Gulls lead by example to support military

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

by Steve Brown | AHL On The Beat

San Diego is home to more than 100,000 active military personnel, the United States’ largest concentration of service members. The total military population in San Diego County reaches closer to 225,000 when you include some of the most important members of our military: their dependents and families. The Navy and Marines make up the bulk of the military presence, with the two branches of service operating seven bases within San Diego County. And in addition, more than 225,000 veterans reside in San Diego County, making up more than 12 percent of its population.

The San Diego Gulls front office and hockey operations are proud to be a part of this extensive military community, and emphasize the importance of being committed to and supporting our troops. In celebration of the Gulls’ third annual Military Weekend, head coach Dallas Eakins shared his thoughts on what the military means to him and how he sees the hockey club continuing to support our nation’s service members.

In a connection between the selfless men and women who serve, it’s become a point of emphasis for the Gulls to follow suit and give back to the community they call home to remain actively involved away from the rink. Leadership starts from the top, with Eakins the focal point of ensuring the commitment from all within the hockey club support the military community in San Diego.

“For me it’s really simple. We want to be committed and fully supporting our military 100 percent,” said Eakins. “Everywhere we turn in this great community we see people that have committed their lives to this service which serves us. For me it’s absolute, it’s mandatory for everyone to honor these service members to respect what they do and to help and support them in any way.”

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

With a young group of players that includes nine rookies, the head coach from Dade City, Fla., looks to introduce and instill qualities from those who serve to and build a base of commitment and professionalism. With that comes the frequent trips to San Diego bases where troops call home and connecting with the brave men and women who sacrifice to protect and serve our country every day.

“It’s interesting because we speak about the military and we use them as a comparable,” added Eakins. “The way that military service members conduct themselves is perfect. What we do here with a sports team is, we’re always chasing that kind of perfection.

“I know that we will never ever match that commitment, discipline and service of these service members but by us chasing them we will catch excellence. With our new guys that come in, it’s really simple. We’re going to introduce you to this and it’s an easy introduction. They’re going to be inspired. They’re going to feel it and it’s going to be a natural, real progression. We just have to make the introduction and we’ve never had a problem with any of our players. They’re actually quite often asking, ‘When can I go again to spend time with the military?’”

Born in Florida but raised in Peterborough, Ont., the Gulls’ third-year bench boss has an uncanny perspective on the freedoms both Americans and Canadians have. He draws inspiration from the multiple branches of military that serve both countries.

“I’ve lived in the U.S., I’ve spent a big part of my life in Canada too. In those two nations that’s what keeps you safe overall. For me the military has always been a sense of pride, but mostly inspiration. Aspiring to have that discipline to serve others, to try to make others their best. Those same values I try to bring here coaching-wise.”

With that inspiration, there comes countless examples of correlations between military members and professional athletes. While the life of an athlete can never compare to that of those who protect our freedoms, there are many building blocks within the framework of Eakins’ methodology that links a parallel to the mindset of professional hockey and that of basic military mentality.

“There’s a couple (connections), but they’re simple. They’re some of the building blocks with our program here,” said Eakins, who strives to ensure that the culture from top to bottom in San Diego is the framework of the club from the minute one enters the doors. “Number one: commitment. Not only a commitment to yourself that you’re going to be the very best you can be every day but a commitment to team. We talk often about giving yourself to the team. Speaking with military members, that’s one of the first things that you have to do. Because those team members are going to protect you and together you’re going to go out and accomplish your goal.

“Number two: discipline. The discipline to wake up every day and to do what you’re supposed to, when you’re supposed to do it, every time.”

A prominent difference in sports is athletes are allowed to make mistakes and it may cost a goal or a point. But “in the military,” Eakins said, “you can’t make a mistake because it costs peoples lives. That commitment not only to yourself but giving yourself to the team, and the discipline to wake up every day and do what you’re supposed to, how you’re supposed to do it, every day, always.”

Photo: Vince Rappleyea

As the Gulls host Military Weekend and recognize the vast members of our service men and women, Eakins touched on a culture that gets away from the true perspective of recognizing what it means to be a hero.

Oftentimes professional athletes are labeled heroes by fans and pundits alike. When it comes to creating a culture in San Diego, Eakins sets a tone of perspective on recognizing who the real heroes are.

“We’re proud that we do our best to honor these service members all the time. I think a lot of the time in our society we have this backwards. We look at heroes sometimes as the best hockey player in the NHL, or the best basketball player, the best football team or the world champions.

“The heroes to me are these men and women who are keeping us safe every day. They’re doing missions not only in our own country but abroad to keep our way of life intact. I think any time you can honor a military member it’s the very least we can do. It’s these military members who should get all of the accolades.”

Despite an already-strong bond between the Gulls and the prominent community of military members and their families, Eakins leads the club to continuously build roots within the community, and he inspires all within the organization to further strengthen its relationship going forward.

Eakins preaches more touch points, more selflessness and constant collaboration as it’s mutually beneficial for the team, but also a potential relief for troops or veterans to step away from the rigorous duties to enjoy athletic competition at its finest.

“From our side selfishly, we can’t get enough of it. From my interaction with the military they seem to want more, too,” Eakins said. “They enjoy it, coming to a game, interacting with the athletes; I think it’s a great break from the mental stress that they’re going through. It’s a break in their discipline, it’s a break in their commitment.”

As a leader, Eakins leads by example. He honors those who serves and inspires all to do so as well.

“I think I know who I want to honor most.”