minor league team in a major league city, and with limited media exposure and interest.
I told the Ducks people they were sitting on a ‘gold mine’ and they really are. They have packed crowds of over 11,000 in there for weekend dates, and rank in the top three in attendance for the entire season.
San Diego fans may not know much of the heritage of the AHL, the Hershey Bears and Rochester Amerks. They may not look at the standings and see the Toronto Marlies have 45-wins. But they do know hockey, they do like end to end action, and they like the fights. And they know to hate the LA Kings farm club, the Ontario Reign.
As we turn to April, it will be fun to see the AHL playoff matchups, and see teams who have not played here in San Diego. If this roster stays intact, we might be seeing hockey here into late April or early May.
This has been a good year, next year could be better, for the Ducks and GM-Bob Murray have done a masterful job of drafting and layering in players of different age levels. That plus a young Gulls front office learning on the job too..
In the memory of the old Western Hockey League Gulls, which was pretty good, to the brief tenure of the WHA Mariners, pretty popular, to the raging success of the IHL-ECHL-Gulls, this is better hockey. It’s rekindled the passion of the old fans, and brought tons of new families and fans to the games.
Hockey pucks and palm trees. Slapshots in the sunshine. Gulls hockey taking flight in America’s finest city.