San Diego Gulls generate momentum with nostalgia and style

Photo by Christine Cotter submitted by San Diego Gulls

Hockey was alive and well in San Diego on February 22. At the Valley View Casino Center a relocated American Hockey League franchise announced it would be called the Gulls, bringing nostalgia, joy and a stylish logo to the new team.

An estimated 8,500 fans showed up to cheer on the minor league franchise, which will begin play in San Diego for the 2015-16 season. This was waaaaay higher than initial attendance estimates, which meant organizers from the Ducks organization – the Gulls parent group – had to make the bold decision to bring in more hot dogs for the adoring fans.

“There were cars backed up on multiple highways trying to get there,” Gulls president of business operations Ari Segal said. “We had friends of the team, sponsors, who were trying to get there, calling, ‘How can I get there?’ Even employees of the Ducks who were trying to go to show their support had to turn around and go home. It was crazy.”

Said Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black hockey player, Gulls alum and San Diego resident, “That should tell you there that San Diego is a hockey town and they’ve supported the Gulls over the years and I firmly believe they will support the team for the 2015-16 season. “

A total of five franchises will move from more eastern environs to California for the next AHL season. The Manchester Monarchs (Kings), will become the Ontario Reign. The Oklahoma City Oil Barons (Oilers) will move to Bakersfield and become the Condors. The Adirondack Flames (Calgary Flames) will move to Stockton and become the Heat.  The Worcester Sharks (San Jose Sharks) will become the San Jose Barracuda.

And there’s the Gulls, who were the Norfolk Admirals. Arguably no team has generated more buzz or reaction than this franchise probably because of the name’s association with the past, not to mention that awesome above logo.

Even EA Sports has bought into Gulls-mania, revealing their jerseys on one of their NHL16 preview videos.

The Gulls have existed in three different incarnations, originally in the WHL from 1966-74, then the IHL from 1990-95 and then with the West Coast Hockey League and/or ECHL from 1996-2006. There was also the Hawks and/or Mariners organization that existed in between.

“You have now three generations of (San Diego) fans who have grown up, knowing hockey, playing hockey, watching hockey,” Segal said. “And then you have what I consider to be a real void in the market during a particular time of the year that all those things can step in and fill.”

San Jose is a bigger area, but it will initially share an arena with the Sharks. The Gulls – while close to Anaheim where the Ducks play – should grab hold of the city of San Diego’s pro sporting culture in the winter – a time when there’s a void between the NFL’s  Chargers and MLB’s Padres. San Diego is the 28th biggest television market in the United States – larger than Nashville, Buffalo and Columbus, all NHL cities

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“They’re going to get a chance to see not only the teams that existed in the AHL but these five new teams that are coming in. It’s going to be a good brand of hockey and I think the fans will support it,” O’Ree said. “When I’m at home and the Gulls are playing I will definitely be at the sports arena.”

Hockey may not be new to Southern California, but according to O’Ree, there’s just something different about the game in San Diego rather than Los Angeles, where the Kings have played since 1967.

Maybe it’s a sort of innocence in the market, which has more small beach city charm than its more northward neighbor.

“Just coming down here and you practice, and then go to Coronado and go to Pacific Beach or Mission Beach or La Jolla or La Jolla Shores, there’s no greater time. I would have taken a cut in salary to stay in San Diego,” O’Ree said. “It’s a great area to live and I’m so glad that I’m still alive and I’m able to watch this team come and play at the sports arena.”

According to Segal, the goal is to have in between 6,000 and 7,000 paid attendance per-home game in the first year. Hockey DB said the Admirals averaged 4,752 last season and 5,004 the year before.

Considering the novelty, along with the fact the Ducks have some decent prospects like defensemen Josh Manson and Shea Theodore, that’s not out of the question. Segal said the attendance estimates had to be changed due to higher-level interest. Normally teams try to temper expectations. This isn’t the case with the Gulls, who never expected such incredible interest.

“Hockey passion in the market that had gone unfulfilled for along time,” he said.

The significance seems to permeate to the players as well.

Said, 21-year old Charlotte, N.C. born Bryan Moore, a former Sault. Ste. Marie Greyhounds forward who was signed to an AHL contract with the Gulls this offseason, “When it first came down to it, when I was told I would be playing there, just getting out of the snow and knowing I’m going to be in one of the nicest places in the country is probably the best feeling.”

The cost of living in California is quite higher than other parts of the United States and there are indeed questions about such plush locations like San Diego or San Jose, rather than Norfolk or Worcester.

That’s a query for another time says Moore.

“I’m doing what I want to do but I’ll have to deal with it,” Moore said.

Yup, it’s all about hockey … and the lifestyle of course. Hey, San Diego, that’s your marketing slogan, as if you need one.

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!