Sommer getting fresh start in San Diego

📝 by Patrick Williams

Roy Sommer had a gut feeling.

After 26 seasons in the San Jose Sharks organization ― including the last 24 guiding their American Hockey League affiliates ― the 65-year-old head coach and his San Jose Barracuda had just endured a trying 2021-22 campaign, one of the most challenging experiences in a career as a player and coach that dates back to 1974. Even for someone who had seen nearly everything in this business, it was difficult, no doubt, for the AHL’s all-time leader in wins (808) and games coached (1,736).

On May 18, that change arrived for Sommer and the Sharks. Long-time general manager Doug Wilson had stepped down a month earlier. The Sharks themselves had gone through a frustrating season. The San Jose organization’s plan had Sommer shifting into a senior advisor role with the Barracuda and long-time captain John McCarthy taking over AHL head-coaching duties.

“You can’t get mad at an organization that keeps you around 26 years,” Sommer reasoned.

After nearly 50 years in hockey, plenty of people would jump at that opportunity as a way to begin to down-shift into a well-deserved retirement. Not nearly as demanding as the packed days of an AHL head coach. Family time. Less travel, certainly. More opportunity to spend time at his beloved home deep in the rugged mountains of Montana.

But coaching would be in the past. That was the hitch.

And as spring eased into summer, something did not feel right for Sommer. His coaching career stretched back to 1987, just after he had wrapped up a 10-year pro playing career. Would he really not be standing behind a bench, developing players, and trying to win hockey games?

Could he continue to coach? Should he? And if so, where?

There are only 32 AHL head-coaching jobs, after all. Still, he had sent more than 150 players on to the NHL during his time with San Jose. He had been a Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award winner as the AHL’s most outstanding coach in 2016-17. There was time spent as an associate coach with the Sharks during the 2019-20 campaign. His resume could match up favorably against other candidates.

But AHL jobs only come open so often and attract a flood of interested and qualified applicants. Nine AHL teams had head-coaching changes in the offseason, but some of those moves had already been in the works.

One vacancy stood out: the San Diego Gulls.

Why not San Diego, Sommer thought. Besides the obvious on-ice appeal of leading a team that has had success, the post would still be in California, familiar territory for Sommer, a Bay Area native, and his family.

“I still feel I had something to give to the game,” Sommer explained. “I think I’ve evolved. I don’t think I would be around as long as I have if I hadn’t evolved. The way kids are today to where they were 26 years ago, it’s a big difference.”

The arrival of new management with the parent Anaheim Ducks also meant a fresh start for the organization. Pat Verbeek had taken over as general manager in Anaheim. Rob DiMaio would serve as an Anaheim assistant general manager while also heading the operation in San Diego. Sommer and DiMaio did not know each other; Verbeek and Sommer had been a part of the New Jersey Devils organization, but that was back between 1982 and 1985.

Sommer ran the idea past his family. San Diego would work for him. Would San Diego work for them?

“The family had a bit to say,” Sommer recounted. “I go, ‘Is this what you want to do?’”

“And they go, ‘No, it’s up to you.’”

“I go, ‘You know what? One more year. I’ll be 66.’”

So, Sommer went for the job and moved through that process before heading back to Montana to settle in for the summer. Three days after arriving there, his phone rang. It was the Ducks. He had the job, following Dallas Eakins (2015-19), Kevin Dineen (2019-21) and Joel Bouchard (2021-22) as the fourth coach in Gulls history.

“I’m just taking it a year at a time,” Sommer continued. “They wanted a guy who knew the [Pacific Division] and knew the league.

He added with a chuckle, “I think I can honestly say I know that.”

The job in hand, Sommer headed down to Anaheim for the announcement of his hiring July 12. There was a packed press conference to introduce him to San Diego. Then it was off to Anaheim for development camp with the Ducks. Even someone with his time in the game can be surprised, and Sommer had an up-close opportunity to see how another NHL club ran its operation.

“They go, ‘This is what we do,’” Sommer recalled. “And I go, ‘All right, this is different than what we did in San Jose, but I’ll roll with it.’”

This move works for Sommer on both a professional and personal level. He had seen the Gulls operation from afar while in San Jose, and the team had always left an impression.

Now he will experience hockey in San Diego from a friendlier vantage point. After splitting a two-game opening-weekend trip to Grand Rapids, the Gulls welcome the Ontario Reign to Pechanga Arena on Friday night. The teams complete a home-and-home in Ontario on Saturday, quickly allowing Sommer to immerse himself in one of the AHL’s fiercest rivalries.

“They expect to win,” Sommer said of the Gulls, who are a combined 238-164-26-13 in their first seven AHL seasons while regularly ranking among the league’s attendance leaders. “They’ve got a great following.”

And his family backs the move.

“They’re fired up about it,” Sommer elaborated. “My wife [Melissa] is a teacher of 18 years, and she’s taught in the California school [system] for the last seven, so she’ll get another year in teaching. The beaches down there, kind of looking forward to that part of it. It’s just kind of a cool area. It was probably everyone’s favorite place to go play, the fans, the downtown. We used to look forward to the San Diego trips. Now I’ll be living it.

“What a life. It’s been really good for us.”