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Sommer right at home with AHL’s Barracuda

 

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Have you heard the one about…?

Roy Sommer has. In fact, if the Oakland native hasn’t lived or told the hockey tale, it’s probably not worth telling.

The coach of the San Jose Sharks’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate has begun his 20th year with the organization and 18th as their AHL coach in locations as varied as Lexington, Ky., Cleveland and Worcester, Mass.

Along the way, he’s set the AHL record for most games coached (1,351 through Nov. 1).

But the best story is yet to be written this season.

Rest assured it will be, however, when Sommer surpasses Fred “Bun” Cook for the most coaching wins in AHL history. As of Nov. 1, Sommer was at 620, 16 behind Cook.

The feat will be even sweeter because Sommer is coaching the San Jose Barracuda now thanks to this past spring’s creation of an all-California division in the AHL. Quick as a one-timer, the Sharks moved their top development franchise west, and Sommer’s homecoming was on.

“To think that I’d be back here this late in my career, in a place where my pro coaching career really started off, it’s pretty amazing,” Sommer said. “I’ve come full circle.”

Full – as in glass half full – is an operative word when it comes to the affable coach, who’s blazed trails to every point of North America in the game – first as a player, then as a coach.

It started for Sommer at the old Berkeley Iceland, where as fate would have it club president Fred Rowley owned a hockey school in Nelson, British Columbia. It was there where Sommer and many of his hockey kin in Northern California gained attention.

“I started going there when I was 10 years old. Scouts would come in at the end of the two-week session and we’d have games on Friday and Saturday nights,” he said. “That’s how I got my break. If I hadn’t done that, I’d probably be a cop or something; I know I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now.”

Among those who also emerged from Nelson were Hank Taylor, who was in the running to make the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and was a minor-league scoring machine, and Mike Holmes, the longtime coach for the Tri-Valley Blue Devils and Golden State Elite Eagles who enjoyed a standout college career at Northeastern University.

From Nelson, Sommer played juniors in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Edmonton and Calgary. In 1977, the Toronto Maple Leafs liked him enough to spend sixth-round draft pick on him. His pro career began in Saginaw, Mich. – the first of 10 minor-league stops during a 10-year playing career.

Two years later, he was playing in Grand Rapids, Mich., where a scene from “Slap Shot” came to life.

“Remember the guy who always looking in the mirror, had the girls around him?” Sommer asks. “Guido Tenisi. I played with him in Grand Rapids, and he was exactly like that. He would look in the mirror after games and fix his hair. He’d have the blow dryer going. In the movie, he does a play where he does a curl-and-drag, takes a shot and scores; he would do that all the time with us.”

He joined the Edmonton Oilers organization in 1979-80 and was recalled during the 1980-81 season. In his first game, he scored a goal and got into a fight with Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway. It was the only goal he scored and one of just three games he’d play in the league.

But his time in Edmonton was even more notable because it made him the first California-born and -trained hockey player to reach the NHL – a fact Sommer didn’t realize until informed of it during our interview. His reaction speaks volumes about his humility and focus on others – traits that explain his coaching success and staying power as much as any.

“There’s got to be someone before me. Really?” he said. “I’m a fourth-generation Californian. I didn’t know I was the original; that’s pretty cool.”

Sommer played seven more pro seasons before becoming an assistant coach in Muskegon, Mich., which was his final playing stop. From there, he coached in the Western Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and in Roller Hockey International (RHI). It was in RHI where he led the San Jose Rhinos past the Montreal Roadrunners to win the Murphy Cup in the final pro game played at the Montreal Forum in 1995. His goaltender was Barracuda (and Sharks Ice) vice president Jon Gustafson.

In the summer of 1996, the five-year-old Sharks were looking for an assistant coach for Al Sims’ staff and Sommer applied.

“I told myself if I continued to play, I wanted to play in the National Hockey League; I got my three games in,” he said. “Then when I started coaching, I said I want to coach in the National Hockey League some day, and I got a couple years in as an assistant coach.

“It’s always been a long process. It’s not like I’ve hopped from one thing into another; it’s been a journey.”

The journey continued when the Sharks hired him to lead their top developmental affiliate, then in Kentucky in 1998.

“Coaching in the American League, being able to coach some of the players I have, like the (Logan) Coutures, the (Joe) Pavelskis, the (Jonathan) Cheechoos, the Mark Smiths – some guys who have gone to have successful careers – that’s been really rewarding,” Sommer added.

“When I started in the American League – my first taste of professional hockey – I realized he’s one of those coaches with so much experience,” said Pavelski, the Sharks’ captain. “He talked about fast players and their work ethics, some of the players he saw, the things they did to get better.”

Sommer’s value to the Sharks can’t be overstated, said Barracuda general manager Joe Will, who also is the NHL team’s assistant general manager.

“Roy brings stability and mentorship,” Will said. “We’ve had a lot of players who’ve come through here who’ve been quality citizens and good players and good people. Roy brings stability to that.

“It’s a job where you need somebody who’s not selfish at all, and that’s Roy to a T. With Roy, it’s all about mentoring them. He’s hard on them; he takes young men and gets them ready to be NHLers, on and off the ice. He’s put so many guys – 120 or 140 – into the league. He’s brought them in ready to play and to go out in the community and things like that.”

Sommer is pragmatic about the AHL record, but knows it’s just one part of the bigger picture.

“That’s a record that’ll be good when it’s over with,” he said. “It’s an honor, really, when you look at the guys who’ve coached in this league and been successful.”

When his thoughts linger just a bit, Sommer recalls just how unlikely all of this is – not just the records but San Jose’s emergence as a big-time city and the Sharks as the hub of a flourishing hockey market.

“Who would have thought I’d be in my home state right down the road with a record to break like that?” Sommer said. “I came out of Berkeley Iceland, traveled all over the United States and Canada. Who would have thought it would lead back to San Jose?

“My grandparents had a house down in Ben Lomond, and you’d drive from Oakland down there and pass through San Jose; it was all orchards and farm land. Now it’s one of the most prestigious places to live in the United States. Who would have thought that?”

If it seems storybook, well maybe it is.

“It’s a little bit of a Forrest Gump thing,” Will said. “He starts on a line with Wayne Gretzky, scores for the Edmonton Oilers after starting off at Berkeley Iceland. And he’s going to break the AHL coaching record at home in California.

“It’s very cool.”

– Chris Bayee