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Gulls set for first San Diego game in more than 600 days

San Diego Union-Tribune
San Diego Union-Tribune
 2021-10-22
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New Gulls coach Joel Bouchard talks to players during practice on Wednesday at Pechanga Arena, where team will play its home opener Friday night. (Jarrod Valliere/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The last time San Diego hockey fans saw the home team play at Pechanga Arena, the Gulls had a lineup featuring players who are now in the NHL, the concept of playing in a fanless “bubble” did not exist and masks were a sartorial feature reserved mostly for goalies.

On Friday night, for the first time since Feb. 22, 2020, hockey returns to Pechanga when the Gulls host the Stockton Heat for the team’s home opener in what could be a full house.

After opening the AHL season Saturday with a 5-2 loss at Ontario, Gulls players are amped to play a home game.

With actual bodies in the stands.

Only one current Gulls player was on the ice 609 days ago for that loss to San Jose: forward Hunter Drew. He has informed his younger teammates of what they can expect.

“It’s gonna be loud,” said Drew, who posted six goals and six assists last season for a Gulls team that went 26-17-1-0 while playing home games in Irvine. “I said: Have fun. Play physical out there. The $2 Bud Lights ... Obviously the fans love it. It’s great to see them out here cheering us on. It’s hard to describe how good it feels honestly.”

Sure enough, those budget beers will be a part of Friday night’s atmosphere along with an in-house DJ and a team guided by a new head coach in Joel Bouchard , who was hired to replace Kevin Dineen in July.

A classic hockey lifer, the 47-year old Bouchard played for eight teams during an 11-season NHL career as a defenseman and comes over from the AHL’s Laval Rocket.

Bouchard, who also played in 293 AHL games, led the Montreal Canadiens’ top affiliate to a record of 83-67-4 over three seasons while earning praise for helping develop players into NHL contributors.

As the hockey world returns to something approaching normal, Bouchard’s task will be to mold a roster of Anaheim Ducks prospects into the kind of winning team San Diego fans are used to seeing.

Since making the move from Norfolk, Va., before the 2015-16 season, the Gulls have made the playoffs four out of five times (the 2020 playoffs were canceled after the pandemic ended the season in March) and consistently been among the better teams in the Pacific Division.

San Diego has also consistently ranked among the AHL’s leaders in fan attendance.

It is notable that several recent Gulls alumni such as Isac Lundestrom, Troy Terry, Max Jones, Sam Steel and Josh Mahura are key pieces to the rebuild taking place in Anaheim where former Gulls coach Dallas Eakins had the Ducks off to a 2-2 start heading into Thursday night’s game at Winnipeg.

The current Gulls went through a training camp with the entire Ducks preseason roster in Orange County, then held a pair of practices on their own at Poway Ice before last weekend’s opener in Ontario.

Bouchard pushed his team through a brisk practice Wednesday at Pechanga, gave the team Thursday off and will conduct a morning skate Friday.

“It’s exciting for everybody,” Bouchard said. “The last year has been challenging for everybody to be honest. As coaches, you have to realize that some of the guys haven’t played much either. We had one guy who played one game last year. Another few guys who just came in for a cup of tea and played a few games. So, a lot of new faces but it’s an exciting time to have the fans back. It’s gonna take a little bit but it is fun to realize we’re back and things are getting back to normal.”

As of Thursday afternoon, approximately 10,000 tickets had been sold for the nearly 12,000-seat arena. Per arena policy, fans attending the game must provide either proof of COVID-19 vaccination or the results of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

Because many of the organization’s top prospects such as forwards Trevor Zegras and Benoit-Olivier Groulx and defenseman Jamie Drysdale are currently with the Ducks, Friday's lineup should feature players such as forwards Jacob Perreault and Vinni Lettieri, the players who scored goals in the season-opening loss at Ontario, and defenseman Brogan Rafferty, who had a pair of assists.

The shifty, smooth-skating Perrault is a 2020 first-round pick who scored three goals with 27 assists as a Gull last season and is considered to be one of the organization’s top 10 prospects.

Team captain Sam Carrick played in the opener but was called up by Anaheim earlier in the week and was with the Ducks as of Thursday.

Gulls fans can expect to see players like Carrick and defenseman Simon Benoit to be among those who move back and forth between San Diego and Anaheim as the season rolls along.

Regardless of who is in the lineup against Stockton (1-0-1), Bouchard’s team will look to improve upon last week’s choppy opening effort.

A push from a rowdy home crowd certainly won’t hurt.

“Oh, they give you so much energy,” Bouchard said. “Being in your own building and obviously guys are coming in, like I said from everywhere. They’re all a little shy a little bit. It’s my job to get that shyness away and the fans will help. It gives you engagement, gives you that extra little pop that you need. And we’re gonna explode.”

Carter is a freelance writer.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune .

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