Gulls Fans Making Noise in the PlayoffsMay 21, 2019
America's Finest Fans have garnered a reputation league-wide for their fervent passion for the Gulls
By Steve Brown
The term “best fans in the league” is thrown around as more of a cliché than a truthful statement nowadays.
For the Gulls, that statement rings closer to the truth. Or it is the absolute truth. The numbers don’t lie.
For the past two seasons the Gulls have led the AHL in attendance, averaging more than 9,000 fans per game in both 2017-18 (9,305) and 2018-19 (9,021). The Gulls are the only team other than the Hershey Bears to lead the league in attendance over the last 15 years, with the central Pennsylvania city hosting AHL games dating 80-plus years.
As described in the dictionary, the definition of a fan is a person who has a strong interest in or admiration for a particular person or thing. That’s a bit of an understatement of who Gulls fans are. You could say their passion and interest is beyond strong.
“I’ve played in a few places and this is one of the best if not, I truly think the best atmosphere to play in the American Hockey League,” said goaltender Jeff Glass. “I’m thrilled. I’m excited to get out there…and make some noise.”
“I’ve played in the AHL for a while. I haven’t played in front of 12,000 fans in the AHL,” added the 34-year old goaltender that has played in numerous AHL markets, including Toronto, Rockford and Binghamton dating to 2005. “It was outstanding out there tonight. It was a lot of fun playing in front of them. I think it’s a huge advantage for us, playing at home here. We’re going to use every advantage we can get and they’re a big one.”
The postseason has been no different for a team that has almost come to expect an at-capacity crowd each game.
“I think we’ve come to expect to have a great fan base. Anytime the playoffs come around, fans are huge in those games,” said Sam Carrick before the postseason began. “Not only has the city of San Diego supported it’s team, they’ve turned heads league-wide with the number of turnstile clicks.”
“It’s unbelievable. All year long the fans have been tremendous,” said defenseman Andy Welinski. “I know season tickets (don’t carry over into) the playoffs and you never know what you’re going to get, but here, there’s no question. We have 10 to 12 thousand fans here for playoffs, it’s unbelievable. It makes all the difference in the world. I was happy we could play a full game tonight and give them what they came for.”
In Game 4 of the Pacific Division Finals, 12,005 raucous Gulls fans took in the Friday night contest at Pechanga Arena. Not only was it the largest playoff crowd the Gulls have seen to date, it also marked the largest AHL playoff crowd (excluding Calder Cup Finals) in the last 14 years, dating to Game 5 of the North Division Finals on May 13, 2005 (Rochester at Manitoba; 15,015).
A few nights later, the Gulls advanced to the Western Conference Finals in front of another loud and proud faction of fans. They were rewarded with a Game 6, series-clinching win to knock off the Western Conference’s top seed in Bakersfield.
“You want to reward them. We would have loved to have done it earlier, but getting it done at home, being able to walk off that ice and look up to those people that come and pay their good, hard-earned money to support us and be entertained,” said Gulls head coach Dallas Eakins. “I don’t think there can be a better feeling in sports that walking off the ice after winning a series and seeing your home fans so excited.”
Behind the bench for all four seasons in San Diego, Eakins has built a strong connection with Gulls fans and the community. It’s a two-way street in terms of the fans supporting the players and organization, and in turn the reciprocation from the players and coaching staff. In almost a cyclical event following each home game, players and coaches are asked how the crowd and fans aided them with a wall of noise and fervent support regardless of the score.
“(The fans) have always been good, from day one when I got here,” said Eakins. “Playing at home has been such a great privilege to play in front of fans like that. I’ve said it a thousand times, they’re like an extra skater out there for us.”
“They support us when we’re down and they keep pushing us when we’re up. I know our guys love playing at home, and it doesn’t matter what night of the week it is at our arena, it’s always rocking.”
Over the course of the season, Gulls fans have travelled en masse to watch their team play road games at Tucson, Colorado, San Jose, Bakersfield, and not to mention the six games in Ontario up Highway 15. You could argue that in all 34 regular-season and five postseason road games, there has been ample support from America’s Finest Fans.
“It’s been incredible. It’s happened not only in the playoffs, but in the regular season as well. In places that are even further away. I can remember being in Colorado this year and a big bunch of fans there. I remember being in Ontario this year and we had at least a whole section of them there,” reminisced Eakins when asked about the traveling fan support.
“I know our staff appreciates it, but our players truly love our fans. It’s such a great relationship to see between our fans and our players.”
Those dedicated individuals have a so-called strong interest, according to experts, and have followed their team around the country, and continent, taking time off work, leaving family for periods of time, spending their hard-earned money to support a hockey team from the Westernmost point of the U.S.
“It’s not cheap to travel, and it’s not cheap for hotel rooms and eating out,” said Eakins on the traveling support the Gulls have received on the road all season. “That’s not lost on any of us. Our players recognize that right away. I love how our players acknowledge our fans. Our support never seems to stop.”
San Diego may be a non-traditional hockey market, but Gulls fans are as traditional as they come. With a Western Conference Finals to be had over the coming days and weeks, you can be assured Gulls fans will be in Chicago on the road and filling Pechanga Arena to the brim in San Diego.
“I think the home fans, and I have actually read studies about this, everybody talks about home-ice advantage being having the last change and things like that,” surmised Eakins. “Are those good to have? Yeah, sure. But what really goes on not only in hockey, but in other sports is the effect of the crowd on the game.”
“If you look at the four years that I have coached here, I don’t have the number, but our feeling is that we’re very good at home. We like playing at home, we’re comfortable there and our fans are like a seventh player to us. We’re certainly very happy there.”
Gulls fans are bound to have a positive effect on the series. It’s the largest stage they, and the team, have been on, and the entirety of the hockey world will see just what all the noise is about.