SAN JOSE — Roy Sommer had just finished a 27-point championship season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the International Hockey League in 1987, and the lefty-shooting center was expecting to play an 11th season somewhere.
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His junior and pro playing career had taken him all over North America, playing for 12 teams in seven different leagues, including a stop in Edmonton in 1981, where he played three games with the Oilers and a kid named Wayne Gretzky. Sommer even scored a goal and got into a fight during his one-and-only stint in the National Hockey League.
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But when Rick Ley, his coach at Muskegon, offered him the job of assistant coach after the 1986-87 season, Sommer’s life took another turn, one that has him on the verge of hockey history 29 years later.
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“I wasn’t planning on coaching,” Sommer said Wednesday. “I was going to be an electrician or something. I picked it up and kind of traveled around a bit until I got my feet wet, then stayed with it and now the next thing you know, this record’s getting ready to fall. It might be one that might not be broken for a long time.”
The record is 636 career coaching wins in the American Hockey League, owned by Fred “Bun” Cook, whose last season was 1956. Sommer, in his 18th straight season with the San Jose Barracuda, the San Jose Sharks Jerseys’ American Hockey League affiliate, has 635 wins entering Friday and Saturday games at the Ontario Reign.
“I’ve just been kind of doing the chinese jerseys thing in the American Hockey League and it’s just kind of caught up on me,” said Sommer, who has coached a record 1,380 games in the AHL. “But you know what? The bottom line is, chinese jerseys I guess it’s an honor. You look at some of the coaches that I’m passing — Cook, [Frank] Mathers, [John] Paddock, all pretty good coaches. To be up there with those guys, it is special, I guess.”
His road to the Sharks was as long and winding as his playing career, as he bounced around the minors for eight seasons, winning his only coaching championship with the Richmond Renegades of the East Coast Hockey League in 1994-95. It took a summer job coaching a roller hockey team, of all things, to put him where he is today. In 1995-96, Sommer coached the San Jose Rhinos of Roller Hockey International, a team owned by former Blackhawks and Sharks defenseman and current Sharks general manager Doug Wilson. Sommer was offered an assistant coaching job with the Sharks the following season, serving one season under Al Sims and one under Darryl Sutter, before taking over as head coach of their minor-league team.
In his 18 seasons with the Sharks affiliate, Sommer has sent 120 players to the NHL, a feat he calls the greatest source of coaching pride. One of those players is Dallas Stars Jerseys defenseman Jason Demers Jerseys, an ex-Shark, who played 103 games for Worcester (Mass.), where the Sharks’ AHL team was based for nine seasons before moving to San Jose this season.
“He’s just a players’ guy,” Demers said. “He tries to keep it loose, but stresses the fact of hard work and keeps it disciplined. So it’s a nice guy to have in your corner backing you. Especially when you’re a young guy coming up, you don’t need that kind of drill sergeant.
“You need that kind of guy that’s going to let you grow a little bit and try some things, and he’s one of those guys. He’s great for this organization. He’s brought a lot of guys up and I think he was great for me. I think there’s a lot of guys that feel part of this record and are happy for him for sure.”
Sharks goaltender Alex Stalock Jerseys, who played 144 games for Sommer, said his former coach makes the entire team feel as if it’s a family.
“He cares so much about the person off the ice, the person you are at the rink, the person you are to the guy sitting next to you,” Stalock said. “So he’s a guy that you can approach any time. There’s an open-door policy. He’s got double doors. You can go in any time and talk to him about anything, not just hockey.”
Sommer, 58, spent two seasons as an assistant coach with the Sharks before becoming coach of San Jose’s AHL team, then based in Lexington, Ky. He spent three years in Kentucky, five in Cleveland and nine in Worcester before moving this season to San Jose, some 30 miles south of Oakland, where he was born and lived until leaving to play junior hockey as a teenager. The Toronto Maple Leafs Jerseys chose him in the sixth round of the 1977 NHL Draft.
Sommer said he has had chances to return to the NHL as an assistant for other franchises, but turned them down.
“I imagine there were times they could have got rid of me and they didn’t,” Sommer said. “And then there’s a couple times I could have left and I didn’t. You always think the grass is greener on the other side but it isn’t. Now I’m glad when I look back that I stayed.”
Sommer said he’s at peace with the fact he hasn’t had a chance to become an NHL coach.
“You know what? I’m all right with it, man,” Sommer said. “I’ve had a really good life. All my kids, when we were in Worcester, they all got to graduate from the same high school they started in. The organization’s been really good to me.”
Sommer and his wife, Melissa, have three children. Their youngest son, Castan, is a college hockey player at Holy Cross, and their daughter, Kira, is a journalism major at George Washington. Their oldest son, Marley, who has Down syndrome, is a locker room attendant for the Barracudas and is hugely popular with the players.
“He’s taught me a lot of patience, man,” Sommer said. “He’s just a treat to be around every day. I look up and I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s just kind of my buddy. The guy doesn’t say a whole lot, but it’s just his mannerisms and how he goes about things. He’s great for the guys, too. They have a ball with him. They get mad at me if I don’t bring him on a road trip.”
Sommer has been coaching for 28 years, but has no target date for when he’ll retire and move full-time to the family’s lakefront home in Montana.
“I still love going to the rink, and the paycheck when I get back is like a bonus,” Sommer said. “It’s not like working. I go in, I love it. I still like going behind the bench. I still get nervous a little bit, like certain games. Maybe not like I used to be. Losses still hurt and you still get that euphoria from a win. Once that starts going away, then it’s time to go fishing.”