Thousands of hockey fans flocked to the Valley View Casino Center Sunday afternoon to witness the unveiling of their new AHL hockey team’s logo, many of which proudly donned San Diego Gulls jerseys of years past—jerseys that harbored the memories of the five Taylor Cups the city’s former team won between 1995-2006.
Fortunately for them, they won’t need to purchase a new jersey to properly perpetuate their support.
After a near decade-long absence from the ice, the Gulls are coming back to San Diego.
Renaming the newly purchased Norfolk Admirals was a pretty simple decision for most involved in the process. Despite the logical relationship between San Diego’s Naval affiliations and the Admiral name associated with the AHL team purchased by the Anaheim Ducks, owners Henry and Susan Samueli knew there was only one way to go.
"We knew the tradition of hockey was here (in this arena) and San Diego Gulls was perfect," Susan Samueli said.
The announcement came during "Hockeyfest"—the team’s inaugural promotional event that welcomed about 8,500 of the city’s biggest fans to the very same arena that once played home to former Gulls greats Martin St. Amour and Trevor Koenig.
Of the 8,500-or-so folks who managed to make their way to the arena was Wisconsin-native Mickey Strand. A lifelong fan of the sport and longtime fan of the Gulls, it’s safe to say Strand was not only content with the decision to bring hockey back to San Diego, but with the decision to keep things relatively familiar to what he once knew.
"I was actually relieved that it was still going to be the Gulls," Strand said with a smile as he wore his 12-year-old game-worn, bloodstained Gulls jersey. "I know San Diego owns the name but I was very pleased that we were going to stay with the Gulls logo and the jersey that we’re all familiar with and comfortable with."
Though Strand and the Samuelis anticipated a nice turnout Sunday, they didn’t quite expect the thousands of people who enveloped the outer perimeter of the arena long before the gates were scheduled to open at 12:30 p.m.
"It took us literally an hour to get from the off-ramp to the arena," Henry Samueli said. "We had big smiles on our face because we knew all these people were in line to get into the arena. It was very exciting for us."
Just a train-ride away from the Honda Center and their NHL affiliate Ducks, placing this team back in San Diego seemed a rather natural extension to the powers that be with the Anaheim franchise.
"When we sat with the other four teams to make a decision as to who was going to go where, we jumped in first and said, ‘We want San Diego,’" Ducks CEO Michael Schulman said. "We’ve known all along that this was the place we wanted to be."
But the geographical benefits to placing the minor league team about two hours away wouldn’t be the only reason San Diego was a top choice, Schulman said. In spite of the ongoing concerns between Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the city’s football franchise, Schulman believes in the San Diego fan base.
"They’re great sports fans," Schulman said. "They’re great baseball sports fans, they’re great football sports fans. Hockey is just a natural extension to that."
But don’t be fooled by the sudden rise in hockey chatter, much of the hockey-loving population was here long before the Gulls made their return to this arena. Unconvinced by the replica team out in Escondido, many just wanted their team back in full force.
"I’m very pleased that they gave us the opportunity to give us back our team—that’s kind of what it feels like: that we’ve been given back our team," Strand said. "We went up a couple of times to see what the current Gulls situation was like up in Escondido and it was very sad. Having been through some of the Taylor Cup years, it was kind of disappointing to see where Gulls Hockey had come to."
Moving forward, Strand—along with plenty of other people in attendance Sunday—says he’s secured his spot for every home game in the upcoming Gulls season. It’s something he’s missed, to say the least.
"I’m very happy to see they took the opportunity to expand the west coast AHL and give us real, honest, straight-up hockey like back in the IHL days," Strand said.