By Matt Taylor, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Shrewsbury resident Roy Sommer may be one of four coaches in the history of the American Hockey League to win 500 games, but his road to success could hardly be called easy or predictable. As a player, he “fought and clawed” his way through 10 professional seasons with nine different minor league franchises, and experienced a brief call up to the NHL with Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers in 1980. He scored a goal in his NHL debut.
“I was a scrappy player,” Sommer recalled. “That's what I had to do. I could score, but I had to learn how to fight and scrap as well.”
Sommer was able to record two 20-goal seasons during his career before hanging up his skates in 1987. After his playing career, Sommer worked a variety of jobs, including an electrician's apprentice, a caretaker, and he even worked in a commune in California. It was John Muckler, winner of five Stanley Cups as head coach, assistant coach, and executive, who asked Sommer if he had considered coaching as a career.
“I was going to be an electrician's apprentice, but I saw how many electricians my age had back problems and other physical ailments,” Sommer said. “It wasn's for me. Today I's lucky to be in a position I love.”
That position is head coach of the Worcester Sharks, the minor league AHL affiliate of the San Jose Sharks. Sommer first joined the San Jose Sharks as an assistant coach in 1996 and was responsible for pre-game scouting on opponents” line combinations, defense, offense and special teams. In 1998, Sommer was named head coach of San Jose's top minor league affiliate, the Kentucky Thoroughblades. From there, the franchise moved to Cleveland, and then to Worcester in 2006, but Sommer has been a consistent presence helping develop more than 80 NHL players. Logan Couture, Mikael Samuelsson, Ryane Clowe, Joe Pavelsky and Mikka Kiprusoff are some of the stars who developed under Sommer's tutelage. He has led the Sharks to the playoffs seven times and helped 22 players make their NHL debut within the last five years. One of the biggest challenges facing a coach in the AHL is keeping continuity on each line and within the roster.
“We had different lineups for 23 straight games last year,” Sommer said. “Maintaining chemistry between the players and keeping guys motivated who haven's been called up to the NHL are two of the biggest challenges we face. The key is communication. I try not to keep a lot of distance between myself and the players.”
Brandon Mashinter, Alex Stalock? and UMass” Justin Braun have all been called up to San Jose in the last year. Players like Andrew Desjardins, who made the NHL at the age of 24, provide some of the most satisfying moments for a coach.
“Andrew had to battle his way through the minors for a while, and he finally got his chance with San Jose and made the most of it,” Sommer recalled. “Everyone liked him, and he was able to earn a one-year contract with the parent club. Those are the stories you love to hear about.”
Sommer's coaching career has been similar in terms of working his way to the top. He had coached in Roanoke, Va.; Muskegon, Mich.; and Albany, N.Y., before coaching a roller hockey team, the San Jose Rhinos. From there he earned his way onto the Sharks” bench as a second assistant coach with former Bruins great Wayne Cashman and head coach Al Sims.
What about this year's Worcester Sharks?
“This is the most excited I have been about a team in years,” Sommer said. “We have toughness, scoring and leadership on our top four lines.
“Matt Tennyson will be an NHL player, and Freddy Hamilton is another terrific young player who led his junior team in scoring. Alex Stalock is steady in goal, and Nick Petrecki and Danny Groulx will provide strong leadership on defense.”
Sommer's family has enjoyed their time in this area as well, particularly because they have been able to establish some roots. His son Caston will play hockey at nearby College of the Holy Cross next year, his daughter Kyra is a student at Shrewsbury High, and his wife, Melissa, has been a constant source of support during his career, which has involved a number of location changes. Sommer's son Marley works with the team hanging jerseys, doing the wash and performing other duties in the clubhouse. Despite having autism and Down Syndrome, he not only works a productive job for the Sharks, but he has become a favorite among the players.
“He's my buddy, and he's a great kid,” Sommer said. “The players have really taken to him and he has a ball. Our family has had a great time in Worcester and Shrewsbury. It's a great place to live.”
The NHL season may be in doubt due to the current lockout, but the Sharks are ready for another successful season in the AHL. With Roy Sommer at the helm and a talented Sharks roster, the DCU Center is the place to be this winter.