San Diego’s Long History with Hockey

You may have heard by now about the Anaheim Ducks relocating their AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, to San Diego.

What you may not know, is that even though San Diego is better known for its burritos and bikinis, it has had a long history with hockey dating back to before WWII.

Hockey began in San Diego with the San Diego Boat Club in 1940. The team played in the Southern California Hockey Association, a senior amateur league with six teams including the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California. The league was short lived and only lasted one season.

One year later, the Southern California Hockey League, another senior amateur league, invited the San Diego Skyhawks to join their two-team league which now grew into four. The SCHL lasted three years before folding but the Skyhawks would continue to play in the Pacific Coast Hockey League until 1950.

The team played at the Glacier Gardens, an arena that has now been demolished, located next to the present location of Petco Park.

The PCHL merged with the Western Canada Senior Hockey League which was later renamed the Western Hockey League.

The Skyhawks’ last reincarnation came in 1960 in the middle of the California Hockey League’s attempt at revitalizing hockey in Southern California. The CalHL at its peak had five teams, four in Southern California and one in Arizona. The Skyhawks stuck with the CalHL for two seasons before finally putting a rest to the long-time team name associated with San Diego hockey.

In 1966, San Diego built the Sports Arena that still stands today but has since been renamed the Valley View Casino Center. It was originally called the San Diego International Sports Center with intentions to host multiple sporting events. Its new hockey tenant, the San Diego Gulls, opened their doors to new and old hockey fans when it began play in the WHL. For eight years, the Gulls were the premier hockey team in Southern California but when the league folded, so did the team.

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The World Hockey Association seized the opportunity to test its reach in Southern California after it saw mild success with the Los Angeles Sharks and decided to relocate the New Jersey Knights to San Diego. The new team would be called the Mariners and only lasted three seasons before folding right before training camp started in 1977.

San Diego’s hockey fans were still adamant about having a team to call their own and the Pacific Hockey League delivered hockey to San Diego for two more seasons. Its first year, they used the same Mariners name as the team that played in the WHA but changed their name to the Hawks for their final season.

For over ten years, no leagues wanted to test out the San Diego market due to its instability and inability to lure fans away from its sprawling beaches. The winter sport was deemed out of place in a locale that boasted over 300 days of sunshine a year.

In 1990, the long-running International Hockey League did the unthinkable and brought hockey back to San Diego. The new team would be called the Gulls and played at the same Sports Arena that the WHL’s Gulls called home for many seasons. This time, the Gulls lasted five seasons before moving north up the 5 freeway to Los Angeles where they changed their names to the Ice Dogs.

After the IHL left town, the West Coast Hockey League immediately moved in and started another Gulls team. This Gulls team would have the most success of any San Diego hockey team and won five league championships in its first eight seasons.

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In 2003, the WCHL merged with the ECHL where the Gulls played for three more seasons before folding.

If all goes according to plan, a new chapter of San Diego hockey will begin in fall of 2015.

Notable players who played in San Diego

Willie O’Ree is arguably the most famous player to have played for the WHL’s Gulls. He broke the color barrier for hockey and became the first black NHL player when he suited up for the Boston Bruins in 1958. After 45 NHL games, O’Ree made his tour around various minor league teams and made his San Diego debut in 1967 after six seasons with the nearby Los Angeles Blades. The Gulls have since retired his number which now hangs inside Sports Arena.

Jack Evans played 753 NHL games with the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks before ending his career in San Diego with the Gulls. In his last three seasons, he was a player-assistant before becoming head coach for two more seasons. His success as a player and a coach led to two NHL coaching jobs. One with the California Seals/Cleveland Barons franchise and another with the Hartford Whalers.

Unlike O’Ree and Evans, Orest Kindrachuk started off his career with the Gulls. In the 1971-72 season, he scored 54 points in 61 games before getting called up to the AHL’s Richmond Robins. As a rookie for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974, he helped the franchise win its first Stanley Cup in 1974 and repeat as champions in 1975. “Little O” centered the Flyers’ third line between “The Hammer” and “Big Bird.” Kindrachuk was forced to hang up his skates in 1981 due to injuries.

Lynn Nicholas Libett was best known in the NHL for being a good defensive forward. He had six 20-goal seasons and one All-Star appearance in his 12-year NHL career. He also served as captain of the Detroit Red Wings. In 982 career NHL games, he scored 237 goals and assisted on 268 others for a total of 505 points. In the 1967-68 season, he split time between the Detroit Red Wings, Forth Worth Wings, and San Diego Gulls. For the Gulls, he had six points in 10 games.

Joe Noris is a living legend in San Diego. Born in Denver, he made his way to the Kitchener Rangers to play junior hockey before playing professionally with the 1971-72 Pittsburgh Penguins. After 35 games with the Penguins, Noris landed in San Diego where he played for the Gulls for half of a season in 1973. He would play for six other teams, including the St. Louis Blues and Buffalo Sabres, in the next two seasons before finding his way back to San Diego. This time for the Mariners of the WHA. In 153 games for the Mariners, he scored 160 points.

After playing for the Birmingham Bulls in the 1977-78 season, he once again returned to San Diego to play for the Hawks of the PHL. In 58 games he scored 104 points before retiring at the end of the season. Noris currently resides in San Diego, the city he couldn’t get away from during his playing days. He owns and operates a roller hockey rink and enjoys talking about hockey with just about anybody he crosses paths with.

Bill Goldthorpe never played in the NHL. The highest point of his career were the 33 games, 14 for the Mariners, he played in the WHA spread out over two seasons as well as a handful of exhibition games for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. “Goldie,” as he was called by his teammates, was better known for his skills as a fighter and enforcer. The character Ogie Oglethorpe in the movie Slapshot was loosely based off of Goldthorpe.