San Diego Gulls to fete their supporters on Fan Appreciation Night

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From left, Steve Buehler, Brandon Dodson, Buck Buehler and goaltender Kamdan Houshan man the San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey table at the San Diego Gulls’ Community Night on March 27. Photo by Phillip Brents

The San Diego Gulls will host Fan Appreciation Night on Saturday as a way to thank fans for their support of the American Hockey League team for the 2021-22 season.

The Gulls rank third in home attendance in the 31-team league, which serves as the top developmental circuit for the National Hockey League.

The Gulls are the primary development team of the Anaheim Ducks.

The Gulls are averaging 6,975 fans heading into Saturday’s game, down eight percent from the 7,582 average in 2019-20. Still, the number ranks among the healthiest in the league this season behind the Hershey Bears (7,931) and Cleveland Monsters (7,166).

Attendance remains generally down across the league, including some markets that have bombed out. The Stockton Heat, the current leaders in the Gulls’ Pacific Division, are averaging just 1,611 per game in 2021-22 while the San Jose Barracuda is averaging 1,789 per game.

The Belleville Senators are averaging 1,712 fans in Canada, of all places.

But the focus Saturday is on having a fun time with friends and fellow ticket-holders while celebrating the end of another hockey season.

Lots of prizes are being offered.

  • Every fan receives a Scratch & Win Card upon entry, so everyone will go home a winner with something.
  • Prizes will also be given away during the game.
  • Additionally, 20 lucky fans will receive the game-worn jersey off the players’ back following the conclusion of the game.
Fans get excited over a Gulls goal at Pechanga Arena. Photo by Phillip Brents

For a good cause
The Gulls continue to give back to the community in more ways than just giveaways, however.

The San Diego Gulls Foundation has raised more than $750,000 for charity since its inception in 2016. The foundation’s mission is to facilitate and support programs that produce positive change for children and families throughout San Diego by providing educational opportunities, broadening access to the sport of hockey and addressing the health and wellness needs of the community.

Over the course of the season, the San Diego Gulls Foundation has supported Heroes Night (Nov. 5), Military Appreciation Night (Nov. 6), Pink in the Rink (Feb. 2), Hockey is For Everyone Night (Feb. 5), Community Night (March 27) and Hockey Fights Cancer (April 2).

The Gulls have also donated specialty-themed jerseys for in-game or online auctions that have been a fan-favorite to grab up, with some jerseys going for hundreds of dollars toward charity.

On Community Night, 10 local non-profit organizations were spotlighted with the San Diego Gulls Foundation donating $35,000 in funds. Each non-profit received approximately $3,500 to spend as they deemed fit on their programs.

The non-profits in attendance included A Bridge For Kids, AVID Center, Burn Institute, Challenged Athletes Foundation-Operation Rebound, Emilio Nares Foundation, The Rosie Network, San Diego Chill, San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey, School Safety Patrol Program and Urban Street Angels.

The Chill and Ducks sled hockey organizations had obvious direct hockey tie-ins.

Sled hockey was invented in the 1960s at a rehabilitation center in Stockholm, Sweden, by two men who wanted to continue playing hockey despite their physical disabilities.

Interest started to gain momentum in the 1970s and the sport is now is featured in the Winter Paralympic Games.

Sled hockey made its Paralympic debut at the 1994 Lillehammer Games in Norway and has been a fan favorite since. The United States defeated Canada, 5-0, at the 2022 Beijing Games to win its fourth consecutive gold medal.

Paralympic sled hockey competition is open to athletes with physical disabilities such as amputation/limb loss, spinal cord injury/wheelchair-users and athletes with cerebral palsy/brain injury/stroke.

Like ice hockey, sled hockey, now referred to as Para Ice Hockey, is played five-a-side with a goaltender and standard-size nets.

Rules are similar to stand-up hockey with three 15-minute periods for a 45-minute game. Equipment is also similar, though para-athletes propel their sleds with specially-designed sticks that are also used to move the puck.

Youth sled hockey is non-contact while adult sled hockey is full-contact.

The Ducks have both a youth and adult component to their program. Both teams have been very successful. The San Diego Ducks adult team won its division at February’s Ducks Open tournament in Irvine while the youth team placed second in its division.

Steve Buehler serves as the San Diego Junior Ducks coach. The youth team serves ages 4-18.

Disabilities range from cerebral palsy, spina bifida, spinal cord injuries, amputees and any other physical issue.

“My family was introduced to the sport four years ago after my son Buck attended a ASRA summer camp where he was able to try sled hockey on rollerblade tracks,” the elder Buehler explained. “We first got on ice about three months later and never looked back.”

Steve Buehler said he was originally a volunteer but was later asked by parents to coach the team.

“With the sport being so small for youth teams, we typically only get to play once a year in the national tournament of which, in my first year of coaching, we took second place and the year after we came in first place to make us the defending champions coming into this year’s tournament since last year we were shut down due to COVID0-19.”

Brandon Dodson, a double amputee, is a member of the San Diego Ducks adult sled hockey team. Photo by Phillip Brents

This year’s nationals are being held April 21-24 in Pittsburgh as part of the 2022 Disabled Hockey Festival.

The Ducks adult sled hockey team is also reigning national champions and will be attending the same tournament. “Both teams travel together, and we all have a blast together,” Steve Buehler said.

The elder Buehler said the positives coming out of this para-sport are “immeasurable.”

“I don’t even consider us a team as we are more of a big family,” he said. “Throughout the season we get together for holidays, hang-outs at Liberty Station and surfing after practice. I have heard many players say that being on ice and gliding makes them feel free from their disability.

“As far as coaching goes, I think I can speak for the adult coach, Nick Hurd, and myself when I say we get more out of it than the players. The chance to work with such amazing athletes and be a part of their lives on and off ice is a true blessing.”

The Chill focuses on players with non-physical disabilities.

“Our team was founded with the premise of making hockey available to everyone, particularly kids with developmental challenges,” team manager Ryan Labrum said. “We are San Diego’s first and longest-running special needs hockey team and we are non-competitive by design.

“It’s important to us that our kids of all levels are able to participate, no matter what their individual abilities may be. We’ve begun expanding our program to include young adults, and we make sure that no player ever ‘ages out’ of the program.  We have some players who have been with us since the Chill was founded in 2013.

The Chill holds a weekly skate/practice/scrimmage every Sunday morning at the ice rink in University Towne Center.

“Our kids get the chance to play hockey with their friends each week, including the coaches who they’ve all bonded very closely with. And, their parents get to sit happily in the bleachers and watch the children they’ve devoted so much care to in their lives have a blast. Most of our new players’ parents leave the ice after the first one or two sessions crying tears of happiness, and many in disbelief. We’re able to get every kid who joins the team comfortable on ice skates, which is sometimes really surprising for the parents.

“We also do one or two ‘tournaments’ each year, where we invite another team to come play ours and have awards, and so on. The kids get to have a lot of fun, shine in the spotlight, and make friends with the players from the other team. One of the groups we’ve hosted in the past is the Guardians hockey team — they are a group of first-responders and have a great group of players.”

The Chill started entirely staffed with volunteers.

“We have a small board of four volunteers, myself included, and all of our volunteer coaches are middle school and high school hockey players,” Labrum said.  “We’ve worked with three different high school programs in the past, including Pacific Ridge, La Jolla Country Day, and most recently the SD Angels girls hockey club. One of the fantastic outcomes of our program is the growth and camaraderie our volunteer coaches gain while helping our players on the ice.”

Labrum said he got involved in the Chill program as a way to give back to the community.

“Some of my best friends growing up had special needs, such as Down’s Syndrome and Asperger’s Syndrome, and when I first learned about the Chill program, I became immediately interested,” he said. “I happened to be getting my own son on the ice for one of his games a few years ago as the Chill were coming off the ice. I looked them up online, and after some nudging from my wife, I contacted them to see how I could help.

“Since that time, our founder (who was actually 13 when he started the program) ultimately headed off to college, and he and the board asked me if I would ‘take the reins’ and become the board president. While it was an unexpected request at the time, I was more than happy to help however I could.

“Now we’re just doing our best to keep things growing and moving forward in a positive direction. We, just like everyone else, were impacted quite severely by COVID, but have since rebounded and our numbers are back to where they were before the pandemic.”

For more information on the San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey program, visit the website at duckssledhockey.org.

For more information on the San Diego Chill program, visit the website at sandiegochill.org.

Gulls rookie Josh Lopina dons a lavender jersey for Hockey Fights Cancer awareness night. Photo by Phillip Brents

Hockey Fights Cancer
The Hockey Fights Cancer campaign has united the hockey community in support of people with cancer and their families since 1998. The event features special events, observances and stories from people around the hockey community affected by the disease.

The Gulls were among 22 AHL teams designating a home game as Hockey Fights Cancer awareness night.

The Gulls wore a new lavender jersey for the April 2 contest. Select game-worn player jerseys were autographed and available for raffle and online auction.

“I Fight For” signs were available at each entrance of the arena for fans to fill out and hold up their cards during a stoppage during the second period.

Many fans wrote the names of their grandparents and parents while others wrote the names of other relatives, friends and even themselves.

The Relay for Life organization was recognized during a community spotlight as the signature fundraiser for the American Cancer Society by helping communities around the world to raise money and save lives.

Every dollar raised at these events helps the American Cancer Society fund ground-breaking cancer research, crucial patient care services, and education and prevention initiatives.

The American Cancer Society is a global grassroots force of 1.5 million volunteers dedicated to saving lives, celebrating lives and leading the fight for a world without cancer.

Nikolas Brouillard currently tops the Gulls in season scoring with 39 points in 62 games. Photo by Phillip Brents

Ice time
There was a lot of celebrate for local hockey fans this season, namely the return of the Gulls to San Diego ice after the 2020-21 season was delayed and the NHL parent Anaheim Ducks, in turn becauser of COVID-19 protocols, moved Gulls home games to the team’s practice facility in Irvine.

The Gulls essentially played a “road” schedule last season with no games at Pechanga Arena.

The Gulls’ 2019-20 season ended prematurely with the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AHL canceled the remainder of the season and the playoffs while the NHL regrouped to hold a late summer playoff bubble.

Three AHL teams elected not to participate in the shortened 2020-21 season.

While all 31 teams returned to the ice in 2021-22, it was not perfect. The specter of the COVID-19 pandemic continued to hover as a dark cloud and the Gulls had a total of six games postponed because of league protocols either affecting the Gulls or their opponents.

  • The game originally scheduled for Dec. 22 against the Stockton Heat will now be played on Tuesday, Apr. 26 at Pechanga Arena San Diego (7 p.m.).
  • The game originally scheduled for Dec. 27 against the Ontario Reign was played on Wednesday, Apr. 13 at Pechanga Arena San Diego.
  • The game originally scheduled for Dec. 29 against the Henderson Silver Knights was played on Tuesday, Mar. 22 at Pechanga Arena San Diego.
  • The game originally scheduled for Jan. 5 at the Henderson Silver Knights was played on Tuesday, Apr. 19 at Henderson, Nev.
  • The game originally scheduled for Dec. 31 at the Tucson Roadrunners will now be played on Thursday, Apr. 28 at Tucson Convention Center Arena (6:30 p.m.).
  • The game originally scheduled for Jan. 2 at the Tucson Roadrunners will now be played on Friday, Apr. 29 at Tucson Convention Center Arena (7 p.m.).

Fan Appreciation night is usually the last home of the season but will be different this year because of rescheduling.

Postponed games were moved back into the schedule and all teams will complete their allotted number of regular season games. But it meant the Gulls had a crowded schedule in March and April.

The Gulls had 13 games in March, including seven home dates. The Gulls played the Henderson Silver Knights four straight times (three at home and one on the road). The Gulls faced off the month with three games in Colorado against the Eagles.

April’s revised schedule included 12 games with seven home dates. The Gulls met their Southern California archrival, the Ontario Reign, in three consecutive tilts (with the Reign winning all three by a combined score of 13-3) while playing two games in Canada against the relocated Abbotsford Canucks.

The 25 games in two months came as the Gulls were battling to qualify for the upcoming Calder Cup playoffs. The Gulls eventually did secure a berth in the seven-team divisional playoff field but it was with a lot of tired bodies mixed in with some untimely injuries and results that could have gone the other way.

The top seven teams in the nine-team Pacific Division standings qualify for postseason play. The Gulls will open the playoffs as seventh-seeded team. The best-of-three first-round schedule will be released by the league prior to the start of postseason play.

It’s expected to be announced that the No. 7 seed will play all of its opening round series on the road.

The top team in the division standings receives a bye to the semifinals. The remaining six teams will play a short elimination series to fill the remaining three slots in the semifinals.

All but the bottom two teams in the AHL’s four geographic divisions qualify for the 2022 Calder Cup playoffs.

The semifinals are slated to be a best-of-five series, with each team guaranteed to have at least one home game, if not more. The semifinal winners advance to the best-of-seven division finals.

The Pacific Division champion will meet the Central Division champion in the Western Conference finals, with the winner advancing to the best-of-seven Calder Cup championship series.

The North Division and Atlantic Division champions will meet in the Eastern Conference finals.

Top storylines this season included a rare goal scored by goaltender Lukas Dostal from the vicinity of his net after he collected a loose puck off the boards and fired the puck the length of the ice into the empty Colorado net with 19 seconds left in a game on March 2 as the host Eagles had pulled their goaltender in a bid to tie the contest, which the Gulls won 5-2.

Dostal, a third-round pick (85th overall) in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft by Anaheim, has been a bright spot this season for the Gulls with a 2.63 goals-against average, 17-13-3 record and 0.916 save percentage in his second pro season.

He’s also appeared in four games with the Ducks this season with a 1-2 record, 2.99 GAA and 0.907 save percentage.

The Gulls’ inaugural Marvel Super Hero Night on Jan. 15 proved to be a big hit with fans as far as warm-up jerseys went and an opportunity — like Star Wars Night on March 12 — for fans to dress up as their favorite character. Photos by Phillip Brents

The Gulls (27-31-4-2) have teased their fans with a roller-coaster season that included five consecutive wins from Nov. 19-27, six consecutive losses from Jan. 22 to Feb. 2 and four consecutive wins from March 11-18. The team enters Saturday’s game against Tucson currently riding a 0-5-1-1 streak (1-6-2-1 in the last 10 games) following Wednesday’s 5-4 overtime loss to the visiting Abbotsford Canucks, a game in which the hosts led 4-1 entering the third period.

Second-year forward Alex Limoges, who is remains classified as a rookie because of the shortened 2020-21 season, recorded his first career hat trick in a 4-3 home ice win against Tucson on March 23. He has tallied 12 power play goals this season to set a single-season club record in that category and ranks first overall in the league among rookie scorers.

In 59 games this season, Limoges has scored 22 goals and added 16 assists for 38 points after collecting 11 goals and 21 points in 23 games last season.

Previous club record was 11, set by Corey Tropp in 2016-17 and 2017-18 and Sam Carrick in 2018-19.

“It’s cool to be up with those guys who have a such a big name in San Diego history- it’s fun to be up there with them.,” Limoges said.

Brayden Tracey, a first-round pick (29th overall) in the 2019 draft by the Ducks, is another top Anaheim prospect playing with the Gulls. In 54 AHL games this season, he has posted 11 goals and 30 points.

The Gulls have pulled on the heartstrings of their fans all season long. Photos by Phillip Brents

 

Overall team leaders on the Gulls in 2021-22 include Nikolas Bruillard with 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists) in 62 games, Limoges with 38 points in 59 games, Hunter Drew with 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists) in 63 games, Jacob Perrault with 36 points (13 goals, 23 assists) in 51 games, Lucas Elvenes with 32 points (nine goals, 23 assists) in 39 games, Danny O’Regan with 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) in 49 games, Tracey with 30 points in 54 games and Trevor Carrickwith 30 points (10 goals, 20 assists) in 60 games.

A total of 38 players have made appearances with the Gulls thus far this season.

Injuries and call-ups have kept several players out of the lineup for extended periods this season.

The Gulls, under new head coach Joel Bouchard, have found themselves pretty much behind the eight ball from the start of the season with the graduation of much of their previous season’s talent heading north to Anaheim and others to free agency.

Rookie stars Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale have moved up to NHL and turned heads with their play while Gulls veteran team captain Sam Carrick finally managed to stick with the Ducks.

The Gulls also lost the services of a number of free agents, including SoCal native Chase De Leo, who is on pace to post a career season with the North Division-leading Utica Comets this season. De Leo, who played three seasons with the Gulls, has played two games with the parent New Jersey Devils this season.

Last season’s team scoring leader, Andrew Poturalski (43 points in 44 games), re-signed with his former NHL team, the Carolina Hurricanes, for 2021-22 and ranks second in league scoring with 91 points in 66 games with the AHL Chicago Wolves.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Gulls faced off the month of October with a 1-4 record that included a 0-3 start.

But a second season starts with the Calder Cup playoffs that, in some cases, could extend a team’s season by a month.

The Gulls at one point this season occupied last place in the division standings, so clinching a playoff berth has meant a big deal for this group.

If the Gulls do win their final four games, they will finish at the .500 mark.

“We went from far behind if you look at where we were as a team in February — ninth — when we challenged the players,” Bouchard said. “So, I think it’s a bit of getting what we deserve a little bit. We’re going to change the dynamic a little bit, but I think the last two weeks have been demanding. It’s good that we go through that adversity. But we have to gel together and go back at it.

“We took the all-star break to challenge the guys on some of the stuff we went through. It’s been a tough year for a lot of the guys. We’ve asked them five criteria that were very important for us to go up and they’ve done it. We wanted to flip our record and the last five games don’t affect the way that we did it for a lot of weeks and gave us a chance.

“Our goal was to get in the playoffs. We weren’t quite there at the time and we were in the dog fight. We had some big weeks there, some big performances. Now, we have (four) games left and we’ll go after it.”   

 

INDOOR SOCCER:

Sockers playoff shuffle

The San Diego Sockers, after earning the No. 1 seed in the 2022 Ron Newman championship playoffs after posting a 23-0-1 regular season record and sweeping past the eighth-seeded Milwaukee Wave two-games-to-none in the quarterfinals, find themselves on the brink of elimination entering Sunday’s semifinals after dropping a 7-6 overtime decision at the fourth-seeded Chihuahua Savage on Monday in Mexico.

The Sockers (25-1-1, including playoffs) will need to win both games on Sunday, the regulation match and a 15-minute mini-game, to advance to the championship round. A loss in the regulation game will end San Diego’s season.

The Savage enters Sunday’s second leg of the semifinals with an 18-7-2 overall record after sweeping the fifth-seeded Baltimore Blast (4-3 and 5-1) in the quarterfinals.

Chihuahua ended the Sockers’ 22-match winning streak on Edgar Gonzalez’ golden goal 36 seconds into extra time.

Sockers veteran Kraig Chiles scored his second goal of the match with 14 seconds to play in regulation to send the game into overtime.

“We are looking forward in playing our second leg semifinal game this Sunday at the Sports Arena against the Chihuahua Savage and force a third mini-game in order to advance to this year’s MASL Finals,” assistant coach Rene Ortiz said. “We had a great season and team is looking forward to bounce back from the loss on Monday in Chihuahua.”

 

 

 

San Diego Gulls to fete their supporters on Fan Appreciation Night