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The Perfect Pair

by Tony Khing / San Jose Sharks
Radio legend Paul Harvey always had a “Tournament of Roses” feature on his daily newscasts, highlighting those couples who had been together for a long time.


In 2011-12, Worcester Assistant Coach Dave Cunniff (left) and Head Coach Roy Sommer will enter their 10th year together as coaches of San Jose's top development team.
If Harvey were still alive and doing his “Paul Harvey News” broadcasts, there’s a good chance he’d include Worcester Head Coach Roy Sommer and Assistant Coach Dave Cunniff in that segment.

And for good reason. When the 2011-12 season begins in a few months, Sommer and Cunniff will start their 10th season as coaching partners. They were behind the bench when San Jose had their American Hockey League club in Cleveland for four years and have spent the last five in Massachusetts. A closer look reveals that Cunniff has been on the bench with Sommer for 68 percent (324) of Sommer’s 478 AHL wins.

Granted, the Sommer-Cunniff duo haven’t been together as long as a husband and wife in Kansas celebrating their golden anniversary, but the duration still says something.

“It’s unheard of,” Worcester President Michael A. Mudd said.

In our ever-changing world, being at a job for a long time is a rarity -- especially in a competitive industry like minor league sports. Players, coaches, staff and play-by-play announcers want to climb the ladder and will do whatever is necessary to reach the major leagues.

But the Sommer-Cunniff relationship isn’t about their personal upward mobility.

“This might be a cliché, but I get the biggest kick out of developing players,” said the 40-year-old Cunniff. “The biggest accomplishment for me and the thing I like the best is helping young men reach their goals. To see them grow up and to come to San Jose and see a Ryane Clowe (who played for Sommer and Cunniff in Cleveland from 2003-06) be a big part of the Sharks, that’s what I really enjoy.”

“It’s about the number of players who are playing in the National Hockey League out of the Sharks organization,” said the 52-year-old Sommer, who’s been the head coach of San Jose’s top development affiliates (he started with Kentucky from 1998-2001) for the past 13 seasons.

Over that baker’s dozen, Sommer has sent more than 130 players to the NHL. In five years at Worcester, the Sommer-Cunniff partnership has produced more than 80 NHL players. Current Sharks such as Clowe, Joe Pavelski and recent Calder Memorial Trophy finalist Logan Couture as well as NHLers like Matt Carle (Philadelphia) and Devin Setoguchi (Minnesota) have learned from Sommer and Cunniff.

“Both are great developers of talent,” Mudd said. “Their record speaks for itself. If you look at the number of players who’ve come through, you’d be hard pressed to find any coaches who’ve developed that many players.”

Not only do Sommer and Cunniff share a passion for helping young players achieve their dreams, but another reason for their long and successful partnership comes from having a special symbiosis.

“They give each other space,” said Webb Sommer, who works with his brother at the annual Sharks Summer Hockey School. “They know each other’s roles. They allow the other to do their job. Both have a lot of give and take. They know how to work with people real well.”

“We understand each other,” Cunniff, the son of the late U.S. Olympic Team Head Coach and NHL veteran John Cunniff, said. “We know what the other is looking for. We can finish each other’s sentences. We both love hockey. Both of us feed off each other.”

“We know what the other person is going to do most of the time,” Sommer said. “If I’m doing a drill, he knows when to shut up. I know when to shut up. It’s worked out really good. It’s been a great relationship. For the most part, it’s been a good marriage.”

Like any human being, they’ve had thoughts of higher aspirations. However, they’ve been just thoughts. Chances are Sommer and Cunniff will be in Worcester for as long as Sharks management wants them there. Based on their track record, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

“I’m older now and in a situation where my daughter is going into high school and one son just got a scholarship to go to Holy Cross (which is based in Worcester and has an NCAA Division 1 men’s team in the Atlantic Hockey Association),” Sommer said. “Being in Worcester gives me an opportunity to see my daughter graduate from high school and my son play hockey. There’s something to be said for that. I’m sure there’s other places that have opportunities for me, but I’d like to finish it out in Worcester.”

“You can say, ‘Geez, neither one of us has moved on in nine years,’” Cunniff said. “I choose to look at it as a good thing. I’d rather be a janitor in a great organization and feel like I’m around special people than be a general manager in an organization I wasn’t proud of. I’m really fortunate. I feel like I’m part of something special.”

And so is a long-standing working relationship.

MORE THAN JUST DEVELOPING PLAYERS

Sommer has taken a lot of pride in developing players for the Sharks. But as the director of the Sharks Summer Hockey School (which is held every June at Sharks Ice at San Jose), he can also feel proud about all of the hockey (and Sharks) fans he’s created over the last 12 years.

“Darryl Sutter (Sharks head coach from 1997-2002) ran the school the first year. He didn’t want to do it anymore and asked if I wanted to take it over,” Sommer said. “I said, ‘Sure.’”

Sommer hasn’t regretted that decision.

“It’s evolved into a great thing,” Sommer said. “There are kids I taught back then who are now doctors and lawyers. Some have moved on to play hockey at higher levels. The biggest thing is we’ve cultivated Sharks fans. When you get them at a young age, they learn to play the game. They continue to play, stay in the area and want to see the Sharks play.

“I still can’t believe they can get four rinks operating here (Sharks Ice at San Jose),” Sommer added. “They’re all full. They go from five or six in the morning until one in the morning the next day. They’ve (San Jose Sharks) done a great job cultivating hockey in this area.”
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