The longevity exhibited by Worcester Sharks head coach Roy Sommer has begun to place him in rarified air in AHL coaching history. Through two franchise relocations for San Jose’s AHL affiliate, two NHL coaching changes and one change at general manager in San Jose, the one near constant for the organization has been AHL Head Coach Roy Sommer.
The journey to becoming one of the most successful coaches in AHL history has had a few uncommon stops along the way. Sommer, 53, was born in the non-traditional hockey market of Oakland, California. As a 20-year-old he was selected in the 1977 NHL Draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Over the course of his nine year career, he would play in the Toronto, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers organizations. And it would be with the Oilers budding dynasty where Sommer would pick up his first NHL goal.
Sommer was captain of the Wichita Wind from 1980-83 and again with the Muskegon Lumberjacks in 1986-87. Sommer, who played left wing and center, was a member of the AHL Calder Cup Champion Maine Mariners in 1983-84 and helped lead Muskegon to the 1985-86 IHL title. He also was a member of the 1975 Centennial Cup champion Spruce Grove Mets during his junior hockey career and was later selected to be a member of the United States National Team in 1976-77 at the World Junior Championships.
It is with those leadership experiences, as well as going through the development process of working up through the minors that he believes helps him relate to his players.
“I think it definitely helps,” Sommer said. “Someone who steps right into the NHL is someone who hasn’t had to ride the buses on long road trips or having to work even harder to reach the NHL. So being able to know what the developmental process involves both on the ice and off I think helps when it comes to relating to the players.”
When his playing career came to an end after the 1986-87 season, Sommer stayed with the Muskegon organization as an assistant coach the following year. He would then go on to become the head coach for the Richmond Renegades and the Roanoke Valley Rebels of the ECHL from 1991-1996. His teams would make the playoffs four out of five seasons culminating in a championship season with Richmond in 1995.
Sommer would join the San Jose Sharks organization beginning in the 1996 season. He spent two seasons assisting in San Jose before being named head coach of the Sharks AHL affiliate in Kentucky. The 2010-11 season marks his 13th as head coach of the Sharks AHL affiliates, which includes stops in Kentucky (Thoroughblades), Cleveland (Barons) and Worcester (Sharks).
In total he has over 21 years of coaching experience and explains how his coaching philosophy has changed through the years.
“It has changed over time. When I first started I was pretty narrow minded. I was set in my ways of thinking how things need to be and should be done.” Sommer continued, “I’ve been lucky to work with guys like Ron Wilson, Darryl Sutter and now Todd McLellan up in San Jose. I think over time, learning from those guys has helped me become adaptable coaching wise to any given situation.”
When it comes to communication between coach and players being able to understand each other is vital. Sommer has been successful with this since he believes players’ attitudes and goals haven’t really altered since his playing days.
“Not much has changed with the players in my mind. They know they are just one step away and understand the importance of every practice and every game. The player will always tell us when they are ready, not the other way around.” Sommer added, “You see guys just this year who were our best players getting the call and making the most of it. They have made it hard for San Jose to decide whether to send them back to Worcester or to sit the guy that was their previously because of the success those guys have had.”
Having the longevity within a single organization has allowed Sommer to make his way up the AHL and franchise record books. The 2010-11 season marks his 13th as coach, making him the longest tenured coach in the AHL. On November 1, 2009 he became only the fourth coach in AHL history to reach the 400 win plateau. He joined hockey luminaries such as John Paddock, Fred “Bun” Cook, and Frank Mathers in the select group of coaches. And he will once again join those three men on January 14th, 2011 in Springfield as he will become the fourth coach in AHL history to coach his 1,000th game.
“It means I’m getting old since not too many younger guys are up there” Sommer jokingly said of his achievements, “But it always feels good to be mentioned in the same group as those guys since they were very successful for a long period of time.”
When it came to speaking of his coaching career and overall achievements Sommer was quick to give credit to his assistant coach of nine years David Cunniff.
“My job is made easier having a guy like him around. It’s a co-operative here,” Sommer stated. “I may have final say on some things but he points out things he thinks may need to be changed or suggests trying different things and vice versa. We are both helping each other to be successful as a team.”
Even after the success and personal accolades he has received throughout his career, Sommer says he still gets the biggest thrill when one of his players gets a call to the NHL.
“There have been a lot of good moments and memories in my career, but as a coach seeing a guy work hard and put in the effort and seeing him get the call to the NHL and contributing is still the best.”
NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman once said that in order to win games you must be prepared to adapt. Throughout the course of his 13 year AHL coaching career Sommer has been the best at both adapting and winning on his way to becoming the current standard of AHL coaches and to 400 plus wins. Now ready to enter the 1000 games coached plateau, Worcester and the entire Sharks organization knows the stars of tomorrow are in good hands today.