March 24, 2017

First days can always be nerve racking, but for Mitch Hults and Austin Ortega that first day was on March 21 when both took part in their first professional practice as members of the San Diego Gulls. Both Hults and Ortega signed amaetur tryout agreements (ATO) with the Gulls on March 21, with the aforementioned Hults penning a two-year entry-level deal with Anaheim that will kick in to start the 2017-18 season.

“I was on my way home from school for the weekend and I got a call Thursday kind of getting the news, kind of what was going on,” said Hults on his initial reaction to the news. “Friday afternoon is when I found out the news and then Friday night is when everything settled in and when I signed and made the deals. I had Saturday and Sunday to regroup, get my things packed and flew out here Monday morning.”

“I was able to go home so I was able to sign it at home instead of up at school,” added Hults on the emotions of signing his first contract.”Growing up we don’t have many athletes from my hometown so that was kind of cool. We went back to my hometown rink and was able to sign it there. It kind of was emotional. I had my whole family there and the guy who runs the rink so it was awesome.”

The 6-2, 205-pound forward collected 20-34=54 points with 98 penalty minutes (PIM) in two seasons (76 games) with Lake Superior State of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). Hults was named to the All-WCHA Second Team in 2016-17 after leading the conference in assists (23) and ranking third in points (34). Hults was also named WCHA Player of the Month for October after earning 4-7=11 points in six games.

When asked about his goals for the remainder of the season, Hults discussed wanting to fit in and help the team win down the stretch and clinch a playoff spot. One thing he’ll do right away is make his professional debut tonight with the Gulls at Bakersfield only four days after signing with the club.

“I just kind of work my way in, see where I fit with this group and help this team win games,” added Hults. “Essentially that’s what it comes down to and hopefully I can help this team with the playoff push that everyone wants in this town.”

The Stoughton, Wis. native had never made the trip to America’s Finest City before, but admits that it’s one of the best places he’s been.

“As soon as I came in I loved it,” said Hults. “You have those battleships out there when you fly in which is pretty cool I’ve only seen some of it and I’ve already kind of fallen in love with this place. It’s one of the best places I’ve been to.”

Joining Hults in his early days as a professional is Austin Ortega, a player who is no stranger San Diego. Raised in Escondido, Ortega grew up going to Gulls games when they were a part of the West Coast Hockey League, and spent time as a Jr. Gull and participated in the Jr. Ducks and LA Kings Selects. Twenty years later, Ortega found himself signing his first professional contract with his home team.

“Obviously my college career was a great one,” said Ortega. “But it’s always a special feeling to come back home and play for your team you grew up watching.”

Ortega scored 70-69=139 points with 66 penalty minutes and a +4 rating, and tied the NCAA record with 23 career game-winning goals in 147 games during his four years at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The local product appeared in 38 games with the Mavericks this season, earning 20-27=47 points and set career highs in assists (27) and points (47), while he also led the NCHC in scoring and ranked tied for third in goals. The 5-8, 170-pound forward was named to the NCHC All-Conference First Team this season and was named to the NCHC Academic All-Conference Team each of his four seasons at Nebraska-Omaha.

Both skaters took part in their first professional practice this week with head coach Dallas Eakins and the rest of the team.

“Back in college we kind of went to the white board and talked about the drills,” said Hults. “This is just kind of next drill, next drill, which is nice. The tempo was there the whole time, which was nice. You just have to get used to it a little bit.”

“It was very high tempo and a lot of skill out there. It was just fun to finally join the team.”

San Diego is currently carrying 16 players on the roster that have appeared in an NHL contest in their career, with a total 1,748 games of NHL experience under their belts. Transitioning from college hockey will be a task for the two newest Gulls as they learn the ropes of becoming a professional during the tail end of the 2016-17 season.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Ortega. “Everyone is good at this level. I want to learn from the guys that have played in the NHL and that have been around for a while. Hopefully take things from them and just come ready to work every day.”

Hults and Ortega are joining a red-hot Gulls team that have won four straight games, posted a 10-1-1-0 in their last 12 games to climb to the second-best win percentage in the AHL.

Both players made it through their first day and are ready to begin their careers in the AHL.

“I think this is a great situation that can really help me develop as a player,” said Ortega. “I just continue to get better and better each day.”