By Craig Elsten (Gulls Play-by-Play Announcer)
Outdoors-loving San Diego Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins has adapted to life in America’s Finest City.
When the Anaheim Ducks opened their annual rookie camp in mid-September, Eakins made the trip from his Poway home, up I-5 and over to The RINKS – Anaheim Ice, the Ducks’ training facility.
One little hitch from the commute the average person might have taken: Eakins made the 102.2-mile commute by bicycle.
Unnecessary given the invention of cars? Lactic acid torture? Neither. Eakins was in his comfort zone.
“No traffic jams or flight delays into training camp this year,” said Eakins on Twitter (@dallaseakins), “Just a whole lot of wind and beautiful landscape.”
Earlier in the summer, the second-year San Diegan competed in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB in August, a 100-mile mountain bike marathon race held in Leadville, Colo., 10,152 feet above sea level. Pictures of sand and sea are more likely to be found on Eakins’ social media accounts than ice. A man who was born in Florida but raised in Ontario, Canada, may have found his perfect home in Southern California.
“That’s been an easy one,” said Eakins of his personal transition to the San Diego lifestyle. “I love being outside and so does my family. You couldn’t have drawn it up any better.”
Eakins’ personal journey comes with being a successful head coach in the American Hockey League (AHL), one with National Hockey League (NHL) experience and pedigree. Eakins spent one-and-a-half seasons behind the bench of the Edmonton Oilers from 2013-14, and before that, four seasons with the Toronto Marlies (AHL). In his first year at the helm of the Gulls in 2015-16, Eakins guided the team to a second place finish in the Pacific Division, a 39-23-4-2 record, 83 points, and a first-round Calder Cup Playoffs victory over the Texas Stars.
Year two in San Diego brings an added sense of familiarity and comfort, both with the region and with the team he is charged with developing.
“The biggest thing is being familiar, and knowing what’s coming,” said Eakins, “At this time last year, none of us were sure quite what was going on, or how we would be accepted.
“The way we were accepted last year was inspirational. Our guys love the area. We have an amazing facility here in Poway that we are privileged to come and train at every day. I think we’re more settled, than anything, and when you’re more settled you’re able to concentrate on the things that matter most, and that’s the development side and the winning side of this organization.”
Five AHL teams made the transition West last season, forming the new Pacific Division. This year, the Tucson Roadrunners (AHL affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes) have joined the migration, giving the AHL a sixth western outpost as well as an eighth team for the division.
The creation of the Pacific Division brought hockey back to a city much better known for sand, surf, and Sea World. Eakins noticed how living and playing in San Diego accrued benefits for his players beyond what they may have even realized.
“There’s this notion out there that you should have your (AHL team) in a really bad city, because it motivates players to get out of that city,” Eakins remembered. “I understand that, but the thing I found last year was, with the amount of sunshine these guys are getting, and they’re outside a lot, I found that they were coming into work in a great mood.”
“They were open to the coaching and encouraging of each other. It was a really good vibe, and I think our climate here has a lot to do with that.”
A strong second half positioned the Gulls for the playoffs in 2015-16, and also saw an influx of young talent at the end of the season from college graduates and junior hockey. While some, like center Kalle Kossila and defenseman Andy Welinski, cracked the team’s playoff lineup, others had the opportunity to practice and train with the Gulls in preparation for their first full pro season in 2016-17.
Last year’s “Black Aces,” or practice players, could help form the foundation of this year’s Gulls, and Eakins likes what he has seen so far.
“We’re already seeing the rewards early here in training camp of guys who came at the end of last season who our fans didn’t see play. But they were practicing with us, they understand what we are trying to accomplish, they understand the vision, the values and the culture of our dressing room here, and we’re seeing those dividends now. We hope all of those little things will result in more wins.”
One of the primary challenges for an AHL head coach is the balancing act between developing the top players the Anaheim Ducks are depending upon for future growth, and winning games in the here and now. Instead of letting the enormity of the job overwhelm him, Eakins prefers to focus on the granular in pursuit of greatness.
“I’m a firm believer in looking for marginal gains every day. And I mean marginal gains, because those little margins turn into big gains over time,” said Eakins, “And then, what’s that turn into? The wins will start looking after themselves, and the players’ development, and being able to go up (to the NHL) and play looks after itself.”
The 2016-17 Gulls enter the AHL season with hopes of making a deeper push into the Calder Cup Playoffs, and building the tradition of consistent success in San Diego both on and off the ice. Eakins sees his on-ice product as one that will feature toughness, strong defense and lots of hard work in front of the net.
“I think, again, we may be challenged to score the skill goals. That’s when you have to challenge your group to score the dirty ones, the ones that just take hard work and courage. We were able to do that last year. I think our goaltending should be strong. We certainly have a group of defensemen mixed with some mobility and some experience. I think we have good enough speed up front, but we’re going to have to work extremely hard for our goals.”
Last season, Oct. 10, 2015 marked the return of hockey to America’s Finest City, and was celebrated with a sellout crowd and an atmosphere that immediately went down in our city’s hockey history for its boisterous passion. Eakins’ expectations have been raised for Opening Night this season as the Gulls host Tucson.
“I thought our fans and that building really set the tone for all our remaining games,” Eakins reflected, “That’s the standard now, and that’s the expectation. When the standard’s been set, and the expectation’s been set, we’ve got to make sure we uphold that. I know our fans will be just as enthusiastic.”
“I think last year we ran out of concessions and we ran out of beer, so let’s see if we can do that again.”
While his Canadian accent is still in place, Eakins has a passion on and off the ice for his newly-adopted city.
“I’m not sure there’s a better place for my family to live. It’s a privilege and something I don’t take for granted.”