Success Story on Ice
By Ron Donoho
Sergei Naumov is one of the best goaltenders ever exported by Latvia. A member of the San Diego Gulls ice hockey team, he took time off this season to play for his motherland's national team. They qualified for this summer's world championships. He's back with the Gulls now. The scene:
Clock running down. Heavy breath hovering over the ice. Except for the slicing of blades, silence. In goal: Naumov. Behind a white mask, he's glaring. Bulky pads entomb him. His stick is thick, wrapped with tape. A large, pocketed glove covers his left hand. A pressure moment—the kind athletes thrive on.
Okay, not quite. We're at the Ice-O-Plex public rink in Escondido. I've gained permission to practice with the team. Rented skates crush my feet. I'm in blue jeans. Reporter's notebook in my back pocket. Cold. Wobbly. I grip a hockey stick with two hands. The puck rests on the ice to my left. Just 15 feet away is Latvia's favorite son. I notice the Zamboni driver is waiting, ready to sheen the ice, as practice is nearly over. I shoot. Miss. Shoot. Stick save by Naumov. Another miss. Last shot. The puck lifts off the ice like a JetStream down a runway. Banks right. It slips between the post and Naumov. The net ripples. Goal. Elation.
Quick history. San Diego's hockey history spans 50 years, with teams named Skyhawks, Mariners and Gulls. The first incarnation of the Gulls played in the International Hockey League (the IHL is a talent rung below the National Hockey League). The "I-Gulls" departed for Los Angeles in 1995. You'll recognize one name from the I-Gulls roster: Gretzky. Wayne's younger brother, Keith, played two seasons in San Diego, anchoring the team's "Blue Collar Line."
The current version of the Gulls, who play in the eight-team West Coast Hockey League (a rung below the IHL), is entering its fifth year. And not too shabby an existence it's been: The Gulls have won the league championship three times, finished second last year and have been in first place most of this season.
A lion's share of credit goes to head coach and general manager Steve Martinson. In the first four seasons under his guidance, the team won 197 games and lost just 48. He's twice been named WCHL Coach of the Year. A Minnesotan who played 123 games for the I-Gulls, Martinson also saw on-ice action with three NHL teams.
He deflects credit for the Gulls' success. "We have good teams because we have good players," says Martinson in a Nick Nolte–like rasp. "The warm weather in San Diego is a great recruiting tool."
Indeed. The Gulls' roster is packed with players hailing from summer-starved spots like Ontario, Canada, and Uppsala, Sweden. Brrr.
There's no room in the budget for scouts. Martinson relies on qualified word-of-mouth to help recruit players. The coach picked up high-scoring forward Mark Woolf this year. When Woolf talked up former teammate Dennis Purdie, the Gulls became the third team the pair has played for in tandem.
Then there's Naumov. (Diplomatically, he declines to say whether he let a magazine writer score on him in practice.) Naumov is the reason Martinson picked up defender Sergei Visegorodcevs. Both are Latvians. How many San Diego sports rosters have ever included two guys named Sergei, both from the city of Riga?
The 5-foot-9-inch Naumov is 30, married, has one daughter. His teammate/countryman is a strapping 6-foot-3, 23 and single. On arrival in the United States, Visegorodcevs stayed for a while with Naumov's family. Naumov helps him with his English.
Sergei the Younger is asked his impressions of San Diego. Before answering, he confers in Russian with Naumov. Then he replies, "I like the clubs of Del Mar."
It's late December. The team has just returned from a two-week, five-game road trip. In the parking lot outside the Sports Arena is a brown late-model Mercedes 300D. It bears a bumper sticker that reads "My Other Car Is a Zamboni."
Inside the brown late-model Sports Arena is Kevin Eckmann of Chula Vista. He's here with wife, Raylene, 9-year-old daughter, Amanda, and 7-year-old son, Erik—and 6,482 other fans. Father, daughter and son are all draped in baggy orange Gulls jerseys.
A former Minnesotan, Eckmann says Erik's interest in roller hockey helped bring out the family. "The team is very classy," says the elder Eckmann. "They come down to Chula Vista a lot and are great with signing autographs. The kids read the paper to find out the Gulls' road-game scores. The team schedule is up on our fridge."
Another fan, Mike Kinnear, hasn't always lived in Spring Valley. He's from—surprise—Ontario, Canada. "I like the energy of the game," he says. "It's not like baseball, where everybody is standing around. Everybody is moving at a high rate of speed."
Kinnear has seats in the arena's lower level, near the ice—the equivalent of football end-zone seats. "A lot of people like to sit at center ice," he says. "Don't tell anybody, but the seats behind the goal are really the best."
Every so often during games, a puck flies out into the arena. If you catch it, you get to keep it. Fans are not allowed to walk down the aisles to lower-level seats while the puck is in play. They have to wait until a referee's whistle breaks the action.
An usher notes that people have been nailed by pucks while worrying more about spilling beer and nachos than dodging unexpected flying objects. Over a decade of working hockey games, the usher, who asks to go unnamed, has seen a couple of pretty bad hits out among spectators—blood, hospital trips and all that.
As the first period of action winds down, the Gulls find themselves losing to the Idaho Steelheads, 3-1.
Up on the new and vastly improved Sports Arena scoreboard, a message: "Happy 14th Birthday, Janelle." Below, on the ice, the first fisticuffs of the night.
Until this point, the crowd has been dutifully cheering for goals, good plays, saves by the goalie. But when the punches start flying, the stands erupt. The stadium P.A. blares music from the Jock Rock album. One fan rushes to the Plexiglas wall near the fight and starts slapping it with glee.
Inside the Plexiglas fishbowl, six players are duking it out in separate encounters. Gloves, helmets and sticks litter the ice. The punching gives way to low-rent wrestling, and each bout ends with one player's jersey pulled over his head. Penalty minutes are assessed. The Steelheads' Ryan Johnston and the Gulls' Frederick Jobin are sent to early showers.
It's unknown how 14-year-old Janelle enjoyed this birthday present.
Between 20-minute periods of play are 18-minute breaks. Tonight's first break features a dance routine by the Gulls Girls. Yes, they dance on the ice. To do so, the squad changes into thick, rubber-soled shoes, called "broomballs," that keep the cheerleaders from slipping.
There are nearly two dozen taut-tummied Gulls Girls on the squad. The Girls have a calendar, a Web site, a fan club. During some between-period breaks, the girls gather at a table and pose for Polaroids with ear-to-ear-grinning guys.
Kirklan Wells is a 19-year-old business major/aspiring actress who attends SDSU. "I like to help get everybody pepped up," says the raven-haired first-year Gulls Girl. "I'd never seen a hockey game before doing this, but now I'm a fan. And I've never been a model before, but now I'm on a calendar."
Few home games come without some promotion or giveaway. Handed out so far this year: bumper stickers, pucks, rally towels, license-plate holders, T-shirts, mouse pads, yo-yos, pennants and sports bags.
In February, fans will receive flags, coffee mugs and beach towels. And they can treasure forever "Ted Leitner T-shirt Night" (the KFMB sports personality is not exactly known as a hockey backer).
By far, the team's most popular promotion is Bikini Night, during "Back to the Beach Weekend." On Friday, February 18, watch attendance swell to the 10,000 range as gals—and sometimes guys—don bathing suits and get body-checked.
As equal parts fan and caretaker, Ron Hahn says he attends every home game. There he is, at center ice, in one of the few red, cushioned seats.
The managing general partner of Arena Group 2000 owns and operates the Gulls. Unlike the local baseball franchise, which is reportedly bleeding millions of dollars every year, Hahn says he makes money owning the Gulls. He declines to say exactly how much money.
"It costs $3 million to run the hockey team," says Hahn. "It helps that we own the building. And that we have the concession stands and the parking fees. If we were a stand-alone team, well, we'd still be okay, but not as okay."
Hahn proudly notes that the Gulls rank in the top 10 in the nation in minor-league hockey attendance. Last season, average home attendance was 6,518, with a league record 228,135 for the year. Four of the league's top five single-game attendance records belong to San Diego. All those games had crowds bigger than 11,500.
There is one more reason for Hahn's interest in the Gulls: 30-year-old Martin St. Amour. The league record holder for goals (61) in a season began his San Diego career as one of the team's star attractions. Now it's a family affair; Hahn is not just St. Amour's boss, he's his father-in-law.
St. Amour met Jennifer Hahn at a team party three years ago. She used to work in the Gulls' front office. "I was with somebody else at the time, but I sure thought she was very good looking," says the 6-foot-3 Montreal native. The couple lives in Carmel Valley; they have a son, Martin Jr., they call "M.J."
For the game against the Idaho Steelheads, St. Amour, who was benched much of the early season due to a pelvic injury, stands in as coach. Martinson is sitting up in the stands, serving out a suspension for criticizing the officiating.
St. Amour says there are times it's difficult being part of ownership and a player. "But what can you do? You just deal with it," he says. "It's awkward sometimes, but not so awkward that it's a problem."
Rounding out the family tree, the Gulls' roster also includes Stephane St. Amour, Martin's younger brother. In the 1996-97 season, Martin (60) and Stephane (50) combined to score 110 goals.
In the third period, aided by strong work in goal by Naumov, the Gulls rebound and tie the Steelheads, 3-3. That's how regulation play ends.
The WCHL's version of overtime —a shootout—ensues. Each team gets five one-on-one shots at the other's goalie. This shootout ends with each team scoring three times.
So now the shootout goes into sudden death. Naumov cracks first. The Steelheads win.
Before tonight, the Gulls haven't lost a tiebreaker all season. The team's record drops to 19-8-1—still good enough for first place.
One more story. It's a Sunday night. And every Sunday game is capped by a "Skate with the Gulls" promotion. Even after just returning from two weeks on the road, and having suffered an overtime loss, a dozen players—still damp with sweat—return to the ice after a brief retreat to the locker room.
The players gently start circling the ice. Minutes later, about 200 fans, who've brought or rented skates, pour into the rink. Autographs are signed on trading cards, T-shirts and programs. Words and smiles are exchanged. There's team captain B.J. MacPherson, playfully tussling with two preteen boys. A nice hockey story.
It's as casual a scene as any you'd see at the public Ice-O-Plex. The event goes on for about an hour. The memory lasts much longer.