San Diego Gulls continue to fly high

While the San Diego sports landscape may appear bleak, fans are searching for their newest sports fix. The city is not limited when it comes to options.

The San Diego area’s two biggest basketball programs, the Aztecs of San Diego State University and the Toreros of the University of San Diego, continue to play relatively uninspiring hoops.

College baseball has just barely kicked things into gear, while Major League Baseball teams just returned to the diamond for spring training. Opening Day is still weeks away.

This begs the question: where can San Diego sports fans, still smarting from the blow the Chargers inflicted on them last month, turn to satisfy their competitive cravings?

Look no further than the Valley View Casino Center and the hottest team in town: the Gulls of the American Hockey League.

A minor league affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks, the Gulls are midway through their second season in America’s Finest City while reaching new heights as the city’s team of choice for these long winter months.

How has a minor league hockey team in the land of beaches and sun managed to find success and make San Diegans forget the time Chargers owner Dean Spanos spurned them to add some cash to his personal bottom line?

Goaltender Dustin Tokarski protects the net in Sunday’s game against Bakersfield. Photo courtesy of San Diego Gulls/Twitter

It starts with a points streak that’s been building since the beginning of January. After beating the Bakersfield Condors on Sunday, Feb. 12 by a convincing score score of 4-0, the Gulls had recorded either a tie or a win in 14 of their last 15 games, running off a 13-1-0 record that’s catapulted them toward the top of the Pacific Division standings.

The string of victories didn’t come against cupcake opponents either: 10 of the Gulls’ games during that span were played against teams in the top three spots in the standings.

After an inaugural AHL season that culminated in a trip to the Pacific Division finals, the continuation of the team’s winning ways in 2016-17 has forced locals to pay attention.

The downside of all of this success, however, is that, as a minor league affiliate, the Gulls are often tasked with replacing their best players as they get called up to play for the big league club.

Players, such as human highlight reel Kalle Kossila, winger Corey Tropp, and All-Star defenseman Brandon Montour, are routinely shuffled between the Gulls and the Ducks, leaving others like leading goal scorer Antoine Laganiere and newly acquired goaltender Jhonas Enroth to pick up the slack.

The consequential lack of familiarity with players could be a curse to the fandom of some. However, the Gulls ably overcome such an obstacle with savvy and strategic marketing efforts that are paying off with the hometown faithful.

Recent promotions include a Star Wars Night and the hiring of San Diego native and MLB All-Star Adam Jones as an honorary off-ice official.

They’ve even capitalized on the frustrations of jilted Bolts backers, offering Chargers season ticket holders free tickets to a home game this coming weekend against the Tucson Roadrunners.

That footprint should be expected to grow even larger as the season wears on and the playoff push begins to heat up.

This past Sunday marked the beginning of a partnership between the team and local television network Fox 5 San Diego, with energetic play-by-play voice Craig Elsten and former hockey player B.J. McPherson handling the play-calling duties.

Between the 9,000-or-so fans who attend every home game and the thousands more who are likely to watch on TV, the Gulls should have no problem grabbing the attention of locals.

With ticket prices as low as $19, an organization focused as much on the fan experience as it is on the team’s performance, and high-quality hockey taking the ice on a nightly basis, there seems to be little keeping the Gulls out of San Diego’s winter limelight.

The Chargers’ bolt north left a sizable hole in the hearts of the hometown faithful, but the Gulls appear intent on repairing those wounds with a dominant run of success that looks to be far from over.

San Diegans may be strangers to the frigid ice that the team calls home. But thanks to a hard-to-fathom hot streak, locals certainly seem to be warming up to the Gulls.

Written by Noah Hilton, Asst. Sports Editor