Sommer returning to San Jose for Hall of Fame honor

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Nearly 50 years after Roy Sommer packed a bag and headed off to begin a hockey career, he will return to the Bay Area to be inducted into the American Hockey League Hall of Fame on Monday as part of the AHL All-Star Classic festivities in San Jose.

Hailing from Oakland, Calif., Sommer grew up in an era when hockey was still mostly a niche sport in the area. There were the nearby minor-league San Francisco Seals. And when Sommer was 10, the NHL came to Oakland.

But a hockey player born and raised in California moving to Alberta at 17 years old to play hockey? That’s what Sommer did.

He played today’s equivalent of Junior A hockey with the Spruce Grove Mets in the 1974-75 season, getting around town in a 1968 Volkswagen (“that barely ran,” Sommer recalls).

There was one game with the major junior Edmonton Oil Kings. Then two seasons with the Calgary Centennials as he battled, scrapped and made enough of an impression for the Toronto Maple Leafs to take him as a sixth-round draft pick in 1977.

And that began a 10-year professional career that cycled Sommer through the International, Pacific and Central Hockey Leagues (all now long-defunct), along with a three-game spin with Wayne Gretzky and the burgeoning Edmonton Oilers in 1980-81. He first came to the AHL in 1983 with the Maine Mariners, winning a Calder Cup championship, and eventually landed back in the IHL before retiring in 1987.

But the adventure had barely started. Sommer took an assistant-coaching job with Muskegon of the IHL, and went on to coach in the WHL and ECHL. There was even a stint with the San Jose Rhinos of Roller Hockey International, a job that helped to bring Sommer to the San Jose Sharks as an assistant coach in 1996.

On May 28, 1998, Sommer was named head coach of the Sharks’ AHL affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades. And that began a legendary tenure behind AHL benches, developing young talent.

Sommer followed the Sharks’ affiliates to Cleveland (2001-06) and Worcester (2006-15) before San Jose’s AHL operation came west with the launch of the league’s Pacific Division in 2015. In 24 seasons as the Sharks’ AHL head coach (plus the 2022-23 campaign with the San Diego Gulls), Sommer sent more than 150 players on to the NHL and shattered league coaching records with 1,814 games and 828 victories. He was voted the AHL’s outstanding coach in 2016-17 when the Barracuda reached the Western Conference Finals, won four division titles, and coached in the AHL All-Star Classic three times.

And even after Sommer, now 66, had planned to retire to rural Montana with his wife, Melissa, and son, Mo, after last season, hockey still called. He was hired as head coach of the WHL’s Wenatchee Wild on Oct. 12, 2023.

But Sommer’s time in the AHL goes way beyond numbers. He thinks back to playing for the colorful Tom McVie in Maine and then having future AHL Hall of Fame member John Paddock, then only 29 years old, taking over midseason as head coach and guiding the Mariners to the Calder Cup. The years shaping Sharks prospects for the NHL. The highs and lows.

“I get a chuckle out of it,” Sommer said. “Like some of the camping trips we went on. Bus trips. Watching games until 1:00 in the morning and two guys go down, and sitting up until 2 or 3 going, ‘When is the call coming?’

“The American League, it’s not an easy league to coach in.”

Sommer could develop players, though. And with the Sharks a strong contender at different points through his time in the organization, they needed him to do that. Over and over.

“I think that’s why I stayed in it so long,” explained Sommer, whose AHL charges included the likes of Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski, Dan Boyle, Yanni Gourde, Miikka Kiprusoff and Evgeni Nabokov. “I was able to develop two, three guys every year that ended up playing with the Sharks. And if you do that, you save them millions of dollars, so they don’t have to go out and get free agents.”

It was a relationship that fit both parties quite well, though it had a simple enough start. Roy and Melissa were watching television one night in 1996 when they heard that the Sharks were in the market for an assistant coach. He already had five seasons as an ECHL head coach behind him and had the RHI summer gig.

“‘Why don’t you interview?’” Melissa asked.

“‘I’m in the East Coast League,’ Sommer scoffed.

But he interviewed and got the job. First working for Al Sims and then Darryl Sutter, it was Sommer’s first extended time in the NHL. But he wanted to run his own bench again. The head job in Kentucky opened after the 1997-98 season, and Sutter told him to go for it.

He packed up the family, which also includes son Castan and daughter Kira, and moved to Lexington, where he won 128 games in three seasons with Kentucky before the team relocated to Cleveland. Five years in Ohio, nine more in Worcester, Mass., and then back to the West Coast in 2015.

Along the way, Sommer evolved as a head coach. He acknowledges that early in his coaching career he fretted each summer over the prospective roster that he would oversee.

“In the latter years,” Sommer said, “I just went, ‘You know what? It doesn’t really matter. It’s who comes out of camp and what you end up with.’ You’ve got to do with what you’ve got and make them better.

“I just had a pretty simple philosophy: be honest, straight-up with guys and with management. I never really minced words and just kind of told it like it is. People, I think, respected that.”

That philosophy could make for some tough conversations sometimes. Sommer liked to meet with each of his players in 10-game increments.

“Some meetings are five minutes, and some meetings are 45 minutes,” Sommer said. “But the biggest thing is I like guys having fun coming to the rink. I always tried to bring teams together as groups and look after one another.”

Melissa, a special education teacher, helped to push Sommer toward his latest job. Settling full-time in the far reaches of northern Montana, Sommer went into this fall without a job in hockey for the first time since moving to Alberta as a 17-year-old in 1974. Castan, now an assistant coach at Holy Cross, was scouting a prospects showcase tournament in Alberta and Sommer and Mo made the drive up to Alberta so that the three of them could have some time together.

There, he bumped into Doug Wilson, Jr., a Seattle Kraken scout who worked in the San Jose organization alongside Sommer for 10 seasons. The Wenatchee job was open, Wilson told Sommer. Any interest?

The process unfolded quickly. Melissa, now fully immersed in her new teaching position at a nearby community college, would need to stay back in Montana.

“She said, ‘I leave in the morning when it’s dark. It’s dark when I come home. You might as well go do it,’” Sommer recalled.

“It just kind of rejuvenated me a little bit.”

Sommer thinks back to his earliest days with Spruce Grove, when he was an unknown kid from California trying to find his way. Doug Messier coached the club, and his son Mark – Sommer’s future teammate with the Oilers – was the team’s 13-year-old stick boy. They won the Centennial Cup in 1975.

“Survival of the fittest,” Sommer jokes.

But Sommer has always kept evolving as the game and the world have, and now this latest honor brings him full circle back to California. Melissa, Castan, Kira and Mo will be among the family and friends there with him in San Jose.

“It’s an honor,” Roy said. “I left there and traveled the world and now to go back there, that’s going to be pretty cool. I have a great wife, great kids. They’ve been really supportive the whole way around.

“You don’t stay in coaching as long as I have unless you have a better half, and I sure have had that.”