A Look Back: Building The Gulls BrandOct 19, 2020
In a four-part series, SanDiegoGulls.com provides an in-depth look at how the Gulls returned to San Diego in 2015, how the team launched its brand, the inaugural AHL game in San Diego and the creation of the team’s practice facility in Poway. The series will cover these pillar moments and hear from key members of the organization shaping the franchise from day one.
By Joe Spurrier/SanDiegoGulls.com
San Diego is mostly recognized for its beautiful beaches and amazing weather, but America’s Finest City is also home to some of the most passionate sports fans in the country.
These passionate San Diegans waited anxiously for hockey to return. Early in 2015, the Anaheim Ducks announced the organization intended to move it's American Hockey League affiliate to San Diego. Despite never hosting a National Hockey League team, it had a strong foundation, with 50-plus years of professional hockey to build on when the Gulls made their long-awaited return.
The mix of the this rabid fanbase, and an ownership group dedicated to winning on the ice and serving the community off it, helped lay the foundation for the next important step - building the brand.
San Diego's Hockey History
San Diego got its first taste of professional hockey in 1944, when the San Diego Skyhawks joined the Pacific Coast Hockey League (PCHL). The league reassembled after initially disbanding in 1941 during World War II. The Skyhawks lasted six seasons, ceasing operations in 1950.
In the following years, professional hockey in San Diego bounced around from league to league, changing team names, venues and ownership.
In 1966, the Western Hockey League (WHL) awarded San Diego a franchise after completion of the construction of the San Diego Sports Arena. A write-in contest helped establish the team name - the Gulls - and its mascot, Sandy Gull.
The Gulls drew more than 315,000 fans for their inaugural season in 1966-67 as one of the top draws in America’s Finest City. The WHL team debuted on Nov. 17, 1966 with a 4-1 victory over the Seattle Totems in front of a sellout crowd at the San Diego Sports Arena, marking the first ever event at the legendary venue. Willie O’Ree, one of the sport’s most influential players of all time, spent nine seasons in San Diego before retiring and eventually joining the Hockey Hall of Fame. From early on, San Diego built a rich hockey history that fans would come to remember for years to come.
“San Diego has been such a great hockey town going all the way back to the 1940s with some of the teams they had and where they played,” said Gulls General Manager Bob Ferguson. “Once they were in the Western Hockey League and the World Hockey Association or the East Coast League its always been a successful hockey town. They have won championships here at different levels and I remember growing up reading articles about how great of a hockey town San Diego was and how they drew the best minor league hockey crowds in the league.”
Bob Ferguson, San Diego Gulls General Manager
The history of the Gulls brand continued taking shape in the 1990’s as the team spent 1990-95 in the International Hockey League (IHL), then from 1995-03 as part of the West Coast Hockey League (WCHL). Fans started to take notice when the WCHL Gulls won five Taylor Cups as league champions during their eight seasons.
In 2003, the ECHL absorbed the WCHL, where the Gulls would spend the following three seasons before the club folded in 2006.
The Return of the Gulls
San Diego was without a professional hockey team for nearly 10 years. Anaheim Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli, as well as CEO Mike Schulman, shared a vision of bringing an AHL club closer to their NHL team. Ducks Executive Vice President and General Manager Bob Murray also worked diligently behind the scenes with other NHL GM’s to place their primary affiliates closer to the parent club. Before the Ducks owned an AHL team or had an agreement to move one to a specific city, Ari Segal came on to start building a platform for a speculative team to begin operations if an agreement was reached.
“I started my job on something like Nov. 1, 2014 and I think my title was Prospective AHL President for the Anaheim Ducks,” recalled Segal. “Mike [Schulman] and the Samuelis really had a lot of vision in saying, ‘Let’s really get someone on the ground making connections and building demand, capacity and capability in the market so that if this moves forward, we have a little bit of a head start.’”
One of the biggest tasks at hand - finding the right city. While he studied and considered multiple locations, one clearly stood out from the rest.
“If you’re going to get the San Diego market, it’s the biggest no brainer of all time,” said Segal. “Nothing against other great Pacific markets, but San Diego is the best market in the American Hockey League bar none. When you add to that, the passion that exists for hockey and developmental hockey, and the passion for really anything that bears the San Diego name. It’s a very passionate community and a community with a lot of civic pride.
“You put those things together – the history of hockey, the passion of the community and the structural nature of the market with the absence of premier sports content during those months, it was just a complete stew of opportunity.”
As Anaheim ownership and management secured an AHL team, Segal continued to lay the foundation in San Diego. The more he researched and tested the market, the more one thing became apparent – the city’s active and passionate hockey. Former Gulls fans missed their team, participation in youth hockey in Southern California boomed and hockey greats such as O’Ree still lived in the area.
“The pieces of what already kind of existed in San Diego started to take shape,” reminisced Segal. “Over the next two months as we started to work kind of a dual track. There was the unsexy, uninteresting track of secure the license, get AHL approval, negotiate a venue agreement, etc. We also were really early to try to just understand the fundamental underpinnings of the culture of hockey in San Diego. It’s the youth hockey, the rinks, the WHL Gulls and the WCHL Gulls. It was learning to appreciate all that had come before and thinking about how to create a narrative and a story that links that past to this new opportunity. Not how do you position this as something completely new that rejects all that came before. That put us on a path to early success.”
Countless working hours finally came to fruition on Jan. 29, 2015, when the Samuelis announced they purchased the Norfolk Admirals and planned to relocate it to San Diego as the NHL club’s top farm team. After the news broke, excitement began to grow in a sports market hungry for another team.
It was time for the organization to take the next big step. In preparation to officially unveil the team name and logo, the Ducks made another announcement, stating they would hold a San Diego HockeyFest at the then Valley View Casino Center to welcome hockey back to America’s Finest City.
All focus shifted to the big reveal, and it took weeks of preparation for HockeyFest to be the groundbreaking launch everyone hoped. At the time, Segal was still in the process of bringing a Gulls business team into the fold and leaned on Anaheim Ducks staff to help execute an effective strategic plan for the event.
“It’s a big deal,” said Matt Savant, current Gulls President of Business Operations. “At the time, it was a cool project that ended up dominating our designers’ time, my time and our PR group’s time because as we started to get into it, we realized this is an entire hockey team, this is a franchise. We need to launch this properly, communicate it properly and market it properly.
“I give Ari all the credit in the world for the big-picture thinking that he put into this team and a lot of the success that we all stand on is because his hard work and thoughtfulness during those early days. It was really fun and a really cool experience that I was thinking back on everything we went through, it was a good year’s worth of work to get us to that kick-off event in February of 2015, which if you recall, were there or have read about it, it was a smashing success.”
Savant, operating as the Ducks' Director of Marketing and Brand Management at the time, had high expectations for HockeyFest. In the weeks leading up to the kickoff celebration, expectations only grew higher. In the final days before the event, the business team received thousands of RSVPs.
What transpired on Feb. 22, 2015 at HockeyFest left a lasting memory for everyone within the organization.
The Crowd Goes Wild!
The line to enter Valley View Casino Center the morning of the event nearly wrapped around the building - twice. After about an hour, the doors opened and eager fans flooded inside as if it was a gameday.
In all, 8,500 Gulls supporters packed the arena. It shocked everyone and remains an incredible moment in San Diego Gulls history that perfectly represents the passion of America’s Finest Fans.
“The entire lower bowl was filled, the entire floor was filled and portions of the upper deck were filled as well,” said Savant when asked about what he remembered. “We knew we had a hit right then and we hadn’t even unveiled the name or the logo until we did it probably about an hour later on stage with Henry and Susan Samueli.”
An hour into the event, Henry and Susan Samueli - along with their daughter, Jillian - and Schulman came on to a stage, joining a large wall of ice reading “SAN DIEGO HOCKEY IS BACK”. Uncovering the hidden logo to the public in dramatic fashion, Mr. Samueli knocked down the wall with a sledgehammer. Fans erupted with their excitement, getting the first look at the team's new identity.
“When Henry knocked the ice down and unveiled the Gulls name and logo, that was the loudest I heard the arena at that point,” said Nate Beasley, Gulls Director of Ticket Sales. “I was on the concourse and I heard everyone go wild. Willie (O’Ree) was there and they had some former Gulls there too, which I think drew people to it as well. I think generally the team being back and the name unveiling was what drew everyone in.”
When it came to creating the team, it was clear to business executives and ownership the brand equity as well as the Gulls name and logo remained strong and nostalgic among San Diegans. However, it wasn’t a carbon copy of the previous iterations of Gulls logos. The team made tweaks during the process of recreating the Gulls logo in respect to the newly-affiliated Anaheim Ducks.
“We wanted to really pay homage to the history and we wanted to utilize as much of the primary logo as possible, and we wanted to stand on the colors that had been used for the majority of the time,” said Savant. “In some of the years, in the later 70s, they used a black, white and red version, but for the vast majority of the 50-plus years that the Gulls have been around, we were using the primary logo that you see on our jerseys today. We wanted to keep that orange and that blue. The blue is a nod to the ocean, which San Diego is obviously known for, and the orange is just a nice offset of the blue, but we tweaked it a bit and we used the Ducks orange as the orange for the current logo to try to draw the two together.
“Some of the little nuances that I love about the logo, if you look between the second ‘L’ and ‘S,’ there’s actually a little flying seagull that’s in reversed out black,” noted Savant. “We took a shot at a couple of the more dramatic tweaks, which we decided ultimately to go back to the standard version that fans had been used to all those years.”
As they did with the logo, the Ducks made sure the event blended a touch of the past with the new future of the franchise. Former San Diego greats such as O’Ree and current TV and radio color analyst B.J. MacPherson were in attendance mingling with fans.
“They announced it, then they unveiled the logo and the colors, and it was just unbelievable,” said Jaycob Megna, the Gulls former captain who was in Norfolk playing for the primary affiliate of the Ducks, but watching from afar to see the reception. “You had the fans and the ticket sales. I don’t even know if it was sales or if it was the sign ups. It was like, ‘Wow, we’re going to get a lot of fans. This is going to be really cool’. Whatever we thought it was, it wound up being way more.”
While everyone was excited for the Gulls homecoming, it meant a little more for the Samueli’s, who organized the move for years. After the official unveiling, the top brass from the Ducks spent time with the San Diego media at a press conference held in the Stella Artois Lounge of the arena.
“We were elated,” Mr. Samueli said during the press conference. “It took us literally an hour to get from the freeway off-ramp to the arena. We had big smiles on our faces because we knew all of these people were in line to get into the arena. It was very exciting for us. We’re very excited to bring it back because we know there’s a tradition here. We had been looking at moving a team here ever since we took over the Anaheim Ducks. It takes a lot of work to align the stars and get five teams to agree and get their leases to coincide at the same time. It took us 10 years of work to finally make this come to fruition.”
“With what you saw, the people are here,” added Mrs. Samueli. “The youth hockey that San Diego can provide is exactly what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get young people to enjoy hockey. Now we’re in San Diego, so we’re just spreading the word about hockey from Orange County to San Diego County. We’re thrilled.”
The Gulls returned to a San Diego sports market in limbo. At the time of their homecoming, San Diego hadn’t been home to an NBA team since 1984 and rumors swirled around the NFL’s San Diego Chargers, who looked to move north to Los Angeles. San Diegans wanted more, and the Gulls helped fill that void.
“They’re great sports fans, they’re great baseball fans and great football fans,” said Schulman at the event. “Hockey is just a natural extension to that. We already know their youth hockey is good because they’ve been begging us to join our high school league. They already have a roller hockey league which is stronger than the one we have up there. It’s already a given. They just needed a team to support.”
The highly anticipated event gave both fans and staff an early indication of what the Gulls brand would become. Since their impactful beginning, the Gulls footprint in San Diego continues to expand.
A Jersey Foul
The initial excitement of the team's new logo certainly left its mark on the fans in attendance at HockeyFest. After the event, anticipation grew for the release of the home and road uniforms the team would wear to kick off AHL hockey in San Diego.
Jillian Reddin, daughter of owner’s Henry and Susan Samueli and the Gulls Director of Hockey Operations, worked behind the scenes for almost a year with the AHL, jersey provider CCM and the Ducks on the style and look of the jersey.
“When we started the process of designing what the Gulls jersey would be, we kept in mind that even though we were an affiliated team with Anaheim, we wanted the Gulls to have and create a brand of their own,” Reddin said.
Her background in design stemmed from a merchandise degree at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising FIDM in Los Angeles, and jersey design and input during her time working at Anaheim AHL affiliates in Syracuse and Norfolk the prior four years.
“When creating our color scheme of blue, black and orange, we knew we wanted to use the Ducks color palette but add in a color widely used in the past by San Diego sports teams and an iconic color to San Diego alone, and that was ‘marine blue.’ It seamlessly all goes together perfectly,” added Reddin. “So when you look at both jerseys you can tell that they are part of the same family and organization, yet have their own distinct brand.”
With Segal and his newly-staffed front office preparing to launch the season, the newly-created set of uniforms in the fall, an unexpected source leaked the hard work by all within the organization.
On July 28, 2015, an EA Sports video detailing players in it's NHL '16 online hockey league accidentally leaked the uniforms to the masses. As fans eagerly waited since February’s HockeyFest to get a glimpse of the uniform designs, the secret was out.
The team behind the scenes at the Gulls begrudgingly shared what the hockey universe knew, the jerseys were the real deal.
Similar to the logo, San Diego's jerseys showed plenty of influence from the Ducks, but held true to their own style. The sweaters bring a neck and shoulder yoke concept fusing hockey tradition with modern design flair, carrying the colored pin-line from the socks, sleeves and side panels to the top portion of the jersey. Each boasts laces on the neck, and orange and blue diagonal sleeve striping in addition to orange and blue tapered side panels.
Gulls merchandise became an immediate best seller, and remains one of the strongest pillars of the brand. Despite no brick-and-mortar store location, the Gulls ranked among the top teams in AHL merchandise sales each year since the launch.
Through the Gulls five years in the American Hockey League (AHL), the club posted a 184-114-21-10 record, leading the Pacific Division in wins, points (399) and points percentage (.606).
However, what may be even more impressive is what the club has accomplished off the ice in such a brief lifespan. In the Gulls inaugural season, the club ranked second in the league in average attendance (8,675), nearly eclipsing 300,00 in total fans.
It became apparent after the first season the fans wanted more. Not only did the Gulls see a larger attendance, the team also introduced hockey to the masses, becoming the first Pacific Division team to televise a game on Feb. 12, 2017.
San Diego also earned the respect of its peers, winning the President’s Award as the AHL Team of the Year, given to an AHL organization for overall excellence as voted on by all 30 AHL team presidents.
The following two seasons saw San Diego lead the AHL in average attendance twice, becoming the first team in 12 seasons to usurp the Hershey Bears atop the league’s attendance charts.
America’s Finest Fans earned their nickname with the support they continually shown to the organization, the players and one another. The Ducks set the pieces up, but the brand is built by the ones who showed up at games, proudly wearing blue and orange – the fans.