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Minor-League Coaching Legend Back in the Game in Junior Hockey

Minor-League Coaching Legend Back in the Game in Junior Hockey

Coaches (top L-R) Mike Ricci, head coach Bob Boughner, and Roy Sommer of the San Jose Sharks watch from the bench during the third period of the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena in Glendale, Arizona, on January 14, 2020. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Dan Wood

Dan Wood

11/13/2023

Updated: 11/13/2023

Roy Sommer had called it a career.
After setting an American Hockey League record with 828 coaching victories over 25 seasons and being named to the AHL’s Hall of Fame in October, the Oakland, California native had retired to Montana. He was all set for hunting season.
“It was my first year being able to do that,” Mr. Sommer told The Epoch Times. “I had all my spots picked out and my cabin back in the woods that I bought like 46 years ago. I was ready to go.”
A scouting trip with his son, Castan, who is a college assistant coach at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, changed everything. The two ran into Seattle Kraken scout Doug Wilson Jr., who had been with the San Jose Sharks during part of Mr. Sommer’s 24 years in that organization.
Mr. Wilson relayed word that the Wenatchee Wild, a Washington-based team in the junior Western Hockey League, was suddenly in need of a coach and asked whether Mr. Sommer might be interested.
A few telephone calls later, Mr. Sommer found himself in Wenatchee, where he reconnected with Bliss Littler, the Wild general manager with whom he had worked decades ago in Minot, North Dakota in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
“I went up for a day, looked around, and then he goes, ‘What do you think?’” Mr. Sommer said. “I go, ‘Well, you know what, I’ll give it a shot,’ and here I am.”
The unexpected opportunity created a chance for Mr. Sommer to regain the joy he had known during a life in hockey, which included a 10-year professional playing career. Save for three games with the Edmonton Oilers in 1980-81, when he became the first California-born player to appear in the NHL, all that time came in the minor leagues.
That same passion, kindled when Mr. Sommer played youth hockey at the old Iceland rink in Berkeley, California, remained during his five seasons as a head coach in the East Coast Hockey League and his time working for San Jose.
In addition to two stints as a Sharks assistant, he coached the club’s top minor-league affiliate at various times in Lexington, Kentucky; Cleveland; Worcester; and most recently, San Jose.
Last season, however, after having moved to the San Diego Gulls, the primary farm club of the Anaheim Ducks, things changed.
“Last year, I didn’t have fun,” Mr. Sommer said. “The team wasn’t very good. It was just a bad year. I didn’t enjoy going to the rink. When I came here, it’s been kind of a breath of fresh air.”
Working with mostly players aged 16 to 19 who aspire to advance their careers, as opposed to those who are already professionals, has been a bit different.
“The kids have been real good,” Mr. Sommer said. “They work hard. They’re into it. You tell them something and they don’t roll their eyes. It’s made things a lot easier. That’s for sure.”
Wenatchee is in its first season in the WHL, one of three top major-junior leagues that historically produce prime NHL prospects.
The Wild needed a new coach after the early season firing of Kevin Constantine, a former NHL bench boss with the Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and New Jersey Devils whom an independent investigation found had violated the WHL’s standard of conduct policies.
“I was looking for an experienced guy that had some pro hockey experience,” Mr. Littler told The Epoch Times. “We have three NHL first-round draft picks on our team. You’re looking for somebody that has a good reputation for dealing with players. Once I spoke to Roy, you could hear there is still a lot of fire in his belly. On our end, it was a real easy decision.”
Wenatchee has won eight of 12 games under Mr. Sommer, with the victories having come in succession, so the early returns are certainly positive.
“He’s hit the ground running, instant credibility with the players,” Mr. Littler said. “I’ve always heard this, that he speaks the players’ language. He gets the players. The players get him. He does as much coaching after practice as he does during practice. He stays out on the ice, something that a lot of assistant coaches would do, and works with guys individually to help make them better. You can see those things translate into games.”
Mr. Sommer, 66, agreed to coach the Wild only for the remainder of this season, despite having received a multi-year contract offer.
“I said, ‘Let’s do this year and see how it goes, and then we’ll talk,’” Mr. Sommer said. “If I enjoy it, I’ll keep doing it. If I don’t, I won’t. I don’t have to work, and I don’t need much to live in Montana.”
For now, the biggest challenge might be the notoriously long bus rides common in minor and junior leagues, such as those necessary on a recent three-game trip to Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“It took us 15 hours to get there,” Mr. Sommer said. “That wasn’t much fun, but I made it through, barely. Being in San Diego and San Jose, we basically flew a lot. We didn’t take a lot of long bus trips anymore, so I got kind of spoiled.”
Fittingly, Mr. Sommer’s induction into the AHL Hall of Fame is set for Feb. 5 in San Jose, in conjunction with the league’s annual All-Star Classic.
Head coach Roy Sommer handles bench duties for the Worcester Sharks in the game against the Connecticut Whale at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 12, 2012. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Head coach Roy Sommer handles bench duties for the Worcester Sharks in the game against the Connecticut Whale at the XL Center in Hartford, Connecticut, on December 12, 2012. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

His importance to the Sharks, who were among the NHL’s elite teams for the better part of two decades before falling on hard times recently, was immeasurable, according to San Jose assistant general manager Joe Will, who is also general manager of the AHL Barracuda.
“Pretty much everybody came through there under his mentorship,” Mr. Will told The Epoch Times. “It was all the good years, all the years where we had playoff teams. He was such a big part of helping the players mature so they could be recalled and come here ready to contribute. What he’s been great at is teaching. That’s where his biggest contribution was.”
Whenever Mr. Sommer decides to retire for good, the cabin back in the Montana woods will still be there. The bird dog he purchased before leaving California, however, might just have to wait a while for full-time duty.
“That’s the best thing that came out of San Diego,” he said. “I was training him. That was going to be my new gig.”
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Dan Wood

Dan Wood

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Dan Wood is a community sports reporter based in Orange County, California. He has covered sports professionally for some 43 years, spending nearly three decades in the newspaper industry and 14 years in radio. He is an avid music fan, with a strong lean toward country and classic rock.

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