When you picture what the true face of minor league hockey should look like, it probably isn’t pretty.
It’s probably grizzled. Possibly toothless, perhaps with a few scars. It maybe even has an unkempt beard or looks like one of the Hanson Brothers in Slap Shot.
You know, it looks mean.
It almost definitely doesn’t look like Roy Sommer, the talkative 58-year-old coach of the American Hockey League’s San Jose Barracuda, the top affiliate of the San Jose Sharks.
Sommer was once an average-sized former pro who used moxie more than muscle to scrape out a 12-year journeyman’s career in a variety of minor leagues throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. Now, with aging good looks and closely-cropped hair that’s a bit heavy on salt with not so much in the way of pepper, he looks more like he’d be your son or daughter’s youth hockey coach at the local arena.
Yet the clean-cut Sommer, bright-eyed and sincere, might be the all-time minor leaguer. Because while players and coaches he’s encountered throughout his 18-year career coaching first in Kentucky, then in Cleveland, then in Worcester, Mass. and now San Jose, have either graduated to the NHL or washed out of hockey altogether, Sommer remains an AHL fixture, year after year. With the same organization, to boot.
In a mark that’s as much a testament to his longevity as the consistency he’s provided Sharks affiliates for two decades, Sommer is on the brink of breaking the record for the most career coaching wins in AHL history: He has 635, one behind the 636 that Fred “Bun” Cook earned with the Providence Reds and Cleveland Barons from 1937-56.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Sommer says. “You know, I was talking to my wife about it. She said someone tweeted ‘he’s got the most losses, too.’ But when you look at it, Babe Ruth had seven hundred-something home runs and 1,400 strikeouts. When you put it in perspective, it’s hard to win games. To win 636 of them, you have to look at it as if it’s pretty good.”
That’s the thing. While Sommer’s record will be for the most wins in AHL history, it isn’t as if he’s been the minor leagues’ version of Scotty Bowman or Al Arbour, although his win total is in that neighborhood. And he has also lost the most games (643). And coached the most (1,382). But his teams have never won a championship in that league, though Sommer did guide the Richmond Renegades to an ECHL championship in 1995. His teams have never even won a conference championship in the AHL.
The reason that Sommer is the face of minor league hockey is because he embodies its mission statement: He develops players for the NHL, more than 130 since he became a bench boss in the Sharks’ system in 1998. That’s about seven per year.
It isn’t just the shoo-in guys like Logan Couture or Devin Setoguchi, who were drafted so high that it would’ve been difficult for them not to parlay their skills into NHL careers, who Sommer develops. His trademark is his supreme track record at taking longshots and turning them into valuable NHL commodities.
Joe Pavelski. Ryane Clowe. Douglas Murray, Miikka Kiprusoff, Justin Braun, Christian Ehrhoff, Torrey Mitchell, Evgeni Nabokov, Mikael Samuelsson, Matt Bradley, Tommy Wingels. All were drafted after the second round, where fewer than 10% go on to play 100 career NHL games. Sommer transformed them into longtime players.
His record will be for the most career wins, yet this is his true impact on the game.
If you ask his boss, Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, another player comes to mind as Sommer’s best work: Andrew Desjardins, an undrafted forward the organization discovered playing along the Texas/Mexico border in the low minor leagues.
“It’s the one player in particular that stands out,” says Wilson, who first got involved with Sommer when he hired him to coach a San Jose-based pro roller hockey team that he owned in the mid-1990s. Wilson was later so impressed with Sommer’s work that he helped him land a position as the Sharks NHL-level assistant coach and then assisted his transition into his current post as AHL head coach in 1998.
“Andrew Desjardins, starts in Laredo, Texas,” Wilson adds. “Minor leagues, moves all the way up. Roy believes in him and he’s now a Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks. Roy was probably his biggest fan. And if you talk to Desi, I think he’d even say that he owes a lot of his career to Roy Sommer.”
As Sommer explains Desjardins’s evolution, he says he could recognize a strong inner drive in the player early, as well as a willingness to fit into the team concept. These are both vital attributes that Sommer has trained himself to quickly spot in a player.
“I’ve been doing it so long,” Sommer says. “I might not be the best X’s and O’s guy in the world. That’s one thing I think I’m real good at is reading people and finding out early on if I think a guy can make it. Just by how he practices and his attitude on and off the ice. I‘ve been doing it so long, I think it’s intuition at this point.”
Sommer’s unique teaching methods are also factors. Whereas some minor league coaches rely solely on drilling their players with the fundamentals in regimented, monotonous routines, Sommer has been known to think outside the box. Whatever it takes to keep the process fresh and players engaged.
A longtime off-season resident of Montana—he lives in a remote log cabin now that he has a family after staying in a teepee when he was single—Sommer is avidly interested in western cowboy culture. In his office at the Barracuda’s practice facility, he has a jammed-packed bookcase, filled with more rodeo-related literature than hockey material, although Michael Lewis’s bestseller Moneyball has a place on his shelf. Sommer’s love of cowboy culture has convinced him to have his teams bond by watching Lonesome Dove, a lengthy TV mini-series about cattle driving.
Sommer also invites his players over for dinner, involving them with his family. He lives with his wife, Melissa, and son, Marley, who has special needs and is Sommer’s teams’ longtime stickboy. His other son, Castan, plays collegiate hockey at Holy Cross and his daughter, Kira, studies journalism at George Washington University.
Another Sommer specialty is taking his teams camping, which he sees as being a good activity for bonding, and great for identifying a player’s character.
“One year, we went to an island off of Maine,” Sommer says. “Stonehaven or something. We went to this island and had a blast. We spent the night, had a bonfire. Shot skeet and did all that stuff. The next year I wanted to do it again. It turned out to be a big nightmare, man. We went there and none of the guys had their camp sites fixed up. It was raining sideways. We basically ran into a Nor’easter on the island and couldn’t get off. It wasn’t good.”
As Sommer tells this story, it’s easy to see him get excited. He wants to keep talking, and he gets even more excited and starts in about something else. Like the time in 1988 when he was in Napa—between hockey jobs, he worked in the vineyards—and went to a movie with his brother, Ross.
“Ross said let’s go see a movie and we went and saw that movie Big,” Sommer says. “We’re looking and my brother’s going, ‘I think I’ve seen that guy before.’ We wait for the credits after and we couldn’t believe it was him—Tom Hanks, my brother hung around with him growing up. We’re from California, same area. Saw the movie and were like, ‘Wow, that’s Tom up there.’”
After this, Sommer quickly transitions back to talking about hockey. From cattle driving to Tom Hanks movies to the Barracuda’s new office space, their upcoming slate of games, whatever. The man can talk. He occasionally rambles, but it’s kind of charming. You can see the human side of him bursting out, kind of like the talent of one of his players might do under his coaching. It seems like if you let him, he could go on all day. Almost like his coaching, just going and going. Not really looking to move up to the NHL, content with an organization in which he feels comfortable, developing players as if it’s something he was born to do.
Sommer will soon have 637 wins, an all-time AHL record. And just like his talking it seems like he could go on forever.