“Anyone thinking about getting into coaching, you better think about moving.”
– Worcester Sharks head coach, Roy Sommer
My favorite part of being a hockey journalist is talking to the fascinating figures who have lived the game on so many different angles. You never know what they’re going to say and you never know what stories they have to share. Often they catch you completely off guard.
I had one such interview with Worcester Sharks coach Roy Sommer last week as he crept closer to the 500-career-wins mark behind an American League bench. Now sitting at 498, Sommer will become just the fourth coach in league history to hit the milestone, with John Paddock (589), Frank Mathers (610) and Fred ‘Bun’ Cook (636) the only bench bosses ahead of him.
His road to this point was nothing short of stupendous. Born in Oakland, Calif., Sommer got into hockey after his parents divorced when he was six or seven years old. His mom wanted him to be involved in a sport and he loved skating when he first tried it.
He advanced and played a couple years in the Western League before being drafted into the NHL by the Toronto Maple Leafs, 101st overall in the 1977 draft. He only saw three games in the league and spent most of his playing days in the International and Central Leagues.
“When I was playing in Wichita, Kan., in the Central League, John Muckler was our coach,” Sommer said. “I’d always screw around with guys after practice. Muckler asked me one day, ‘Have you ever thought about going into coaching?’ No man. I always rode in the back of the bus. That was the last thing I was thinking.”
A few years later, Sommer took a job as an electrician’s apprentice in the summer and his mindset began to shift.
“I said, ‘This isn’t going to work,’ ” Sommer recalled. “Watching all those guys walk around with bad backs in their mid-40s from carrying tools and stuff. I didn’t want that.”
Sommer’s last season as a player was with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the IHL in 1986-87. After the season coach Rick Ley extended an invitation for him to become an assistant, so Sommer took the leap.
As any sports fan knows, the coaching profession isn’t the most stable. Sommer was in Muskegon for only one year before the entire staff lost their jobs and he found himself back in California working in the vineyards. In the meantime, with hockey season fast approaching, he sent resumes all over the country until an opportunity to coach under Peter Anholt with Prince Albert of the WHL opened up.
At the time, Sommer was going through a divorce and “everything was kind of going downhill.” All his possessions were in the back of his truck, but before he left for Canada again, his brother wanted to celebrate at an Oakland A’s baseball game.
“I was too cheap to park in the parking lot, so I went to another place,” he said. “I came back and the back of my truck was open and everything was gone. So I got to Prince Albert with my truck and that was about it. The insurance check got sent to Indianapolis where my ex-wife was and she cashed it. And that was the start of my coaching career.”
At the end of that season, Sommer learned the Minot hockey club in the Saskatchewan League had fired its coach so he looked there for his first head job. While he was on his way to a piece of land he owned in Montana (“I used to spend the summers there and lived in a teepee,” he said nonchalantly) he stopped in Minot for an interview and ended up with the job.
Inevitably, Sommer was fired two years later, but he was only out of a job for about a week before he was offered another gig in Albany. Not surprisingly, that one didn’t last very long, either.
“My girlfriend, now wife, we just had a baby with Down syndrome and we drove out there just after we had him,” he said. “We get out to Albany and I was there a month and a half before the team folded. There you ran to the bank when you cashed your check.”
With Albany behind them, the young family trekked back across the country. It mustn’t have been easy, as their son Marley would struggle with seizures from time to time. When they got back to the West Coast, he sent out resumes again until he got a call from the owner of the Durham Bulls and went in for an interview.
Though Sommer didn’t get the job, the owner liked him and took him to a league meeting where he met Henry Brabham, founder of the ECHL and owner of the Roanoke Valley team. Sommer had an interview with Brabham over breakfast before he had to leave to catch a plane. But as Sommer was waiting for his cab in the lobby, Brabham quickly caught up to him.
“He tells me to hold my hands above my head,” Sommer recalled of the confusing moment. “He starts punching me in the stomach and goes, ‘You tough boy? I’ll tell you what, you bring a team in here. We can’t have no wussies – that don’t sell in Roanoke. If you want the job, it’s yours, ’cause I like you son.’ ”
Sommer lasted one year in Roanoke before taking a job in Richmond, a position he held for four years. It was at that point fate started to turn him towards the big leagues in an unlikely way: He received a call from Doug Wilson, who offered him a job as coach of the roller hockey team in San Jose during the summer of 1996.
The NHL Sharks hired Al Sims to coach the team that coming season and brought in Wayne Cashman as his assistant, but were looking for a second guy. Sommer interviewed for the position and, as he was coaching in the world championship of roller hockey, got the call from Sims informing him he’d gotten the job.
After two years as an assistant in the NHL, the head coaching position of San Jose’s AHL affiliate in Kentucky became available and Sommer asked if he could make that move.
“Fourteen years later and I’m still here,” said Sommer, who has been through moves with the affiliate to Cleveland and now Worcester.
And now he sits on the precipice of AHL history. He says he’d still explore the idea of becoming a head coach in the NHL, though he recognizes his lack of a Calder Cup championship is likely holding him back.
Ultimately, he has a good thing in Worcester. He’s an ingrained part of the Sharks organization and his son Marley, now 21, helps out with the team. And as you can see in this video, he and everybody else loves it.
“My success is the success that the San Jose Sharks have,” Sommer said. “I’d love to win a Stanley Cup. It’s been 16 years so I could ride off into the sunset if that happened.”
They say our lessons come from the journey, not the destination and listening to Roy Sommer talk really drives that point home.
Because, as he said about his tale, “that’s the short version.”
Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com’s web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.
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