By Sam Kieckhefer | AHL On The Beat Archive
As with the first of anything, the first season of a sports team, at any level, is filled with unknowns and questions.
How will the city react to a new sports franchise?
How will season ticket sales be? What about group sales? And single-game tickets?
San Diego has had different iterations of professional hockey on and off since 1944 and the Gulls moniker has been used by a number of teams since 1966.
When it was announced in January, 2015 that the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks would purchase their current AHL affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, and relocate the team to San Diego, there were a lot of questions and a limited number of answers. Significant market research had been done for years leading up to the announcement, exploring the history of the market and comparing the San Diego market to others currently in the American Hockey League. Regardless, questions that would deem this transition a success remained unknown.
The first bit of tangible information came on February 22, 2015, nearly a month after the team announced its plans to relocate. A free event, planned for 1,500-3,000 people on a Sunday afternoon.
Sure, there were incentives. Free t-shirts for the first 1,000 fans and a complimentary hotdog and drink for the first 4,000 fans were expected to help draw a decent crowd for the unveiling of the name and logo of San Diego’s newest hockey team. But no one expected a whopping 8,500 eager hockey fans to attend.
As the summer progressed, season ticket sales flourished. The AHL’s San Diego Gulls began to climb the league ranks and at the start of the 2015-16 regular season, the Gulls ranked fifth among all 30 AHL clubs in FSE (full-season equivalents).
Opening Night on October 10, 2015, was a sellout. Professional hockey was back and the San Diego community was ready. It was also 96 degrees. Despite fog building at ice level due to humidity in the building and high ambient temperatures, 12,920 fans packed the arena from start to finish, watching the Gulls capture a 4-2 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins.
There is, of course, the allure of something new. The return of something that has been absent for nine years. But it was clear that San Diego was ready for the return of the San Diego Gulls. Eight months of anticipation had been brewing and hockey was officially back.
Just six nights later, San Diego packed the building again, this time to honor Willie O’Ree on his 80th birthday.
November 13 and 14, the Gulls’ Military Appreciation Weekend: 21,000+ over two games.
December 18, the Gulls’ Teddy Bear Toss: 9,421.
December 26, San Diego vs. Ontario: 11,078.
The crowds continued to roll in and they were rolling in deep.
Sure, there have been hiccups. Take the Teddy Bear Toss for example. Across the league, teams designate a night as Teddy Bear Toss where fans bring stuffed animals to donate to children’s hospitals, first responders, foster homes, etc. This, however, is not just a simple donation. After the home team scores their first goal, fans hurl their bears at the ice, creating a shower of teddies.
Different scenarios were discussed prior to the night. What if the team doesn’t score? What if we’re down by one and score, clearly gaining momentum? What if we score on the power play? Virtually every scenario was discussed.
On December 18, with nearly 10k fans and 15k teddy bears in attendance, Michael Sgarbossa scored the game’s first goal, right as the first period ended. Fans hesitated and then a downpour of bears followed. But the puck was ruled to have crossed the goal line AFTER the clock hit zero! No goal. The only scenario that wasn’t discussed leading into the night.
Despite trials and tribulations, no one can argue the success of the Gulls’ return to Valley View Casino Center.
With an average attendance of 8,675 (good for 2nd among all AHL member teams), 294,962 total fans through the doors of Valley View Casino Center and 11 crowds of 10,000+ fans, it is clear that hockey is alive and well here in San Diego.
When the building is packed, there’s no better barn for an AHL hockey game.