Roy Sommer will understand if St. John’s IceCaps fans aren’t anxious to see him become the fourth American Hockey League head coach with 500 wins.
Not right away, anyway. After all, even Newfoundland good-naturedness and hospitality can only go so far.
Sommer, whose Worcester Sharks (20-13-9) are in town for a two-game series with the IceCaps (27-11-6), beginning tonight at Mile One Centre, is sitting on 498 coaching wins in the AHL, and a sweep this weekend would see him achieve the 500 milestone.
But whatever happens tonight and Saturday, the 55-year-old Sommer deserves thanks from AHL fans in these part, at least the thousands who appreciated the work of Frank “The Animal” Bialowas with the St. John’s Maple Leafs. For it was Sommer who got Bialowas his first job in pro hockey and it was Sommer who recommended “The Animal” for a call-up to the AHL Leafs that turned into a more-than-two year — and sort of legendary — stay in St. John’s.
Two decades ago, Sommer was coaching the Roanoke Valley Rebels of the ECHL, a team known for its toughness. But Sommer decided he needed more and brought in Bialowas, whom he had remembered as a tier 2 junior player in western Canada. Bialowas only played 23 games for the Rebels in 1991-92, picking up 150 penalty minutes in the process, but an injury ended his season and he returned to his home town of Winnipeg. In fact, he came close to quitting hockey at that point, but Sommer — who had moved to the ECHL’s Richmond Renegades in the off-season — came calling again and Bialowas agreed to go to Richmond.
The Renegades had a loose affiliation agreement with the St. John’s Leafs, coached by Marc Crawford. Midway through the 1992-93 AHL season, Crawford concluded his team needed an enforcer and first inquired about the possibility of acquiring Deer Lake’s Darren Langdon. But Langdon was part of the New York Rangers system and the Rangers’ AHL team in Binghamton had first dibs on the big winger, so the Leafs decided to give Bialowas a trial ... and never regretted it.
Even without the Bialowas connection, local hockey fans would find Sommer’s story is an interesting one. A native of northern California, he was a stick boy for the NHL’s Oakland Seals, would find his way into major junior hockey in Western Canada and go on to fashion a solid decade-long professional career as a rugged forward who could score his share of his goals. That time was spent almost entirely in the minors, from Spokane, Wash., to Portland, Me., but he did get into three games with Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers in 1980-81 and scored one big-league goal.
Remarkably, this is his 16th season with the San Jose Sharks’ organization. The first two were spent as an assistant in San Jose, but ever since 1998, Sommer’s been guiding the Sharks’ AHL affiliates. That’s been Worcester for the last six years, but before that, it was the Kentucky Thoroughblades and after that, the Cleveland Barons. During his time in Cleveland, his charges included a winger he helped shape into a bona fide NHLer: Fermeuse native Ryane Clowe.
The IceCaps are expected to have a veteran forwards Jason King and Jason Jaffray, the team captain, back in the lineup tonight. King had been sidelined with an injury; Jaffray had been away from the team after the death of his mother last month ... Another change to the St. John’s lineup could come in the form of defenceman John Negrin, acquired in a trade with the Calgary Flames earlier this week.