Professional hockey returned to San Diego in 2015 with the installment of the San Diego Gulls as the Anaheim Ducks’ new AHL affiliate. My buddy Jani (a Finnish metalhead who likes Children of Bodom, but whatever) and I bought season tickets and as the Gulls enter the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs this week, I can unequivocally say that it’s been the best money I’ve spent in twenty years. Drawing the second-highest attendance in the AHL, the Gulls have emerged as San Diego’s most successful, balanced and thrilling professional sports team in years, due entirely to a fiery, multi-dimensional team of skillful and intensely aggressive players stewarded by veteran head coach Dallas Eakins. While ESPN has noted that the Gulls remain one of the last remaining strongholds of the enforcer culture in professional hockey, when they met the Texas Stars in the first round of the playoffs last week, Eakins pulled back nearly all of the bruisers, replacing them with feisty, hard-skating scrappers who knocked the Stars out of contention in back-to-back home games that saw San Diego put up over ten goals over the course of two nights. This was against a Texas team that had utterly baffled the Gulls during the regular season. As the Gulls take on their interstate rival Ontario Reign this weekend in the quest for the Calder Cup, hockey maniacs across Southern California can look forward to a ferocious, bare-knuckled battle between two bludgeoning rivals that will surely showcase the very best the AHL has to offer.
I originally began this piece to showcase my new feature for Metal Hammer, where I name hockey as the Most Metal Sport on Planet Earth. But by the halfway point of the first sentence, the feature took a wholly different direction and I just went with it. I grew up playing hockey on the ponds of New England and skated through my senior year in college in intramural leagues with other kids from Boston, New York and all across the eastern seaboard. The thrill of lacing up the boots and dropping the blades onto a sheet of smooth glass feels as clear right now as it did the last time I skated, many moons ago. My vomit-inducing ankle injury has been well documented and I haven’t been on skates since then. But thanks to the San Diego Gulls and the AHL, my love affair with hockey burns hot once again.