Oakland’s Sommer notches 800th coaching victory, says ‘I’ve had some lean years and I’ve had some pretty good years’
Since the San Jose Sharks moved their top development affiliate in the American Hockey League out west to form the core of the AHL’s ground-breaking Pacific Division, the San Jose Barracuda have recorded several milestones, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals during the 2016-17 season.
But Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer has reached the pinnacle of AHL celebrity status.
During the team’s first season in the Bay Area in 2015-16, Sommer, an Oakland native, set a new record for career coaching victories by eclipsing AHL legend Fred “Bun” Cook’s long-standing record of 636 wins.
Cook’s record had stood for 50 years, making Sommer’s achievement significant.
Sommer has continued to notch milestones behind the Cuda bench. He recorded this 700th career coaching win in December 2017 and passed 750 wins during the midpoint of the 2018-19 season.
His efforts have not gone unrecognized. He received the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial award as the league’s coach of the year in 2017 during which San Jose recorded the top record in the Pacific Division and barely missed posting (by 0.005 percentage points) the best record in the league.
Sommer, 64, reached perhaps his most prestigious personal milestone with career victory No. 800 on Jan. 8 as the Barracuda defeated the visiting Henderson Silver Knights, 6-3, in front of 2,555 fans at the SAP Center.
“It’s a pretty good milestone,” conceded Sommer, who has coached the Sharks’ AHL affiliate for 24 years and has served as a coach in the organization for 26 years. “It’s longevity at its best. It kinda goes both ways. I’ve had some lean years and I’ve had some pretty good years. The main thing is just keep pumping guys up to the NHL. That’s what the American Hockey League is all about.”
Sommer, now 800-694-48-160 (W-L-T-OTL-SOL) in his career, has been very efficient at that having coached more than 140 players to the elite NHL level.
There’s always one more player to develop along with some unfinished business at the coaching level to keep him coming back.
“I’d really like to win a Calder Cup before this is over,” he said. “But I think the overall goal is to get guys ready for the NHL. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that at the American League level.
“That’s the big thing – opportunity — give a guy a call and telling him he’s going to play in the NHL … something he’s worked his whole life for. That’s what it’s about, the big thing.”
Sommer, who has coached in 1,701 AHL regular season games (also a league record), knows exactly how that feels. As one of the first native Californians to find success by leaving the state to play at more advanced levels, he enjoyed a 10-year playing career at the professional level that was capped by a three-game call-up to the NHL Edmonton Oilers during the 1980-81 season. He was around long enough to score his only NHL goal while accumulating seven penalty minutes.
A sixth-round pick (101st overall) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1977 NHL Amateur Draft, Sommer spent the majority of his playing career at the minor league level, which interestingly paved the way for his record-setting minor league coaching career.
Sommer played for nine teams in four separate leagues. He even played on California ice as a minor pro with the Spokane Flyers in the short-lived Pacific Hockey League (PHL). Sommer appeared in 45 games for the Flyers during the 1978-79 season (his third as a professional), registering 19 goals and 30 assists for 49 points to go with 196 penalty minutes (PIM).
The San Diego Hawks, San Francisco Shamrocks and Los Angeles Blades were among the PHL’s California-based teams that season. Sommer played in San Diego 37 years before he would return to the same arena to coach the Barracuda against the current iteration of the San Diego Gulls.
Sommer even played two seasons in the AHL with the Maine Mariners where he piled up 42 points and 377 penalty minutes in 147 regular season games. He tallied six goals, seven points and 24 PIM in 14 playoff games as the Mariners defeated the Rochester Americans to win the 1984 Calder Cup.
Sommer made a career of visiting the penalty box by logging triple digit penalty minutes in 13 seasons (juniors and pro), including 246 PIM with the Central Hockey League’s (CHL) Houston Apollos during the 1979-80 campaign. He also demonstrated he could put the puck in the net by accumulating 24 goals in 69 games with the Apollos that same season.
Sommer’s most productive season in the scoring department came in 1982-83 with the CHL’s Wichita Wind when he chalked up 61 points (22 goals, 39 assists) in 73 games.
His insight as a player led him almost immediately to the coaching ranks as an assistant with the International Hockey League’s (IHL) Muskegon Lumberjacks for which he had played two previous seasons. His first head coaching assignment came in 1991-92 with the Roanoke Valley Rebels in the East Coast Hockey League (now ECHL).
Sommer served as a head coach in the ECHL for five seasons, leading the Richmond Renegades to the Riley Cup championship during the 1994-95 season.
Sommer would make one more trek to California before finally starting his long tenure with the Sharks. He served as head coach of the San Jose Rhinos in Roller Hockey International (RHI) during the 1995 and 1996 seasons. The Rhinos were one of the league’s flagship franchises, winning the Murphy Cup championship during Sommer’s first year with the team in the summer of 1995.
Current Barracuda VP-governor Jon Gustafson served as general manager of the Rhinos from 1996-99.
Sommer started his record-setting career with the Sharks as an assistant coach in the NHL, serving in both the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. He later began his long history-making tenure as the Sharks’ top developmental coach with the Kentucky Thoroughblades during the 1998-99 AHL season
Prior to the move of the Shark’s AHL affiliate to the Bay Area, Sommer also coached the Cleveland Barons (2001-06) and Wocester Sharks (2006-15).
His Kentucky-Cleveland-Worcester teams qualified for the Calder Cup playoffs eight times in 17 years, advancing past the first round four times. The Barracuda has made the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons in which postseason competition took place.
The Sharks organization had enough confidence in Sommer to promote him from the AHL to an NHL coaching position with the Sharks during a head coaching transition in 2019-20. Sommer served as associate coach with the Sharks for 37 games before returning to guide the Barracuda for the 2020-21 season.
During his latest time with the Sharks, Sommer was reunited with some of the players he had developed through the Barracuda.
“It’s always good seeing those guys going up and, especially, contributing,” Sommer explained. “Anyone can go up and not do anything but the guys that have gone up have contributed and that’s the main thing.”
Sommer said he enjoyed his return to NHL after so many years.
“It was fun,” Sommer recalled. “It was eye-opening. It’s been a while since I had been up. It’s a different animal up there. But I enjoyed the short time I was up there.”
The Cuda and Sharks share the same practice facility and home playing venue at the SAP Center, though Sommer’s team is scheduled to have its own dedicated home ice venue when the Solar 4America Ice at San Jose practice rink adds a second deck of seating to accommodate 4,200 fans for AHL games.
The expansion project, which will add 200,000 square feet to the existing building, will feature six ice sheets upon its completion, which will make it the largest ice facility under one roof west of the Mississippi River. The targeted competition date is April 2022.
The Barracuda has featured a young lineup over the past few seasons, as reflected by the team’s finish in the division standings – fourth in both 2017-18 and 2020-21 and seventh in 2019-20. The Cuda owned a 12-15-1 record at the point of Sommer’s latest milestone win to place the team at the bottom of the nine-team Pacific Division standings.
“We’re pretty young again for the most part,” Sommer acknowledged. “We have a few guys with some experience. We have some guys right now trying to find their way and it’s kind of frustrating.”
What has changed since Sommer first played at the junior and professional levels is the number of California natives who have embraced the game and excelled at its higher levels.
This year’s Cuda roster, for instance, features three Californians on the ice besides Sommer behind the bench.
Los Angeles native Evan Weinger (pictured right) joined the Barracuda as an undrafted free agent in 2018-19. His first professional season was modest with 11 goals and 22 points in 60 games. His second season in the AHL was even more productive with 20 points in 38 games. He logged eight points in 28 games during the shortened 2029-21 season and has already surpassed those numbers with nine points in 27 games so far this season.
He scored a shorthanded goal, his fifth goal of the season, in Sommer’s 799th career coaching victory on Dec. 31 – a 4-0 win in Stockton. He had two assists to help his coach to his 800th win.
“If he had a finish, he’d be in the NHL right now,” Sommer assessed of Weinger, 24, who played two seasons with the Los Angeles Jr, Kings before joining the Portland Winterhawks for the 2014-15 Western Hockey League (WHL) season.
Sasha Chmelevski, a Huntington Beach native, made his debut with the Cuda in 2017-18 after being drafted in the sixth round (185th overall) in 2017 by the Sharks and spent much of the 2020-21 COVID season on the Sharks’ taxi squad, appearing in five NHL games with two assists.
Chmelevski, 22, racked up 27 points in 42 games in his first full season with the Barracuda in 2019-20. He spent the 2020-21 season with three clubs: the Cuda (20 points in 27 games), the Sharks and Team USA (four points in eight games) in the 2021 IIHF World Championship in Latvia.
He’s started to pick up his play this season with eight goals and 17 points through 27 AHL games.
“He’s kinda struggling to find the net right now but when he does – I hope he does it soon – because we could use some goals,” Sommer said.
Chmelevski answered the call with three goals and one assist to brace Sommer’s No. 800th win to grab the first star of the game spotlight.
Jake McGrew, another Jr. Kings alumnus, was drafted in the sixth round (159th overall) by the Sharks in 2017 out of the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs. The Orange County native, 22, appeared in 27 games with the Barracuda in the 2020-21 season with four goals and seven points. In 17 games this season he’s logged four goals and six points.
He had a goal in Sommer’s 800th career win.
“There’s more and more,” Sommer noted with a gleam in his eye. “The L.A. region is pumping them out. Even in Northern California, the Jr. Sharks are getting some guys with good looks at the college level. They’re coming in and taking some NHL spots now. It’s good to see.”
Icing on the cake
McGrew (pictured below left), who notched 31 goals and 54 points in 61 games with Spokane in 2018-19, has the rare distinction of scoring two goals in his first pro game with the ECHL Allen Americans in 2020-21.
“It was pretty crazy, especially coming off an injury and doing all the work to get back on the ice,” McGrew said. “That was something special and I’ll remember it for along time.”
He’s also appeared in three games with the ECHL Orlando Solar Bears this season with three goals and three assists.
Making the move up to the AHL – one step below the NHL – has obviously been exciting on McGrew’s career path. Playing alongside two Southern California natives has also been exciting.
“It’s fun,” he said. “California hockey wasn’t too big when I was growing up but it’s getting bigger. It’s cool, especially playing in San Jose. Having traveled there for tournaments and stuff, it’s feels like a second home. It’s only a five-hour drive from my house. It’s definitely cool and I don’t take it for granted.”
McGrew played two years of youth roller hockey before making the transition to ice hockey.
“I actually played my first ice hockey game with Sasha Chmelevski, so ending up in the same place and same program was pretty cool,” McGrew said. “Obviously, when you’re a kid, I grew up watching the Ducks and idolizing those guys, it was always a dream (to be drafted in the NHL) but I never thought it would become a reality. I had a little idea that I might get drafted but it was pretty crazy, especially from a California team. It’s definitely something special.”
The Orange County native hasn’t stopped dreaming.
“I’ve been working hard, everyone has a path,” McGrew said. “It’s said that it’s a marathon rather than a sprint, and I think that’s true. I’m going to do what I need to do and hopefully make it to the NHL one day.”
Gilroy-born Dustin Wolf (pictured below right) has taken the AHL by storm in his first full season in the league with a 15-0-2 record, 1.79 goals-against average and 0.942 save percentage in 17 game appearances. The seventh-round (214th overall) pick by the Calgary Flames in the 2019 NHL Draft had yet to lose in regulation for the Pacific Division-leading Stockton Heat (19-3-2-1).
The 20-year-old netminder received an emergency call-up to the parent Flames on Dec. 30 and earned honors as the league’s Goaltender of the Month for December 2021.
Rancho Cucamonga’s Collin Delia received credit for scoring a goal for the Rockford IceHogs in a 3-1 AHL win over the Texas Stars on Dec. 18. He was the last Rockford player to touch the puck when a Texas pass from behind the Rockford net went the length of the ice into an empty net. Delia, who called his scoring play “hilarious,” has appeared in 24 games for the NHL Chicago Blackhawks since turning pro in 2017-18. He had a 4-4-1 record with a 2.86 GAA and 0.907 save percentage in nine appearances with Rockford this season.
Delia, 27, is the 16th goaltender in AHL history to be credited with a goal and the first goaltender in Rockford’s AHL history to be credited with a goal.
La Mirada’s Chase De Leo signed a one-year, two-way contract with the New Jersey Devils after spending three seasons in San Diego with the AHL Gulls. De Leo, 26, has appeared in two NHL games with the Devils this season while appearing in 14 games for the Utica Comets, New Jersey’s AHL affiliate. He’s helped the Comets blaze to a league-best 18-1-3 start with five goals and 13 assists as the team’s leading scorer.
Newport Beach’s Eric Comrie, after logging time with five teams in both the AHL and NHL over parts of three seasons (2018-19 to 2020-21), has appeared in seven games for the NHL Winnipeg Jets this season with a 3-2-1 record, 2.53 GAA and 0.914 save percentage.
Comrie, 26, appeared in one game for the Jets in 2018-19, three games for the NHL Detroit Red Wings in 2019-20 and one game for the Devils in 2020-21. During that same time span, he also suited up for Tucson and Manitoba in the AHL.
San Diego native Thatcher Demko is enjoying his third full season with the NHL Vancouver Canucks after three seasons in the AHL from 2017-19. In 27 games this season, the Canucks’ second-round pick (36th overall) in the 2014 NHL Draft had logged a 15-11-1 record with a 2.55 GAA and a .920 save percentage.
A former Jr. Gull, California Titan and Jr. King, Demko, 26, recorded 13 wins for Vancouver in 2019-20 and 16 wins in 2020-21.
Photos/Phillip Brents & San Jose Barracuda
— Phillip Brents
(January 11, 2022)