By Nick Nollenberger
Every year for the last 40 years Roy Sommer has spent his summers in Montana, getting as far away from hockey as possible.
Maybe he doesn’t want to deal with the grueling Montana winters, or maybe he just can’t get enough of the game that’s defined his life, but every August he returns to coach for another year.
There’s not much Sommer hasn’t accomplished over his 30-plus year coaching career, and not much he hasn’t seen. This season, the 60-year old will become the first coach in American Hockey League history to reach 20 years behind the bench.
From the outside perspective, one might think Sommer can’t continue to endure the grind that is minor league hockey. Long bus trips, layovers, back-to-backs, etc. are what makes up the minors.
This summer while in Montana Sommer bought a horse but if you thought it was to ride off into the sunset, think again.
“If the fun were out of it, I wouldn’t be here,” said Sommer. “I’m a pretty honest guy with myself, and if I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, I’d say I’m ready to retire and put me out to pasture.”
Just the other day, after Sommer’s annual camping trip with the team was canceled due to Northern California wildfires, the entire staff along with players went over to Barracuda General Manager Joe Will’s house. Before you know it, Roy was strapping on goalie pads built for a five-year-old, snapping on a goalie mask from the late 90’s, along with blocker and glove that might have been Ken Dryden’s (they were that old). No chest protection, Sommer stepped between the pipes. The rules: Ten shots with a rubber ball from ten different shooters. Five goals and practice the next day would be canceled. That youthful exuberance and competitiveness has become a trademark of his career, and the reason he’s been able to continue to connect with 20-somethings for all these years.
“Roy’s lasted as long as he has because of his love for the game and his passion for mentoring young people,” said Will. “At the end of the day, he can look back and see all the players that he’s coached and that have moved on to NHL careers with the Sharks and know he made a huge difference in their lives.”
In 2016, Sommer back in his home state of California surpassed Fred “Bun” Cook to become the all-time leader in wins in the AHL. A season later, he led one of the youngest rosters in the AHL to the Leagues second-best winning percentage, and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, which culminated in his first A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s Coach of the Year.
“It comes down to his competitiveness,” said Barracuda Captain John McCarthy who’s had Sommer as his head coach all nine years of his pro career. “It’s a two-prong thing, you’ve got to develop the young guys for the big club, and you also want to win, and I think his competitiveness and passion for the game drives his motivation.”
Sommer has taken an unfathomable path to where he is today.
Born in Oakland, California, he fought his way to the pinnacle of the sport, appearing in three NHL games with the Wayne Gretzky led Oilers while becoming the first California born player to make it to the NHL. No one could have predicted the coaching longevity that would follow.
Even 20 years into his AHL coaching career, Sommer still get’s his greatest satisfaction from telling a guy he’s been called up to the NHL, and the dream he’s been working toward his whole life is about to come true.
“The biggest thing I enjoy is, you have a day like yesterday, where you have a player that’s worked his tail off in the AHL for three years, and now you get to tell him he’s been recalled to the NHL, and he’s going to play,” said Sommer.
On Thursday morning, the Sharks recalled Joakim Ryan from the Barracuda. Ryan has been a steady force on the backend for Sommer in the AHL since joining the pro ranks three years ago.
Sommer’s professional playing career spanned over 12 years in five different leagues. Originally drafted by the Toronto Maples in the sixth round in 1977, Sommer won an AHL championship with the Maine Mariners in 1984, and then IHL Championship with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in 1986.
Over 150 players that have been under Sommer’s tutelage have played in the NHL, including 20 that played for the Sharks in 2016-17. That number and Sommer's career don't seem to be stopping anytime soon.