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San Diego Gulls honored with AHL Team of the Year award for ’16-17 season

 

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As impressive as the San Diego Gulls’ inaugural American Hockey League (AHL) season was in 2015-16, the team managed to top that in 2016-17.

The Gulls set franchise records for most wins in one season (43), winning percentage (.669) and most points in one season (91) en route to advancing to the Pacific Division Finals for the second consecutive season.

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Of note, the Gulls’ winning percentage ranked second among Western Conference teams and third overall among AHL clubs, trailing only the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (.704) and San Jose Barracuda (.699).

The Gulls also helped develop players for the team’s National Hockey League (NHL) affiliate, enabling the Anaheim Ducks to advance all the way to the Western Conference Finals in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

What the Gulls accomplished off the ice may have been even more noteworthy.

The Gulls were presented with the AHL’s President’s Award as the Team of the Year during the AHL Board of Governors’ annual meeting July 5 in Hilton Head, S.C. Established in 2009, the President’s Award is given to an AHL organization for overall excellence in the past year.

The Gulls posted some impressive numbers in winning the coveted award. The San Diego franchise ranked third in the 30-team league with an average attendance of 8,876 fans – an increase of 2.3 percent from the previous season. The Gulls also placed among the league sales leaders in several categories, including ticket and corporate partnership revenues, and continued its strong and positive impact in the San Diego community

The Gulls also received recognition as one of the winners in the league’s annual business services awards. The AHL honored one club from each conference for top revenue growth in four areas during the past season: overall ticket sales, season ticket sales, group ticket sales and corporate sponsorship sales.

The Gulls took home the Western Conference award for group ticket sales growth. The Springfield Thunderbirds were recognized for group ticket sales growth in the Eastern Conference.

At the league’s marketing meeting held in June in Phoenix, Ariz., the Gulls were recognized as the league’s Ticket Sales Department of the Year.

Gulls president of business operations Matt Savant was in South Carolina to accept the President’s Award from AHL president and CEO Dave Andrews.

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“I am so incredibly proud of this organization, what a huge team win!” Savant posted on his Twitter account (@msavant88). “Thank you AHL.”

San Diego head coach Dallas Eakins was among the first to offer congratulations to the team’s hard-working staff in recognition of the awards.

“Extremely proud of the philosophy, vision and environment that we are building together,” Eakins posted on his Twitter account (@dallaseakins). “We are all a team. Making each other their best.”

Additionally, teams from each conference were recognized for excellence in the areas of digital media, community relations and fan experience as part of the league’s business service awards. The Ontario Reign earned the nod among Western Conference teams for exceptional community relations efforts, taking home the Communications Relation Award for Excellence.

The Reign set a team record last season by donating more than $729,000 and more than 1,000 volunteer hours in the Inland Empire community.

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Auctions of game-worn specialty jerseys raised more than $306,000 for multiple organizations, including the Hope Reigns Foundation, Bob Hope USO Ontario, University of LaVerne Scholarship Fund, San Antonio Regional Hospital Foundation, American Red Cross San Bernardino County Chapter, Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital Foundation, Humane Society of San Bernardino Valley and The Be Perfect Foundation.

The Reign and its charitable wing, the Hope Reigns Foundation, made it a priority to give back to youth, families and schools in the Inland Empire. During the 2016-17 season, the Reign fulfilled more than 400 requests, including ticket and merchandise donations and more than $425,000 in donations to non-profit organizations, including Inland Empire Ronald McDonald House, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Toys for Tots and area schools. The Hope Reigns Foundation and the Reign’s partners also raised more than $100,000 for local organizations.

The Reign also registered more than 30,000 students for Read to Reign, a new reading program introduced last season to encourage children to read. The team hosted more than 4,700 students to its inaugural Cool School game, a morning preseason game at Citizens Business Bank Arena focused on the importance of learning, school spirit and students following their dreams.
The Hartford Wolf Pack earned the award for exceptional community relations work in the Eastern Conference.

Home cookin’

Teams will now concentrate on building success in the 2017-18 AHL campaign.

The Gulls will host 25 promotional and theme nights during the upcoming season. The team faces off its third season in San Diego Oct. 13 against the Texas Stars at the Valley View Casino Center.

The Gulls’ promotional schedule includes 12 theme nights besides six giveaway nights. Military Weekend is scheduled Nov. 10-11 during which the team’s players will wear a camouflage jersey each night. The popular Teddy Bear Toss is scheduled Dec. 16, with all bears to be donated to the San Diego Regional Law Enforcement Teddy Bear Drive to benefit Rady Children’s Hospital.

The Stockton Heat will host the Bakersfield Condors on Oct. 6 at Stockton Arena to face off the 2017-18 season. The team has scheduled a number of theme nights as well, including Night of Champions (Oct. 14), Heat Hockey Fights Cancer (Nov. 4), Teddy Bear Toss (Jan. 20), Safety Night (Feb. 17), Star Wars Night (Mar. 3) and Heat Goes Green (Mar. 17).

Ontario will host is second Cool School on Sept. 28 when more than 7,000 students are expected to attend a preseason game at Citizens Business Bank Arena against the Gulls. The team will host Bakersfield Oct. 20-21 during Opening Weekend.

The Reign released its full promotional schedule on Aug. 11 in celebration of the 10th anniversary season of hockey in the Inland Empire. Featured are bobble heads, blankets and jersey giveaways besides a pride of theme nights, including L.A. Kings Affiliate Night (Dec. 1), Teddy Bear Toss (Dec. 16), Princess and Pirates Day (Dec. 23), Wild West Night (Jan. 13) and Military Appreciation Day (April 6).

The Reign will celebrate Throwback Night on Dec. 15 when players will don original ECHL dragon inspired jerseys; fans can ring in 2018 with a special postgame fireworks and laser show following the team’s Dec. 31 game.

The Barracuda will face off its third season in San Jose with an Oct. 13 matchup against the defending Calder Cup champion Grand Rapids Griffins. The game is a rematch of the teams’ Western Conference Finals won last season by the Griffins.

The fun only starts there for Cuda fans. The team has scheduled a smorgasbord of theme nights, including Military Appreciation Day (Nov. 11), Superhero Day (Nov. 18), Pucks & Paws Night (Nov. 24), Fighter Pilot Night (Dec. 16), Teddy Bear Toss (Dec. 22), Tuxedo Day (Jan. 15), Barracuda Blackout (March 10) and Beach Day (April 7), among others.

San Jose players will don six specialty jerseys during the season.

Bakersfield will host the San Antonio Rampage Oct. 12 to face off the new season. The game is on Thursday and will feature a special 6:30 p.m. start time (as will all Monday through Thursday games this season).

The Condors will also host Wonder Woman Appearance/Military Appreciation Night (Nov. 4), Teddy Bear Toss (Nov. 25), Field Trip Day (Nov. 30), Star Wars Night (Jan. 27) and Youth Jersey Night (Feb. 24).

Condorstown, which the team affectionately calls its home nest, will mark its 20th anniversary this season. The Condors made their debut in Bakersfield in 1998-99 as members of the West Coast Hockey League, followed by membership in the ECHL until the arrival of the AHL team in 2015-16.

The Condors remain an affiliate of the NHL Edmonton Oilers.

Changing places

Following the NHL’s Expansion Draft for its new Las Vegas franchise on June 21, the NHL’s annual Entry Draft took place June 23-24 in Chicago. The NHL’s next big player movement period began July 1 when teams could sign unrestricted and restricted free agents.

Whittier’s Mitch Callahan was perhaps the highest profile California native to ink a contract with a new team during this summer’s free agent signing period.

Callahan, who won his second AHL Calder Cup championship in five years with the Grand Rapids Griffins this past June, left the Detroit Red Wings organization to sign a two-year, two-way contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

The move west agrees with the Golden State product.

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“I’m truly excited to start a new chapter and join the @EdmontonOilers organization,” Callahan posted on his Twitter account (@Mcally15) on July 1. “I can’t wait till September/October to get things going!”

Callahan, 25, collected 16 goals and 43 points in 66 regular season games with Grand Rapids this past season, adding six goals and 16 points in 19 playoff games.

Callahan won his first Calder Cup championship with Grand Rapids in 2013.

During his six years in the Detroit Red Wings organization, he played in five NHL games, including four games in 2016-17. He has yet to pick up a point in an NHL contest.

Along the way, he appeared in 365 regular season AHL games with Grand Rapids, recording 94 goals, 186 points and 422 penalty minutes. In 60 AHL playoff games, he has tallied 13 goals and 21 assists.

While Callahan is looking forward to new opportunities with the Oilers, he expressed his gratitude to Griffins fans.

“Thank you @DetroitRedWings and @griffinshockey for everything,” he posted on his Twitter account. “It was an honor to be apart of great organization. It was a tremendous time.”

Callahan will get the chance to earn a spot on Edmonton’s 23-man roster when training camp opens in the fall.

The Bakersfield Condors serve as the Oilers’ AHL affiliate, meaning there is a possibility that Callahan could be experiencing an extended California homecoming should he receive another assignment at the AHL level.

West Hills native Matt Ford, who won a Calder Cup championship with Callahan last season, remains in Grand Rapids on the second year of a two-year contract. Ford, 32, collected 14 goals and 35 points in 51 regular season games in 2016-17 while adding eight goals and 12 points in 19 playoff games. He posted a Calder Cup leading six power play goals during the playoffs.

Ford appeared in 64 games and recorded 27 goals and 51 points with Bakersfield in 2015-16 as part of the Oilers organization.

Other players with California connections to sign free agent contracts this summer include former Ontario team captain Vincent LoVerde and former San Diego/Tucson center Chris Mueller. Both signed two-year contracts with the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs.

LoVerde’s contract carries an annual average value of $725,000 while Mueller’s contract carries an annual average value of $650,000.

A defenseman, LoVerde spent seven years in the L.A. Kings organization, winning a Calder Cup championship with Manchester in 2015. He appeared in 301 regular season games for the Kings’ Manchester/Ontario AHL affiliate, recording 33 goals and 120 points.

He is coming off his best season as a pro with 35 points in 61 games with the Reign last season.

LoVerde, 28, began his pro career in 2011-12 out of Miami University of Ohio by playing two seasons with the Ontario Reign in the ECHL.

He has appeared in 45 career Calder Cup playoffs with 13 points. He served as Ontario captain in both 2015-16 and 2016-17 as well as with Manchester during its Calder Cup championship season in 2014-15.

He was named to participate in both the 2016 and 2017 AHL All-Star Classic events.

“Wanted to thank the @LAKings, @ontarioreign, @MonarchsHockey organization, teammates, and fans for the past four years,” LoVerde posted on his Twitter account (@Vincent_LoVerde). “With that being said, excited to join the @MapleLeafs and the GTA community.”

Mueller, 31, tied for the team scoring lead during the Gulls’ inaugural season in San Diego, notching 57 points (20 goals, 37 assists) in 63 games. He topped Tucson’s fledgling club in scoring last season with 67 points (19 goals, 48 assists) in 68 games.

Mueller, who won a Calder Cup championship with the Texas Stars in 2014, has logged 53 NHL games in his 10-year pro career with Nashville, Dallas and the New York Rangers, notching 10 points (three goals, seven assists). He is scoreless in four career NHL playoff games.

Mueller has appeared in 578 career AHL games with 410 points (170 goals, 240 assists). He ranked third in the AHL in 2016-17 in point scoring.

“Very excited and thankful for the opportunity to be part of the @MapleLeafs organization for the next two seasons!” Mueller posted to his followers on social media (@muells129).

Around the AHL

The AHL’s 82nd season officially faces off Oct. 6 and concludes regular season play on April 15. A total of 1,116 regular-season games are scheduled to be played in 2017-18.

League membership remains at 30 teams, though three teams will entertain new markets in 2017-18. The Ottawa Senators have moved their AHL affiliate from Binghampton, N.Y., to Belleville, Ont., while the Montreal Canadiens have moved their AHL affiliate in St. John, Newfoundland, to Laval, Quebec.

The franchise re-locations are to better serve the parent NHL team in terms of quicker access to players and to better oversee player development.

The new teams will be known respectively, as the Belleview Senators and Laval Rocket (in homage to former Canadiens great Maurice “The Rocket” Richard).

One final AHL franchise shift includes the transfer of the Albany Devils to Binghamton to replace the departed Senators.

The AHL announced it will expand to 31 teams for the 2018-19 season so that each of the 31 NHL teams has its own primary AHL affiliate for 2018-19 and beyond.

Currently, the St. Louis Blues do not have an exclusive AHL affiliate. The Blues will, however, continue to send prospects the Chicago Wolves AHL franchise, at least for the upcoming season. The Wolves announced a five-year partnership with the NHL expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights in May.

The AHL Board of Governors did not reveal which market its 31st team will call home, noting that the NHL and AHL clubs involved will issue a joint announcement on the identity of the new market when the process of concluding related agreements is completed.

The Western Conference will receive one tweak in 2017-18 as the Charlotte Checkers move to the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division to help reduce travel costs and spark closer geographic rivalries on the East Coast.

The Western Conference will include 15 teams total – eight teams in the Pacific Division (where there will be no change in alignment) and seven teams in the Central Division (with the departure of the Checkers).

Pacific Division membership includes the five California franchises plus the Tucson Roadrunners (Arizona Coyotes), Texas Stars (Dallas Stars) and San Antonio Rampage (Colorado Avalanche). California franchises include San Jose (San Jose Sharks), Stockton (Calgary Flames), Ontario (L.A. Kings), Bakersfield (Edmonton) and San Diego (Anaheim).

The Central Division now includes the Chicago Wolves (Vegas Golden Knights), Cleveland Monsters (Columbus Blue Jackets), Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wings), Iowa Wild (Minnesota Wild), Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets), Milwaukee Admirals (Nashville Predators) and Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks).

The Eastern Conference will also boast 15 teams – eight teams in the Atlantic Division and seven teams in the North Division.

Membership in the Atlantic Division will now include the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (New York Islanders), Charlotte Checkers (Carolina Hurricanes), Hartford Wolf Pack (New York Rangers), Hershey Bears (Washington Capitals), Lehigh Valley Phantoms (Philadelphia Flyers), Providence Bruins (Boston Bruins), Springfield Thunderbirds (Florida Panthers) and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins (Pittsburgh Penguins).

Membership in the North Division will now include the Belleville Senators (Ottawa Senators), Binghamton Devils (New Jersey Devils), Laval Rocket (Montreal Canadiens), Rochester Americans (Buffalo Sabres), Syracuse Crunch (Tampa Bay Lightning), Toronto Marlies (Toronto Maple Leafs) and Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks).

Each team will receive two points for a win and one point for an overtime or shootout loss. The top four teams in each of the four divisions ranked by points percentage (points earned divided by points available) qualify for the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs.

The division semifinals remain a best-of-five playoff series, while the conference and league championship series are best-of-seven series.

Photo of Mitch Callahan/Sam Iannamico/Grand Rapids Griffins

— Phillip Brents