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San Diego Hockey History: A Look At The Gulls

San Diego Skyhawks players pose for an on-ice team photo in the late 1940s.
Mesabi Daily News
San Diego Skyhawks players pose for an on-ice team photo in the late 1940s.
San Diego Hockey History: A Look At The Gulls
San Diego Hockey History: A Look At The Gulls
Former Gulls players remember their history as hockey returns to the Midway District’s Valley View Casino Center, the former Sports Arena.

Hockey has a rich history in San Diego, dating to the late 1940s when the Sky Hawks played at Glacier Gardens in downtown.

But it wasn't until the Gulls arrived in 1966 that pro hockey was truly established in San Diego. The team went out of business in 2006, but it looks like history will be repeated as the minor league team of the Anaheim Ducks takes up residence this year in what used to be called the Sports Arena.

Will they be called the Gulls? So far the “Gulls” have existed under three different owners in San Diego. Willie O’Ree hopes the name will be back on the Midway District's Sports Arena Boulevard this year as the new team takes the ice.

O’Ree was the first black man ever to play in the National Hockey League. Now 79, O’Ree played 45 games with the Boston Bruins in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He would spend seven seasons with the San Diego Gulls, starting in 1967. He remembers what it was like on a typical weekend.

Willie O'Ree poses in pre-season photos for the San Diego Gulls in this undated photo.
Willie O'Ree/San Diego Gulls
Willie O'Ree poses in pre-season photos for the San Diego Gulls in this undated photo.

“I knew the fan appreciation, how the fans supported the team, because when I’d come down on the weekends they’d have over 14,000 here in the Sports Arena,” said O’Ree. “Every weekend this place would be full”

His fans sat in section 9B.

“There used to be a banner up there that said ‘9B loves O’Ree,’ and every home game this banner would be up there”

Martin St. Amour played with the Gulls from 1995 to 2003 before becoming the team’s coach and general manager.

“It was kind of weird at first really, going to the arena in shorts and T-shirts year-round and playing hockey in Southern California,” said St. Amour. “It’s kind of funny, growing up in a small town back north of Montreal, I didn't even know where San Diego was to be honest.”

St. Amour and O’Ree were Canadians who fell in love with San Diego, and they still live here today. O’Ree said Gulls players back in his day were treated like celebrities.

“Everybody knew you, and not just by playing on the ice. But if you were in a restaurant or a gas station, getting gas or wherever, they knew who you were,” O’Ree said.

In 1995, Ron Hahn, son of San Diego developer Ernest Hahn, purchased the team. Ron’s son, Ernie, ran day-to-day operations. He has fond memories from some of the out-of-town games.

“Anchorage, I remember, because of a couple of the big bar fights that happened after that. We were all staying in the same place,” Ernie Hahn said.

From 1995 to 2003, the Gulls won five Taylor Cups, the championship trophy of the West Coast Hockey League. This was due partially to a quirky tradition. St. Amour recalls their locker room music during those winning years.

Martin St. Amour (left) celebrates with Ernie Hahn (right) after winning the Taylor Cup in 1998.
Ernie Hahn/San Diego Gulls
Martin St. Amour (left) celebrates with Ernie Hahn (right) after winning the Taylor Cup in 1998.

“There was always this song by … oh, I can’t remember the name of the group now. There was this song we had to listen to before we’d go on the ice for five years. The guys were sick of it,” he said.

The Gulls became the Colorado Avalanche’s minor league affiliate in 2004, but the Hahns had slowly begun to lose money. It was the middle of 2006 when St. Amour was called into Ron’s office.

“Ron went through the numbers again with Ernie, and Ron says, ‘Well here’s the deal. I can’t lose that much money anymore. I just can’t do it, and we’re going to have to let go of the team,’” St. Amour recalled.

It would take eight years for professional hockey to return to San Diego. Now that it has, Ernie Hahn is excited. He's the general manager now of the Valley View Casino Center, formerly the Sports Arena, where the new team will play.

“It’s a different market. Eight years have passed — three Stanley Cups in Southern California. The youth hockey scene is just absolutely huge down here,” Hahn said. "Let’s make hockey a really big thing again and celebrate it because it’s here to stay.”

The team will hold a fan fest Sunday at Valley View Casino Center. There, the team's official name and logo will be revealed.

Although nothing is set in stone, it looks like the historic Gulls name will be back in San Diego.