Oakland’s Sommer building on coaching legacy with AHL’s Barracuda
Oakland native Roy Sommer has experienced the ups and downs of professional hockey both as a player (10 years) and as a coach (31 years).
Among the first wave of Californians to break into the elite ranks of the National Hockey League, Sommer, 63, has made an indelible mark in history as the longtime head coach of the San Jose Sharks’ top developmental affiliate in the American Hockey League.
Sommer has compiled a 773-743-122 record (.509 winning percentage) over his 22-year coaching career in the AHL, regarded as the next best professional ice hockey league on the planet after the NHL.
He is the AHL leader in both regular season wins (773) and regular season games coached (1,638).
Sommer stands 137 career wins ahead of runner-up Bun Cook (636), an AHL legend who coached 19 seasons in the league from 1937-56.
Over that span, Sommer’s teams have won four division titles and reached the Calder Cup playoffs in each of the past five completed seasons, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2017. He has worked behind the bench in three AHL All-Star Classics (2000, 2015 and 2019).
Perhaps more satisfying personally, Sommer has developed more than 130 players who have gone on to play in the NHL.
Sommer has also coached in the NHL. In fact, he began his long tenure in the Sharks organization as an assistant coach during the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. He returned as an associate coach midway through last season under interim head coach Bob Boughner following the dismissal of head coach Peter DeBoer during an organizational shakeup.
When Sommer eclipsed Cook’s long-standing career coaching record for wins on Feb. 10, 2016, he was asked if he thought he could reach the next career benchmark: 800 wins.
He simply offered a sly smile, noting “You never know.”
He needs 27 more wins to mark the 800-win milestone – well within reach should he continue to coach in the league.
The AHL is scheduled to face off the 2021 season on Feb. 5, with regular-season play running through May 30.
The NHL has announced a 56-game regular season schedule ending in May, with the Stanley Cup playoffs to end in mid-July.
The Sharks appear to have a dedicated pipeline of talent to the parent club under Sommer’s guidance. Prior to the start of the 2019-20 season, the Sharks went 3-0 to win the Anaheim Rookie Face Off tournament Sept. 7-10 at the Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine.
Sommer, who coached San Jose’s rookie contingent at the six-team tournament, listed standouts on the roster as forwards Jacob McGrew, Noah Gregor, Artyom Ivanuzhenov, Danil Yurtaykin, Joachim Blichfeld, Jeffrey Viel and Jake Gricius, along with defensemen Ryan Merkley and Mario Ferraro.
McGrew, a sixth-round pick (159th overall) by the Sharks in the 2017 NHL Draft and Orange County native, led the Sharks rookies in scoring with six points in the three games.
Ferraro appeared in 61 games for the Sharks last season while Gregor went on to play 28 games with parent club in 2019-20.
“We had a really good tournament,” Sommer explained. “I was happy with it. Some of those guys brought what they did at the rookie tournament into main camp. A few guys off that ended up sticking.”
Lacing them up
Sommer began his playing career during the 1974-75 season when he appeared in 53 games with 16 goals and 35 points (along with 185 penalty minutes) for the Spruce Grove Mets in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL). During that same season, he also appeared in one game with five penalty minutes for the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL).
He played two more seasons in the WCHL with the Calgary Centennials, logging 13 goals, 37 points and 155 PIM in 70 regular season games in 1975-76 and 16 goals, 38 points and 111 PIM in 50 regular season games in 1976-77. He concluded his WCHL career with nine playoff game appearances with the Centennials in 1977, showing his skill with five goals and 14 points against eight minutes in the penalty box.
The professional ranks called when Sommer was selected in the sixth round (101st overall) in the 1977 NHL Amateur Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
At this time, the NHL was vying for playing talent with the rival World Hockey Association, which it ultimately absorbed following the 1978-79 season.
Instead, Sommer began his pro career in the International Hockey League (IHL), one step below both the NHL and WHA. He appeared in 12 games with two goals and five points for the Saginaw Gears before being traded to the Dayton/Grand Rapids Owls, for which he appeared in 45 games with 20 goals, 38 points and 67 PIM to inaugurate his rookie pro season.
The 1978-79 season proved to be a West Coast homecoming for Sommer as a member of the Spokane Flyers in the Pacific Hockey League (PHL), a modest circuit that sprang to life for two seasons and which featured a sizable number of refugees from the ever-shrinking WHA.
Sommer tallied 19 goals, 49 points and, for that era, a crowd-pleasing 196 PIM. He ranked sixth on the team in points and first in penalty minutes.
The Flyers were one of the most successful teams in the PHL’s final season by logging a 32-22-1 record.
The team’s roster was peppered with NHL and WHA talent, providing Sommer with an invaluable testing ground to further develop his pro career.
Among Sommers’ teammates on the Flyers were former major leaguers Jerry Holland, Ron Huston, Craig Topolinsky, and assistant coach Ted McAneeley.
Holland had appeared two seasons with the NHL New York Rangers (1974-76) and one season with the WHA Edmonton Oilers (1977-78) before signing with Spokane.
The rookie of the year award winner during the 1972-73 season with the Salt Lake Eagles in the original Western Hockey League (WHL), Huston had appeared in two seasons with the NHL California Golden Seals (1973-75) and two seasons with the WHA Phoenix Roadrunners (1975-77) before joining the Flyers.
Topolinsky, a former teammate of Sommers with the Calgary Centennials, had appeared in 10 games for Edmonton during the 1977-78 WHA season.
McAneeley logged 158 games with the Seals (1973-75) and 79 games with the WHA Oilers (1975-76).
Defenseman Larry Hale might have been the most decorated of the Flyers with 204 regular-season and playoff games with the NHL Philadelphia Flyers (1968-72) and 478 regular season/playoff games with the WHA Houston Aeros (1972-78).
However, the PHL canceled its championship playoffs, leaving the regular season leader Phoenix Roadrunners (37-23-3) as the designated league champion based on winning percentage. The Flyers finished third in the standings behind the runner-up San Diego Hawks (34-22-2).
Sommer continued his career the following season with the Grand Rapids Owls in the IHL and Houston Apollos in the Central Hockey League (CHL). He recorded a then career high 24 goals and 55 points – and career high 246 PIM – in 69 games with the Apollos, the minor league affiliate of Edmonton, now in the NHL.
His breakthrough season came in 1980-81 when he logged three games with the Oilers, who were playing in their second NHL season after ending their seven-year WHA existence. Sommer was around long each to notch his first (and only) NHL goal to go with seven PIM.
He credited Apollos coach Al Rollins with helping get him to the NHL.
“That kind of got me my first contract with Edmonton,” Sommer noted.
Sommer finished the season with the Wichita Wind and played two more seasons with the Wind in the CHL before making the jump to the East Coast with the AHL’s Maine Mariners, where he suited up for 25 playoff games in 1984 and 1985. Sommer recorded a career high 61 points during the 1982-83 season with the Wind.
He won a Calder Cup with the Mariners in 1984.
Sommer finished his 10-year professional playing career in the IHL, where it all began, with the Indianapolis Checkers (1985-86) and Muskegon Lumberjacks (1985-87).
Behind the bench
His coaching career began immediately after retiring as a pro as an assistant with the Lumberjacks for 1987-88.
He served as an assistant with the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL in 1988-89 before embarking on a highly successful five-year head coaching career in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) with the Roanoke Valley Rebels and Richmond Renegades. He won a Riley Cup championship with the Renegades in 1994-95.
But California kept beckoning.
Sommer served as a head coach for the San Jose Rhinos of Roller Hockey International (RHI) for two seasons (1985-86) as a Bay Area homecoming. The Rhinos were one of the most successful RHI teams. Sommer led San Jose to winning records both season behind the bench between ice stints with the Renegades.
Sommer’s 1985 squad won the Murphy Cup with a championship series victory against the Montreal Roadrunners.
Following his stint with the Rhinos, Sommer remained in the Bay Area as an assistant coach with the Sharks, who were playing in their sixth NHL season in 1996-97.
The rest is history, as the Sharks named Sommer as the head coach of their AHL Kentucky Thoroughblades affiliate on May 28, 1998. The Sharks’ top developmental affiliate would take on two other incarnations (Cleveland Barons from 2001-06 and Worcester Sharks from 2006-15) before moving west to form the AHL’s Pacific Division for the 2015-16 season.
The Barracuda posted a .699 winning percentage during the 1996-97 season in which Sommer was honored with the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the league’s outstanding coach.
Sommer returned to where he started with the Sharks after being called up to the parent club to serve as associate coach in the wake of the firing of DeBoer on Dec. 11. Sommer re-joined the Sharks staff after more than 21 years coaching in the AHL. Also joining the Sharks at this transition point under Boughner were assistant coach Mike Ricci and goaltending coach Evgeni Nobokov.
Boughner took over as interim head coach with the Sharks reeling from multiple-game losing streaks. The Sharks finished out the season with a 29-36-5 (.450 winning percentage) while residing at the bottom of the Pacific Division and Western Conference standings.
It was the team’s worst points-percentage since the 2002-03 season (.455).
Boughner was named the Sharks’ full-time coach on Sept. 22, removing the “interim” status to his job title, while Sommer was named the Barracuda’s head coach for the 2020-21 season on the same day.
Jimmy Bonneau and Michael Chiasson, who guided the Cuda as co-coaches during Sommer’s absence with the Sharks, will resume their duties as assistant coaches with the AHL team.
John McCarthy, who retired as an active player from the Barracuda midway through last season due to health concerns, will embark on a new career within the organization as AHL development coach.
McCarthy, spent 10 seasons in the Sharks organization, logging 88 NHL games with the Sharks between 2009-2016 while accumulating six points (three goals, three assists) and 22 penalty minutes. In total, McCarthy appeared in 640 regular season games with San Jose’s NHL and AHL franchises..
A career highlight came when he was selected off the Cuda roster to represent the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. He appeared in five games for Team USA, which finished seventh at the event in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In 577 career AHL games with Worcester, Chicago and San Jose, he collected 297 points (130 goals, 167 assists), 233 penalty minutes and a plus-62 rating. He posted 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in 27 playoff games with the Barracuda over the past four seasons.
He had served as the Barracuda team captain since 2016 after serving as captain of the Worcester Sharks for the 2012-2013 season.
Selected by the Sharks in the seventh round of the 2006 NHL Draft, McCarthy holds all major Barracuda franchise records including games played (275), goals (62), assists (76), points (138), power-play goals (17) and shorthanded goals (five).
“There is no player who has had more of a direct impact on our prospects and our American Hockey League franchise than John McCarthy,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. “’Mac’ has been a pillar for San Jose’s American Hockey League franchises, first in Worcester and the last four-plus seasons in San Jose. While we’re sad to see his playing career come to an end, we couldn’t be more excited about his staying in our organization and joining the coaching staff of the Barracuda.”
Dany Sabourin also has been hired as goaltending development coach in the Sharks organization.
The Sharks’ brain trust for the upcoming NHL season will include former AHL coaches Rocky Thompson (Chicago Wolves) and John Madden (Cleveland Monsters) as assistants under Boughner. Thompson guided the Wolves, the AHL affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights, for three seasons, compiling a 113-71-18-11 regular season record (.599 winning percentage), two regular-season division titles and runner-up finish in the 2019 Calder Cup Finals. Madden’s three-year stint as head coach with the Monsters included a second-round playoff appearance in 2019.
Sommer, who served under Darryl Sutter as an assistant during his first tour of duty with the Sharks, obviously has an interesting perspective on professional hockey as played in the NHL and minor leagues.
How has life in the minor leagues changed since he first played?
“You can’t even compare,” the Oakland native stated. “It’s a whole different animal now. The athletes are bigger, stronger. The guys are in such good shape now. They’ve got a lot of new training methods they use now. In the past no one did any of that stuff.”
Sommer resumes as head coach of the Cuda after the club finished the abbreviated 2019-20 season with a 21-27-5-2 record (.445 winning percentage). San Jose was in last place in the seven-team Pacific Division and last among the 15 teams in the Western Conference at the point at which the season was suspended due to the pandemic and later canceled.
The Sharks have made good with a spate of free agent signings over the past few years and appear to have some talent invested in the Barracuda.
The Cuda finished last season with eight players who scored 10 or more goals and five players who tallied 30 or more points. Forward Maxim Letunov paced the team in scoring with 40 points on 12 goals and 28 assists, followed by wingers Jayden Halbgewachs with 19 goals and 35 points and Blichfeld with 16 goals and 32 points, respectively. Wingers Jonny Brodzinski (14 goals) and Viel (13 goals) both recorded 30 points. Huntington Beach native Sasha Chmelevski contributed 11 goals and 27 points in 42 games while third-year pro Alexander True notched 11 goals and 25 points.
Letunov (three games, one goal), Blichfeld (three games), Brodzinski (three games, one assist) and True (12 games, four assists) all received call-ups to the Sharks last season.
Josef Korenar led the Cuda’s complement of three goaltenders with 33 game appearances while crafting a 3.11 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. Andrew Shortridge, who played two seasons for the Jr. Coyotes 18U AAA T1EHL team (2012-14), was next in line with 14 game appearances while posting a 3.71 GAA and .862 save percentage. Zachery Sawchenko compiled a 2.87 GAA and .911 save percentage in 13 games.
Blichfeld, a seventh-round pick (210th overall) in the 2016 draft by the Sharks, represented the Barracuda at the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic.
Chmelevski, who got his start in youth hockey with the Western Selects (2008-09) and Anaheim Jr. Ducks (2010-11), is a sixth-round pick (185th overall) by the Sharks in the 2017 draft. He was one of two California-born players on last season’s Cuda roster, joining winger Evan Weinger (El Segundo).
Weinger tallied 20 points in 38 games last season after posting 22 points in 60 games his rookie season.
Chmelevski represented the United States at the 2019 World Junior Championship, notching seven points in seven games.
Sommer, drawing on his own personal experience, remains impressed by rising talent from the Golden State.
“There’s more and more talent coming out of Anaheim, Los Angeles now, up north … a lot of guys are going on junior programs, major colleges and actually filtering into the NHL right now,” Sommer said. “Hockey has grown ever since the Sharks and Ducks came in. They’ve really grown their hockey base. Now you’re starting to see some of that fruit fall off the tree and end up in the NHL.”
The Sharks selected nine players – six 18-year-olds, two 19-year-olds and one 20-year-old – in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Many, if not most, might have to wait a couple years before they find their way to the Barracuda roster. San Jose’s top five picks were all 18, including top draft pick Ozzy Wiesblatt (31st overall) from the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders.
First impressions are often important.
Draft picks traditionally compete in a development camp along with a team’s younger prospects every July to assess skills. Many draft picks are returned to their junior teams for further development while others are assigned to development at the minor pro level. Some show well enough to eventually make the parent club roster following main training camp in September.
“It’s really hard to tell in a situation like that,” Sommer explained in regard to the incoming draft picks. “You put them with the big boys and their play kind of drops off a little bit. But throw those guys against their own peers and they do really well.”
NHL or bust
Because of COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County, the Sharks announced they will be holding training camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., home of the Ice Den where the NHL rival Arizona Coyotes also practice.
Santa Clara County’s ban on contact sports has been extended into January, necessitating the move on part of the Sharks.
As part of the seven teams that did not participate in this past summer’s 24-team NHL Return to Play bubble tournament, the Sharks were allowed to start training camp on Dec. 31.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the NHL has realigned its four divisions by geography for the upcoming season. The Sharks will play in the West Division that also includes the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, Vegas Golden Knights, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche and Coyotes.
The North Division will feature the 31-team league’s seven Canadian clubs while the remaining 16 U.S. -based teams will be divided into the East and Central divisions.
All teams will play a divisional schedule featuring eight games against each opponent among the three U.S.-based divisions. The top four teams in each division qualify for the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Sharks, who were set to carry 36 skaters and an unlimited number of goaltenders into training camp, face off the new season on Jan. 14 with a game in Arizona against the Coyotes.
NHL clubs are allowed to carry between four and six taxi squad players on AHL contracts this season. Those players not on the taxi squad who do not make the Sharks NHL roster are assigned to the Barracuda’s training camp.
Home sweet home
The Barracuda has shared the SAP Center with the Sharks since the team’s relocation to San Jose but will have its own home in the near future.
The San Jose City Council unanimously approved a 200,000 square-foot expansion of Solar4America Ice at San Jose in January 2020 that will add two additional recreational ice sheets to the facility, increasing the building’s total ice sheets to six.
The expansion, which will double the facility’s footprint to just under 400,000 square feet, will make the complex the largest ice facility under one roof west of the Mississippi River. One of the additional ice sheets will be located inside a 4,200-seat, two-story spectator arena that will serve as the new home for the Barracuda.
The targeted completion date is April 2022.
The new spectator arena will include locker rooms, training facilities and executive office space for the Barracuda, an in-arena Jumbotron with a 360-degree LED display ring, 12 suites, eight loge boxes, one theater suite, a 46-person party deck, three bar locations, seven food concession stations, a press room and press box and two team merchandise stores.
It will be LEED certified Silver when complete.
The ice surface in the spectator arena will be available for public use when not in use by the Barracuda.
— Phillip Brents
(Jan. 1, 2021)