AHL road trip: Sommer in Worcester

Coach Roy Sommer is entering his 15th season behind the bench of the Worcester Sharks. He is just...

Coach Roy Sommer is entering his 15th season behind the bench of the Worcester Sharks. He is just the fourth coach to crack the 500-win mark in the American Hockey League. (Steve Babineau/photo)

ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:56 AM ET

MARLBOROUGH, MASS. - If he ever found the time to write a book about his life in hockey, where would Roy Sommer start?

Would it be in California, where he grew up in the 1960s and ’70s and was one of the first from the state ever to be drafted in the NHL?

Would it be his first pro training camp where a spear in the back from notorious Maple Leaf Tiger Williams left a lasting impression?

Or would it be the life as a coach that has seen him settle into one of the more accomplished and well-travelled figures in minor pro hockey?

“If I could ever write a book, I’d have some stories to tell,” the Worcester Sharks coach said after a training camp practice here this week. “Anyone who gets into coaching and thinks they are going to be in one place ... their career isn’t going to last too long.”

If anyone would know, it is Sommer, who is preparing for his 15th season behind the bench of the San Jose Sharks’ top farm team. With 509 wins, he’s just the fourth coach in AHL history to crack 500, testament to his longevity and the commitment the Sharks have to his work.

No fewer than 15 players on the 2011-12 NHL roster spent some time under Sommer, either here or at previous AHL stops in Cleveland and Lexington, Ky. And if his past record holds true, more will be on the way.

“I think the most gratifying thing is watching NHL games and the amount of players I’ve had a hand in,” Sommer said. “I think it’s over 120 players I’ve had who have made it.

“I think I probably do it better than anybody in our league. You have to change with the times and with the kids.”

While there are the Ryan Clowes and Logan Coutures of the world — top prospects who developed in the conventional way — the career minor leaguer in Sommer takes pride in unearthing a player the rest of the hockey world missed. The classic example on the current NHL Sharks is forward Andrew Desjardins, who Sommer first stumbled across when he was playing for the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League, as close to a dead end as an aspiring pro can land.

“The first 10 minutes I saw him on the ice, I knew somebody missed the boat on this guy,” Sommer said. “To see him go on to the NHL ... those are the kinds of stories that keep me going, especially at the American League level, to see guys get the opportunity and actually make it.”

There’s no doubt Pommer has an eye for it and can deliver solid pros to coach Todd McClellan and the big-league Sharks. The latest example might be Yanni Gourde, a diminutive undrafted forward who piled up 124 points with the Victoriaville Tigres last season with the Quebec Major Junior League.

“I’ve been telling everybody here to watch out, he’ll end up getting (AHL) rookie of the year,” Sommer said. “I think he’s that good.”

Sommer’s style is not for the weak of heart. The Sharks had 136 major penalties last season, a point of pride for a coach who has seen about all there is to see in hockey’s minor pro levels, including coaching the San Jose Rhinos roller hockey squad.

In both Worcester and Manchester, N.H., folks are still talking about the bench-clearing brawl last season and anticipating the rematch this time around. Let’s just say that by the look of Sommer’s lineup, the Sharks will be armed and ready for the rematch.

Sommer was drafted by the Leafs in 1977, a sixth-rounder and 101st overall. Like any kid, whether he makes it or not, Sommer will never forget his one camp in Toronto.

“I was skating around and Tiger Williams speared me right in the back,” Sommer said. “He said ‘hey kid, you aren’t taking my job.’

By the time he hit age 30 and with all of three NHL games under his belt — with Wayne Gretzky and the 1980-81 Oilers, no less — making a living playing the game was fast expiring. When the opportunity to coach was presented to Sommer, he hasn’t looked back.

“I was a career minor leaguer and it was time to do something else,” Sommer said. “I was going to be an electrician. But then I saw guys walking around bitching and moaning. All their backs were shot from carrying their tool belts and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”

KID GETS SECOND CHANCE

With the benefit of hindsight, James Sheppard wonders how his career might have evolved if he had a stint in the AHL earlier.

At age 24, Sheppard is far from washed up age wise. But coming off two seasons recuperating from a shattered knee sustained in an ATV accident, the Nova Scotia native is about to a second chance at being an impactful NHLer.

A first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2006 (ninth overall), Sheppard was dealt to San Jose for a third-round pick in the summer of 2011. With his knee put back together, he is hoping a stint — and possibly a full season — with the Worcester Sharks will get him back to the bigs.

“Looking back, if I could have played in the AHL, it would have a perfect step for me,” said Sheppard, who had 11 goals and 38 assists in 224 NHL games with the Wild. “I was too mature for (junior) and I don’t think I was ready to play in the NHL.

“I realize there’s still a lot I can accomplish. Two years recuperating is a long time to learn about yourself.”

Sharks director of pro scouting, John Ferguson Jr., said that giving Sheppard that shot is “a low-risk, high-reward” proposition that could pay off if he realizes some of his earlier potential.

“They’ve believed in me,” Sheppard said. “Trading for me when I was injured said a lot. The big thing is, I still have moments where I feel like I did when I was 18 and now I feel like I have someone behind me.”


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