“Hockey Pucks & Palm Trees”
Hockey is back tonight in San Diego. It’s the American Hockey League home opener for the San Diego Gulls this evening.
It’s year three of the Gulls franchise, reborn with the colors and name of past hockey franchises, who did well here in the past.
The original Gulls were so well received in the old Western Hockey League, in the pre-expansion days of the NHL.
Then came the World Hockey Association San Diego Mariners, with a short existence, but with good support before the league folded.
Minor league hockey came back with the new-look Gulls, in the International League, then the West Coast League, and finally the East Coast Hockey League. Championship trophies were part of that era.
I felt along San Diego would be a great market for the American Hockey League as they decided to expand West.
America’s finest city is a melting pot of residents from everywhere, including those from the cold weather north, the midwest, and Canada.
Put a good product on the ice, and they would come. They dressed up the old Sports Arena, made it fan friendly, brought back Beer Nights, and won games.
Walk thru the concourse before a game, and you will see fans with Gulls jerseys from all eras. The same concourses will see fans wearing sweaters of Maple Leaf, Canadiens, Red Wings, Blackhawks, Flyers, Kings and Ducks fans too.
As he stands on the bench tonight, starting his third season, Dallas Eakins has proven to be a gem of a coach at this level. Teacher, leader, motivator, professional in every aspect of the job.
And the job, to coach a team in the AHL, is tough.
You want to win, but the equal mandate is you must develop and polish players for the big club, the Anaheim Ducks.
The roster they have tonight, as they open with the Texas Stars, might not be the same roster by Monday night, and surely will be different 3-weeks from tonight, and 3-months from now.
Th phone rings, and they are gone. The Gulls went thru 51-players in their first year, 54-last year, by virtue of callus, trades, injuries and more.
How good is Eakins? With a turnstile gate at the front door of his room, he has a combined two year record of (82-43-11). Between this stint here in San Diego, and his tour of duty with the Toronto Marlies, he has had just one losing season in 7-years as a coach.
Take away the impossible task he had in his year and a half as coach of the NHL-Edmonton Oilers, and you realize Eakins knows the job, its responsibilities, and the goals.
Forced to play lots of 1st and 2nd round picks by an Oilers franchise desperate to win, he had no chance in hockey mad Alberta. He had no defense and even fewer goaltenders in a city that thought the next Gretzky era was just around the corner.
Now the Oilers are dominant, not just with Connor McDavid, but a roster full of talent. It takes years and quality picks to make that happen. Eakins didn’t have enough time.
GM Bob Ferguson is cut from the same cloth. A career minor league player, he got into coaching and then management at a young age. His entire career has been about scouting and developing players.
Eakins played 17-years of minor league hockey, sprinkled with cups of coffee in the NHL. Ferguson rode the same buses for years, but became a master at tactics and dealing with the ups and downs of young players.
How good are the Ducks, the parent club? Good enough to have gone to a bunch of Game 7’s in playoff series. Good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Good enough to be ahead of the curve in drafting, signing and developing young picks, from the CHL, NCAA and Europe.
By season’s end last spring, there were 8-Gulls players who had contributed to the Ducks drive deep into the playoffs.
New faces show up beginning tonight. The European collection includes high draft picks Jacob Larsson, Marcus Peterson and more. The college crop includes young veteran Kalle Kosilla and goalie Kevin Boyle. Still to be delivered is junior hotshot Gio Fiore.
Look for continued success as the club develops more young talent. Look for crowds of 12,000 on weekends, as San Diego evolves into a ‘big league-minor league’ franchise.
And look for me sitting in the corner seats, some nights wearing a Gulls jersey, other nights a Leafs-Kings or Ducks jersey.
Hockey pucks and Palm trees. What s combination. Just like good hockey and a fast developing fanatical fan base. Something special building in San Diego.