That’s how long it’s been since the Gulls played a game at Pechanga Arena. That’s a ridiculously long time for Gulls fans to wait to see their team in person. That wait finally ends on Friday night.
San Diego hosts Stockton for the first true home game in nearly two years. Before the pandemic shuttered buildings across North America, the Gulls had developed quite the home ice advantage. San Diego led the American Hockey League in attendance two of the last three years, earning a reputation well beyond Southern California.
“The word is around, to be honest,” says new head coach Joel Bouchard. “I was up in the northeast, obviously, but we always knew about San Diego being a good fan base of hockey.”
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Bouchard was the head coach of the Laval Rocket, which is in Quebec, which is about 3,057 miles away. There is not a single AHL market located farther away from San Diego. Yet, still, they could hear the roar from America’s Finest Fans.
“Hockey’s been around here for a long time. I have friends who played way back in the East Coast League here and obviously everybody praises about the city. How could you not?” says Bouchard. “But, also, the fans. It’s a hockey fan base that’s really supportive of the team regardless of the league. It’s just a good hockey crowd.”
Now, this is the National Hockey League’s top developmental circuit, so rosters are constantly in flux. There are only four guys suiting up for the Gulls on Friday night who have experienced a true San Diego home game. One of them is Hunter Drew, a former defenseman who’s now playing forward.
He’s felt the energy in that old barn and knows it’s unlike anything else in the league.
“When a lot of people sign here they think, OK, San Diego, you’re on the beach and stuff like that,” says Drew. “Obviously it’s nice off the ice but on the ice it’s unbelievable. It’s hard to describe to these guys how loud it actually is and how many people actually care. You wouldn’t expect that in a city like this so it’s obviously great to see.”
It’s also no coincidence that since joining the AHL in 2015, the Gulls have the best home record in the Pacific Division.
“Definitely you get energy (from the crowd),” says Bouchard. “Being in your building and, obviously guys are coming from everywhere and they’re all a little shy right now. It’s my job to push them to get that shyness away and the fans will help. It gives you that little extra pop sometimes that you need. We’re going to turn them loose on Friday and it’s going to be fun.”
With 12,000 people expected to pack Pechanga Arena, fun is just the beginning. The Puck drops at 7:00 pm.