As a season ticket holder for 33 seasons, covering over 1,250 hockey games played by seven franchises in seven different leagues who have called the venerable arena home, I feel well-qualified to share my observations about our current team.
The 30 AHL teams exist to develop and supply players to their parent National Hockey League teams and when that parent team, in this case the Anaheim Ducks, have a flurry of injuries, the Gulls lost their best players for varying periods. At season's end, no less than seven of the Gulls' top players were no longer on their roster, but that will not be my focus.
Instead, I will focus on the other variables the organization has more control over, citing both the positives and suggestions for change.
First, a huge "thank you" to Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli who believed San Diego would be a good location to place their top affiliate. They also invested untold amounts into improvements at the Valley View Casino Center including a new video scoreboard, new boards and glass, renovation of the locker rooms and more.
They have been rewarded from Day One with incredible fan support including an average attendance this season of 9,305, tops in the AHL. There were six sellouts (12,920) this season.
Also, the team made an excellent hire in head coach Dallas Eakins who is, in my opinion, a complete class act who capably leads both his young and veteran players to strive for excellence in every aspect of their game and lives. Every time Eakins takes the microphone to address fans he eloquently expresses himself better than any professional head coach I can recall.
Eakins called the season-ending losses "gut-wrenching for our team, for me. I just feel absolutely terrible for our fans, like we've let them down." Eakins' contract is up for renewal and I would like to see him stay.
The AHL has a major flaw that must be corrected: 24 teams play a 76-game schedule while six in the Gulls' eight-team Pacific Division play 68. This causes standings to be determined by a flawed winning percentage system. Going forward, all teams must play the same number of games, allowing a return to the standard point system to determine standings (two points for a win, one point for an overtime or shootout loss).
I realize budgets are limited, but I encourage the AHL to work hard to eliminate back-to-back games, especially when teams play a home and away pair of games on consecutive nights. Fans pay good money and shouldn't be forced to watch teams who aren't well rested and prepared.
Locally, I feel the Gulls haven't done a good job of allowing fans to get to know players. In previous leagues, the players were accessible after games for photos and autographs. The current players are showered and gone before the Valley View Casino Center parking lot is empty.
This is most obvious when the team scores a goal and the PA announcer makes the announcement: "San Diego Gulls goal" (wild cheering by crowd) "scored by (player's name)" followed by general silence.
Fans simply don't feel a bond with players they haven't met and interacted with. Yet they will show incredible loyalty to players they identify with or feel they know. And those familiarities sell lots of tickets.
The team has held events for season ticket holders to meet the team, but they have been held in March, not in October or November when the season is young. Loyal season ticket holders deserve better.
Also, the Gulls have chosen to ignore the rich hockey history of San Diego by hanging only one banner in the rafters, that honoring beloved former Gull and NHL color barrier breaker Willie O'Ree. Hanging banners of other championship teams and players would add a historic aura to the arena and engage the many local fans who fondly recall them and in no way detract from the AHL team.
The Gulls have drawn large crowds on Fridays by offering $2 cans of beer. I'm not a fan of this promotion after being repeatedly exposed to the language and behavior of some well-lubricated fans.
I would like to see the team create another special night, borrowing from the Padres: every Saturday night game should be "Hockey Night in San Diego" with some type of promotional item or giveaway set for every fan. There are many different items that could be given on what is usually less than a dozen home games on Saturdays. I predict the Gulls would top 10,000 in overall average attendance and sell out most or all of such games.
The dates offered by the Valley View Casino Center to the Gulls were not ideal this past season with a dozen games out of 34 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And still the team led the AHL in attendance. Hopefully there will be more Friday and Saturday dates next season... even Sunday with a 6 p.m. start would be an improvement.
San Diego fans have embraced the Gulls and Gulls players, in turn, have repeatedly called local fans "The best in the AHL." Players love the local climate and opportunities it affords them after practices.
I believe San Diego has reached its ideal level in professional ice hockey. AHL hockey is an excellent and reasonably priced product, and even with construction of a new arena, I don't believe we have the ability to support an NHL team and its high ticket prices.
But San Diego certainly loves its AHL Gulls!