By Paul Gackle | AHL On The Beat Archive
Chris Tierney needed a refresher on why he loves playing hockey after he struggled through the first three months of the 2015-16 season.
On Jan. 3, the Sharks sent Tierney down to the American Hockey League to play with the Barracuda and head coach Roy Sommer greeted him with a simple message: “play your game and have fun.”
Tierney set up two goals that night as his line compiled a combined seven points in a 5-1 win over the Texas Stars. Three days later, Tierney scored a crucial third period goal in the Barracuda’s 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Stockton Heat.
After he rejoined the Sharks on Jan. 9, Tierney appeared to be a different player, collecting four points (1g, 3a) in four games while posting a plus-three rating.
“I think that’s really important because, for me, when I’m relaxed, having fun and just playing out there, that’s when I play my best hockey,” said Tierney. “He (Sommer) just brings a lot of fun to the rink, joking around, the bus rides, the road trips. That’s something the guys appreciate and that’s why he’s been so successful.”
Sommer’s ability to loosen up the room with his easy-going personality and quirky sense of humor is just one reason why he could surpass Fred “Bun” Cook’s 60-year-old record of 636 AHL wins this weekend with a Barracuda victory over the Ontario Reign.
Why is Sommer so much fun to play for?
“Have you met him?” said Dallas Stars defenseman Jason Demers, who suited up for 103 games on Sommer’s blue line with the Worcester Sharks. “His personality says it all. He’s just a players’ guy. He tries to keep it loose, but stresses the fact of hard work and [he] keeps discipline. It’s a nice guy to have in your corner and backing you, especially when you’re a young guy coming up. You don’t need that drill sergeant.”
Sommer started his 18-year AHL head-coaching career with the Kentucky Thoroughblades (the Sharks AHL affiliate prior to the Worcester Sharks and the Barracuda) in 1998-99 after spending five years as an ECHL head coach with the Richmond Renegades and two seasons as assistant coach with the Sharks (1996-97, 1997-98).
The Oakland, Calif., native also coached the San Jose Rhinos of Roller Hockey International for three years, leading the team to a league championship in 1995. Sommer’s ability to turn young players into men while also teaching them the right way to play hockey in order to have success in the NHL is why he truly found his niche in the AHL.
The 58-year-old coach’s unique blend of off-the-wall humor, brutal honesty, blue-collar grit and sincere compassion gives him the perfect makeup for squeezing the most out of every player.
“He does a good job of maturing guys,” said defenseman Justin Braun, who skated in 43 games for the Worcester Sharks. “He’ll call you out and make you accountable. But in all that, he keeps you wanting to come to the rink, that’s the biggest thing with him. He brings the fun to hockey.”
Over the years, Sommer has also developed a special genius for bringing teams together and knowing which strings to pull with different personalities.
“He wants the group to be a family and be close, and that’s one thing he loves to see is his groups be close,” goalie Alex Stalock said after practice on Jan. 7. “If a guy’s not fitting in, he can see that, he senses that type of stuff, and he’s good at weeding that stuff out. I think that’s why he’s had success, not only skill on the ice, but the groups that he can put together off the ice.
“He cares so much about the person off the ice, the person you are at the rink, the person you are to the guy sitting next to you. He’s a guy who you can go up and approach anytime. Everybody says, open-door policy, it’s almost [like] he’s got double doors. You can go in at any time and talk to him about anything, not just hockey.”
Sommer creates a family atmosphere for his teams by opening up his family to his players. His 25-year-old son, Marley “Mo” Sommer, is essentially the 26th member of the Barracuda. He’s in the locker room, at practice and supporting the team during games from ice level, pumping his fist when they pick up the win.
The Barracuda’s “locker room attendant” is a source of inspiration for Sommer’s teams, teaching the guys in the room how to appreciate the opportunity in front of them by the way he shows up and lives a joyful life in the face of autism and Down syndrome.
Mo loosens up the room before games by dancing to songs like “Cotton-Eyed Joe” or performing his daily tai chi rituals.
“He always brings Mo along and Mo was there to cheer us up when things weren’t going too well,” said Logan Couture. “I have good memories of playing for Roy.”
Every player who passes through Sommer’s teams seems to have a story or two that stands out above the rest.
For some, it’s the image of Sommer wearing a bolo tie and cowboy boots behind the bench in Texas. Others remember his ugliest sports coat contests and the laughter that ensued.
Braun won’t ever forget the team’s camping trip to Spruce Island in Maine, where Sommer cooked out on an open fire while telling stories in the pouring rain.
“That was probably one of the more interesting nights of my life,” said Braun.
The story that encapsulates Sommer for Demers took place in Springfield, Mass., roughly six years ago. With less than five seconds to play in the opening period, Sommer pulled his goalie on the power play with an offensive-zone faceoff. The Falcons won the draw and fired the puck all the way down the ice into the Worcester Sharks net.
The room was fuming when Sommer walked in at intermission.
“He kind of just walked through the room, put some money on the board and was like, ‘that’s me guys’ and walked out,” Demers said. “It’s kind of one of those things [where] we all kind of go in the room, everyone’s a little bit pissed off and then he comes through and you’re like, alright guys, everyone makes mistakes.”