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ONTARIO, Calif. – San Jose Barracuda coach Roy Sommer sat in a room at the event level of Citizens Business Bank Arena with the World’s Worst Mug.
That was the name labeled on the side of the coffee mug that has followed Sommer from rink to rink over the last several years. Its metal was stained, dirty, worn and strangely charming.
“I would leave it all over the place and it’s all chipped and burned up,” Sommer said.
One of his trainers decided to give it a name. “He said, ‘this is the World’s Worst Mug.’ He put that (label) on and never took it off,” Sommer said.
The 58-year-old Sommer is what many people in hockey refer to as a “beauty.” Like the mug, he’s one of a kind.
“You know what? Roy to me is everything that’s great about this game,” San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. “He is real. He loves the game and he’ll do anything to help a player get better. There’s no filter. To me, he has worked with us for 18 years and put 130 players in the NHL. But every day you’re around him is a pleasure to be around him. He’s a special, special guy.”
He’s coached with the Roanoke Valley Rebels and Richmond Renegades of the ECHL and the San Jose Rhinos of Roller Hockey International. He once held an assistant coaching spot with the San Jose Sharks and finally is now the head coach of San Jose’s AHL affiliate.
After a 3-2 loss to the Ontario Reign on Friday, Sommer remained stuck on 635 AHL wins in his coaching career. The AHL record for wins is 636. Fred “Bun” Cook set the mark, finishing his AHL coaching career in 1956. The Barracuda blew a 2-0 lead at the start of the third period to lose in overtime.
“It’s a record that’s probably going to be hard to break. Who’s going to have the opportunity to coach 18 years in the AHL?” Sommer said. “Most coaches, their inspiration is to get the hell out of here and get to the NHL or go to juniors or go to Europe for something. It’s been a great run.”
Sommer has been the Sharks’ AHL bench boss since 1998-99 when he started with the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Since then, the Oakland, Calif. native has taken his wife and three kids to Cleveland, Worcester and finally back home with the San Jose Barracuda. All teams were at one point affiliated with the Sharks.
“Buried two dogs along the way. So a lot of stuff happens in 18 years or 20 years. You sit back and look at your life. Think of all the stuff that happens in five years let alone 20,” Sommer said.
Ask Sommer about players he’s had in the Sharks’ system and his memory goes back to Jonathan Cheechoo through Ryane Clowe and up to Andrew Desjardins.
He once told a dejected Cheechoo, "you have to be the best player on both (AHL and NHL) teams every night." Essentially saying Cheechoo couldn't pick and choose when to play hard.
Two years later, Cheechoo scored 56 goals playing wing with Joe Thornton on the Sharks.
Sommer's motivational skills also worked on Clowe.
“(He's) another one who didn’t really know how to practice at the NHL level. Just kind of flipped the puck at the goaltender," Sommer said. “Just his practice habits weren’t really good, but his games were really good. Just a real tough kid and kind of would just fend guys off but his practice habits changed and he went up and he came back and said, ‘what am I going to do with six minutes of ice-time?' I told him ‘you have to do something. You have to make an impact somehow. You’re not going to start up playing with (Patrick) Marleau and he figured it out.’”
Sommer marveled at how far Desjardins traveled to make it to at very least the AHL.
“He wasn’t even invited to an ECHL camp and he went to the CHL and played in El Paso or something on the Mexican border for a year,” Sommer said.
And he’s proud of how he pushed the right buttons to get all of them to be stable NHLers.
At the 2010 Winter Olympics, Sommer looked at the rosters and saw them littered with players he once had in the San Jose system.
“That’s kind of rewarding that you had a small part in it,” Sommer said.
Sommer has a notebook he keeps from each season, and sometime reads different years to remember all the different players who played for him and how he used them.
“You kind of look back and are like ‘look at this lineup you had’ and it was really good and ‘look at the roll we went on.’ It’s fun in that respect,” he said.
While a lot of minor league coaches spend a lot of their time trying to move to the NHL or other leagues, Sommer has developed patience for the system.
There’s pressure in the AHL that’s different than the NHL. He receives orders from the parent club to play certain players. If the NHL team has a bunch of injuries, an AHL team that’s playing well could lose some of their best players, which could irk some coaches hell bent on winning.
It’s not that Sommer doesn’t want to win. He’s just been around the AHL long enough to understand the chain of command. Sommer has never made it past the second round of the playoffs in the AHL.
“I used to get real nervous about what I was getting with draft picks coming in and everything else,” Sommer said. “Now you just get what you get. Make the best of them and make them better.”
Sommer, a forward in his playing days, once had an NHL cup of coffee with the Edmonton Oilers. In 1980-81, Sommer played three games with Edmonton and scored a goal. And then went back to the minors. As a player he played with teams like the Spokane Flyers of the PHL, the Grand Rapids Owls of the IHL, the Houston Apollos of the CHL, the Wichita Wind, also of the CHL and the Maine Mariners of the AHL amongst others.
And he sees this as an adventure with willing partners.
His players fondly remember his son Marley, who has Down syndrome and is often near Sommer in his hockey journey.
“You don’t play very well and he’s there. He puts a smile on your face,” Sharks forward Logan Couture said. “You have Marley there making you laugh and making you smile. He always has a smile on his face and he always feeds us some Gatorade … It really gives you a different perspective of life at the rink.”
And many players with the Sharks who came up through the system at one point or another have Sommer as a shared experience. This has led to some bonding amongst the group.
“We have so many stories about the good times we had down there (with him),” Couture said.
Sommer has no public regrets about not making it to the NHL as a head coach. He said he had some opportunities to leave the San Jose organization, but ultimately being with the Sharks has helped him reach this achievement. There’s consistency in knowing Sommer will be there for San Jose, helping their prospects reach the NHL every year. It's a mutually beneficial relationship.
“They’ve hung with me for a long time through thick and thin,” Sommer said. “I got a couple of opportunities to be an assistant and it just didn’t work out for some reason or another. I ended up staying and I guess if I looked back at it I’m kind of glad I did. You think the grass is greener on the other side and it isn’t always. I’ve had guys who have left the Sharks and gone to other organizations and go ‘man don’t leave. It’s pretty good there.’”
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