“Gulls Hockey–Flagship Franchise”
1-Man’s Opinion on Sports
by Lee ‘Hacksaw’ Hamilton
They’ve come a long way to get to Opening Night. They being the American Hockey League, and they being the San Diego Gulls.
The Gulls kick off the home schedule with this Friday night clash with the Stockton Heat, future Anaheim Ducks-vs-Calgary Flames prospects.
The 5th year is launched, quite a road travelled, considering the home opener in 2015 was within minutes of being cancelled by bad ice and 90-degree temperatures outside, and a building that struggled to get the temp into the 50s to maintain the ice. The Sports Arena, the Old Gray Lady, like everyone else, needed lots of reps to get it right, but they have now. And has the town responded.
And so they have, as the Gulls drop the home ice puck, they’ve gone (154-95) in the teams first four years, with an assortment of a few veteran AHL players, and a truckload of Ducks draft picks, college free agents and an influx of players from Europe.
San Diego of course has had an enormous hockey history, dating back to the old Ice Gardens, then the Sports Arena. The mailing address was the Western Hockey League, the World Hockey Association, the IHL, the West Coast Hockey League and then after the merger, the East Coast Hockey League. There were big name players coming thru here. There were championship trophies. There were name coaches and execs and brawls. But nothing like we have tonite.
The American Hockey has arrived, thanks for foresight of NHL owners, and the imagination of a longtime General Manager.
The league that started in 1937 coming out of the depression, has had lots of members, lots of problems, and now is enjoying lots of success. There’s only 1-of the original teams left, the Hershey Bears. Franchises have come and gone, done in by economics, cost of operation, travel, the arrival of the World Hockey Association.
A league that some years stretched from St Johns, Newfoundland to Abbortsford, British Columbia, is now rock solid with working agreements with every franchise. They hauled in teams from the North American Hockey League, the Southern Hockey League, the International Hockey League.
They devised a formula for each NHL team to help run, finance, operat an AHL franchise. No more horror stories of Eddie Shore and the old Springfield Indians from back in the day.
Most all of the old arenas are gone, replaced by shiny new minor league structures.
The Gulls head onto the ice thanks to the creative energy of former NHL-General Manager Brian Burke, who envisioned a need to create a Pacific Division so NHL teams could have access to their top talent close-by, rather than trying to fly a player into Anaheim from Portland, Maine or Norfolk, Virginia or Syracuse, New York. Burke had great success in the NHL with the Ducks-Leafs-Canucks-Calgary. Part of his legacy is what he did to get this product on the ice in America’s Finest City.
There are 7-teams in the Pacific Division now, all linked to NHL teams out west, highlighted by this successful run the Gulls have had with the parent Anaheim Ducks. In two years, another team will be joining, Palm Springs, the top farm club of the soon to be admitted Seattle expansion team.
All you need to know about this edition of Gulls hockey, is its short history of success developing players for the Ducks. John Gibson was here for 3-weeks in year one and has gone onto stardom in goal in Anaheim.
At one point in the Ducks playoff runs there were 9-Gulls on the ice on game night, guys who started here-wound up there. Brandon Montour, Shea Theodore, Marcus Peterson, Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kane among others.
Up in Anaheim tonite is the Gulls leader, now the first year Ducks coach Dallas Eakins, who worked miracles with a revolving door roster of players, coming and going almost on a daily basis. Think about a team that wound up 59-games over .500 in the Eakins Era, while having to use 50-plus players a year on the roster because of callups-trades-injuries.
Last year’s hot prospects, who played well in San Diego, are now at the Honda Center, youngster Max Comtois, Sam Steele, Troy Terry, Max Jones.
Young Swedish phenom Isac Lundestrom just came down, so did young defenseman gem Simon Benoit, and goalie Kevin Boyle seems on the brink of an NHL career. Add to that, another batch of prospects has just arrived, Antoine Morand, Hunter Drew, Brent Gates and Scott Moldenhauer.
The history of the Ducks front office to sight, select and sign a strong cross section of young players has led to the success in San Diego, and likely the rebirth of wins in Anaheim.
San Diego is a melting pot of fans from everywhere. If they ever had a ‘jersey night’ you’d see a huge cross section of fans wearing Maple Leafs-Canadiens-Red Wings-Penguins gear and more. Was always a good hockey town, became even better when the Ducks arrived. Witness the skyrocketing attendance figures, including all those 12,000-crowds mid-winter and a league leading season attendance in excess of 9,000-a game.
It’s not ‘Slapshot’ anymore. It’s a shiny new product. A new season begins with typical Friday night minor league promotions, flags, banners, team jerseys, beers, babes in the stands, cheerleaders on the concourse, and a roster full of players, just 1-phone call away from the NHL.
Of course as I warned GM-Bob Ferguson and newly minted coach, former NHL goal scorer Kevin Dineen, “if your cell phone rings and the caller ID says Area Code 949, don’t answer it. It’s probably the Ducks calling to take your top players up.”
But that’s what Flagship Franchises are there for, and the Gulls have done that well.