SAN DIEGO — There are far worse places to coach minor league hockey than sunny San Diego.
Yes, Dallas Eakins seems to have won a lottery of sorts, being hired to coach the San Diego Gulls after the American Hockey League team moved from Norfolk, Virginia, as part of a shift to California to get several affiliates closer to their NHL parents clubs.
The Gulls are the top minor league team of the Anaheim Ducks. Players will be just a phone call away from the NHL, which is a 90-minute drive up Interstate 5.
Even so, Eakins professes not to be in a rush to get back to the NHL despite being fired in the middle of last season by the Edmonton Oilers.
“I believe that if I do a great job today and tomorrow and the next day, just as I preach to the players, that eventually that day will come,” Eakins said. “But I will tell you this, my family has lived in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver and now here in a very short amount of time, and I have very little interest right now in picking them up and moving anywhere.”
Eakins, 48, has been all over the map in his long career. He’s played in the AHL, OHL, IHL and NHL. He’s coached in the NHL and AHL, and makes a return engagement after coaching the Toronto Marlies for four seasons.
His time in Edmonton didn’t end well. He was fired on Dec. 15 after the Oilers started 7-19-5 in his second season. Overall he was 36-63-14.
Now he finds himself in San Diego, which has a rich history of minor league hockey.
“I want to develop this team, get a foothold in this market and really get a great program going up here,” Eakins said.
Eakins’ pro career spanned two decades, most of it in the minors. A
Eakins said he took the Gulls job because of “my desire to stay in charge.”
Having been a player, assistant coach and head coach in both the AHL and NHL, as well as spending time in player development, “there’s not much I haven’t seen,” he said. “There’s not much of any kind of situation, whether it’s a personal situation, a team situation, management, anything you can bring up, I’ve probably seen it and I’ve had to handle it one way or another. Have I handled them all correctly? No. That’s where you learn and you get better.”
Gulls general manager Bob Ferguson said there were around 100 applicants for the job. “Some I said, ‘Geez,’ I thought you were dead,'” Ferguson joked.
Eakins stood out for a number of reasons, including his 157-114-41 record with the Marlies and a run to the 2012 Calder Cup final.
“He’s won at this level and he can teach, is what made him attractive to us,” Ferguson said. “Dallas has been there, done that. He’s had success with players.”
Now Eakins is in Southern California, which is ideal for both his family life and career. He left his snow shovel and winter coats in Canada.
Eakins, his wife and two daughters have settled in suburban Poway, where the Gulls are building a practice rink. Eakins said that on Wednesday, he rode his bike to and from the arena where the team plays.
“It’s only 29 miles (47 kilometres),” he said.
His seven-year-old daughter loves boogie boarding.
“We have an outdoor family,'” he said. “The weather, terrain and the healthy lifestyle of the residents of San Diego kind of really meshes well with my family. I’ve been blessed to join an incredible organization, but equally blessed in a place where your family can really do things they enjoy doing.”
The Gulls open at home Saturday night against Grand Rapids.
On the ice for Thursday’s practice were 22-year-old goalie John Gibson, who recently signed a $6.9 million, three-year contract; three former first-round draft picks; and Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer, a special assignment coach for the Ducks who’s working with the Gulls’ young
Hockey is extremely popular in Southern California. The Ducks won the Stanley Cup in 2007 and their rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, won it in 2012 and 2014.
The Gulls expect to have a healthy rivalry with the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Ontario in San Bernardino County.
“It’s amazing what’s gone on here since I guess the Gretzky trade, right?” Eakins said, referring to when the Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky from Edmonton in 1988.
“In Southern California, the rivalry is intense,” he said. “We like that. We like that we formed this division out here and it contains a lot of the teams that are involved in the same rivalry that’s going on in the NHL. That’s important for the players. We want them to highly dislike these other teams because it’s going to translate at the NHL level.”
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Bernie Wilson, The Associated Press