Pro hockey returns to San Diego tonight

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San Diego Gulls

SAN DIEGO — The latest incarnation of the San Diego Gulls debuts Saturday night at a sold-out Valley View Casino Center, facing the Grand Rapids Griffins in the city’s first professional hockey game since 2006.

The Gulls moved from Norfolk, Va., where they were known as the Admirals, part of a shift of five American Hockey League teams to California in an effort to reduce travel times when players are recalled or sent down by their parent NHL teams.

The team has sold about 3,000 season tickets, Gulls president of business operations Ari Segal told City News Service.

“It’s a great start,” Segal said. “We’re pleased, but we’re never satisfied. This is a great hockey town and there’s pent-up demand. The American Hockey League is a great price-value proposition, bringing fans world-class hockey and future NHL stars at a really valuable price point.”

Another plus to Segal is the Gulls’ association with their NHL parent team, the Anaheim Ducks, which he called “a tremendous brand.”

In an attempt to draw fans for their Friday and Saturday night games, the Gulls will seek to bring fans a “full experience that starts before the game and ends after the game,” Segal said.

On Friday nights, the Gulls will have a $2 beer promotion beginning two hours before the game and extending one hour into the games, Segal said.

There will be pregame tailgate parties in the arena’s parking lot on Saturdays beginning two hours before the opening face-off, with “happy hour” pricing for food and beverages, Segal said.

Local music acts will play in the Stella Artois Lounge following Saturday games, Segal said.

“While we certainly want to cater to the hard-core hockey fan and view the hard-core hockey fan as a key constituent, we also want to make it an inviting experience for people who are just giving hockey a chance for the first time,” Segal said.

The Valley View Casino Center, which opened in 1966, is among the oldest arenas in North America with a professional hockey team.

However, its concourses, bathrooms and lounge have been completely redone since hockey was last played there, Segal said, and flat screen televisions have been installed on the concourses.

Since the move of the team to San Diego was announced in January, the arena’s parking lot has been completely repaved, a new LED video board, dasher boards and Plexiglass installed and the locker rooms and training rooms have been replaced, Segal added.

The Gulls’ 24-player opening night roster includes 11 players who played in the NHL last season, including both goaltenders — John Gibson, who had an 13-8 record and 2.60 goals against average in 23 games with Anaheim, and Matt Hackett, who was 0-4-1 with a 4.32 goals against average in five games for the Buffalo Sabres.

The roster includes three players chosen in the first round of the NHL draft — right wing Stefan Noesen, left wing Nick Ritchie and defenseman Shea Theodore. Three other players were chosen in the second round — Gibson, left wing Nicolas Kerdiles and defenseman Brandon Montour.

The youngest player is Ritchie, who is 19. The oldest is 34-year-old right wing Brian McGrattan, who has played 317 NHL games with four teams over nine seasons. He has 10 goals, 17 assists and 609 penalty minutes in the NHL.

Eleven of the Gulls were born in Canada, 10 in the U.S. and one each in the Czech Republic, Germany and Sweden.

The Gulls are coached by Dallas Eakins, who coached the Edmonton Oilers to a 36-63-14 record from the start of the 2013-14 season until he was fired 31 games into the 2014-15 season after Edmonton got off to a 7-19-5 start.

Eakins guided the Toronto Marlies to the 2012 Calder Cup Final, the league’s championship series. He was also an assistant coach with the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs from 2006-08.

Three other San Diego professional hockey teams were also nicknamed Gulls — the 1966-74 Western Hockey League team, the 1990-95 International Hockey League team and the team that began play in 1995 in the West Coast Hockey League and then became part of the ECHL when the leagues merged in 2003.

The ECHL Gulls folded in 2006 when negotiations to sell the team in time for the 2006-07 season failed.