Why Roy Sommer continues to coach after 2,021 “grueling” minor league hockey games

One morning in mid-November in southern British Columbia, San Jose Barracuda head coach Roy Sommer looked out of his hotel room window and began to worry.

Relentless rain threatened to flood the river across the street. Should the nearby Trans-Canada Highway become impassable, the San Jose Sharks’ main minor league affiliate would have no way of reaching the airport and returning home. Being stranded in Abbotsford, BC, just 4 miles north of the US border, was not how Sommer envisioned ending this early season trip.

Less than four hours after the Barracuda rushed onto the team’s bus and began its journey back to the Bay Area, Sommer learned that the Trans-Canada Highway had been flooded. The closed call would be another memorable story in a career filled with them.

In a Canadian game with lucrative paychecks, the affable Oakland native who only made three NHL appearances as a rambling center four decades ago is an anomaly – a most successful man. comfortable in the effort class of hockey. Almost six years after surpassing Hall of Fame Fred “Bun” Cook for the American Hockey League winning record, Sommer, 64, has a legacy in the minor leagues that will be hard to eclipse.

In addition to the 662 games he played in the minors, he recorded 2,021 as a head coach. For the past 26 years, with the Sharks going through six head coaches, three general managers and two owner groups, Sommer has been a mainstay of the organization.

He spent all of those seasons except 2½ as the head coach of the main NHL team branch, next to Lexington, Ky. (1998-2001) in Cleveland (2001-06) in Worcester , Mass. (2006-15) in San Jose. In doing so, Sommer racked up 793 wins, 157 more than any coach in AHL history.

These numerous victories in the NHL would place him fifth all-time behind Scotty Bowman (1,244), Joel Quenneville (969), Barry Trotz (882) and Ken Hitchcock (849). What brings Sommer more satisfaction, however, are the approximately 170 players he has led to the highest level of the sport. NHL stars such as Jonathan Cheechoo, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have benefited from Sommer’s lively and hands-on instruction.

“When you tell a kid they’re going into the NHL and living their dream, it’s worth it,” said Sommer, who attended Skyline High School in Oakland for a year before moving on. join a junior hockey team in Alberta in 1974. “Parents are standing in the stands crying. The kids are so nervous, so excited.

“It can be a grueling and thankless sport, but it makes the rewards even more important. “

Roy Sommer, San Jose Barracuda head coach and Oakland native, explains a drill for forward Adam Raska (57) during practice at the Solar4America rink in San Jose, Calif. On Tuesday, November 16. 2021.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

Maybe no one knows professional hockey better than Sommer, whose 10-year playing career spanned nine minor league teams from Wichita, Kan., To Portland, Maine. When he retired in 1987 at the age of 30, he was planning to return to the Bay Area and become an electrician, but one of his former coaches offered him an assistant job with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League.

The next eight years were a blur of moves across the country, budget motels and unpredictable bosses. Finally, after two stints as the head coach of a professional roller hockey team in San Jose, Sommer landed an assistant position in 1996 with the all-new NHL franchise.

Two years later, he voluntarily left to take over the Sharks branch in the Kentucky minor leagues. What Sommer couldn’t know then was that, more than two decades later, he would be playing the same role.

A hockey purist, he turned down opportunities elsewhere, including coaching a professional team in Switzerland, because he feels fulfilled helping young people reach their goal in the NHL. In his Barracuda players, Sommer sees himself.

On January 28, 1981, after building a reputation with the Wichita Wind as a talented goalscorer, he received a mid-season call-up with the Edmonton Oilers. In the locker room before his NHL debut, Sommer’s hands were shaking so violently that he struggled to tie his skates. His new teammate, Wayne Gretzky, was sitting a few feet away, munching on a hot dog and sipping a coke.

On Sommer’s first shift in that home game against Montreal, he battled with Canadiens defenseman Rod Langway. Then, in the third period, he scored a goal to help glean a 9-1 victory.

When Sommer was sacked to Wichita two games later, he had no idea he would spend the next six years chasing after that feeling, never to play an extra minute in the NHL again. But instead of dwelling on assumptions, he prefers to feel grateful. At least he knows what’s going on in the minds of his players when he tells them to show up for the Sharks.

The AHL is full of 19, 20 and 21 year olds who are just starting to move away from their families or the comforts of a college dorm. Sommer tries to ease that transition by hosting an overnight camping trip along the Sonoma Coast each fall, where players pitch tents, roast marshmallows, and listen to Sommer’s many stories.

An old school coach who embraces the physique, he teaches his team the nuances of ice fighting. When the Barracuda game is inspired, Sommer gives them a night out at hockey outposts such as Loveland, Colorado, Bakersfield or Cedar Park, Texas.

“Everyone in the NHL is married, has kids, and doesn’t hang out so much,” said John McCarthy, a development coach for the Barracuda who played 10 and a half seasons for Sommer. “In the minors, you have younger guys and a lot more free time. Roy loves this aspect.

“He just wants to make sure everyone feels a part of it. He’s really good at building that team aspect.

Roy Sommer, San Jose Barracuda head coach and Oakland native, right, explains a workout during a workout at the Solar4America rink in San Jose, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

Roy Sommer, San Jose Barracuda head coach and Oakland native, right, explains a workout during a workout at the Solar4America rink in San Jose, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

Sommer’s 30-year-old son, Marley, who has Down syndrome, is his sidekick. With an almost constant laughter, Marley hangs shirts, sponges spilled, jokes with the players – all while unknowingly giving the team an important reminder: there are challenges far greater than trying to escape. to minors.

Such a prospect helped Sommer come to terms with the Sharks passing him half a dozen times when they changed head coaches. While Sommer enjoyed his two stints as an assistant with the big club and would love the chance to lead an NHL team, he won’t be complaining if he spends the rest of his career in the AHL.

In some ways, this is an ideal fit for him. Unlike the NHL, where coaches often bark clich̩s as they stand behind the bench in bespoke suits, the AHL Рa league with sparse crowds, goofy mascots, and no big TV deals Рallows Sommer to be himself.

At games, he wears a bolo tie as a nod to his ancestors who were dairy farmers in Monterey County. On Halloween, Sommer dresses up in elaborate costumes. As Christmas approaches, he challenges his players in an ugly sweater contest. On long bus trips to small markets, Sommer feasts his staff on stories of crazy characters and bass comedy.

The time he arrived in central Saskatchewan for a job as a coach with no winter clothes because someone had stolen all of his belongings from the back of his truck. The time one of his players, who he later learned was moonlighting as a pimp, ripped a payphone from a wall in a hotel lobby. The time he lived in a township outside of Napa between hockey gigs.

“Every day he’s having fun,” said Joe Will, Barracuda’s longtime general manager. “As he got older, he didn’t slow down. He comes to the ice with great joy and aspiration to bring players into the NHL. “

At a level where coaches tend to get laid off or promoted after a few years, Sommer has adapted over and over again to survive the Sharks’ leadership changes. His offensive system evolves based on what the NHL head coach wants. It also doesn’t hurt that, with his quirky sense of humor and non-stop energy, Sommer is like a lovable uncle to many of his players.

Roy Sommer, San Jose Barracuda head coach and Oakland native, poses for a portrait after team practice at the Solar4America rink in San Jose, Calif. On Tuesday, November 16, 2021.

Roy Sommer, San Jose Barracuda head coach and Oakland native, poses for a portrait after team practice at the Solar4America rink in San Jose, Calif. On Tuesday, November 16, 2021.

Stephen Lam / The Chronicle

His modest salary doesn’t match his contributions to the organization, but he’s never been a fan of fine things, anyway. In his twenties, Sommer spent summers sleeping in a teepee on 20 acres of land he bought in the Montana countryside. His wife, Melissa, later convinced Sommer to build a small cabin on Lake Ashley so that they would have a place to stay with their three children during the off-seasons. Every now and then, it even picks up a cell signal.

Seasonally, Sommer lives with Melissa and Marley in a duplex about a mile from the team facility. This allows dad and son easy access to the rink in case a player needs help with late night shots.

By next season, the Barracuda will have a new 4,200-seat arena – a welcome development for a team used to playing in front of empty seats in the oversized SAP Center. Sommer has not yet decided whether he will be present for the inauguration of the establishment. At this point in his career, he likes to wait and see how he feels every offseason.

Those who know Sommer best expect him to stay with the Barracuda for many years to come. He has more stories to tell.

“It was definitely a crazy trip,” Sommer said. “But honestly, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Connor Letourneau is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @Con_Chron

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