Roy Sommer appeared in three National Hockey League games.
He was a Waterloo Black Hawk for just slightly longer.
Both episodes were brief stops in a hockey playing and coaching career which has now extended through parts of six decades and brought Sommer back to the NHL last winter as associate coach of the San Jose Sharks.
Spending more than 40 years in the game professionally is impressive under any circumstances. Doing it as someone born in northern California in the late 1950s – when the NHL had just six teams and the closest one was two time zones away – puts the feat in a different context.
“For the [California] kids today, there’s a lot more exposure,” Sommer says. “With mass media and everything else, it’s a lot easier to get your name out now than it was back then. You had to have a little bit of luck, and someone had to find you.”
The NHL expanded to California during Sommer’s formative years with the founding of the L.A. Kings and the Oakland Seals in 1967. As a Bay Area native, the Seals’ arrival was particularly significant for Sommer.
“I did a little bit of visiting stick boy stuff. Then, when someone would score a goal or there was a penalty, I would run in and give the information to a guy, and he would put it on a tickertape and send it all over the league…that was kind of the internet back then.”
By the early 1970s, Sommer became a successful high school player looking for opportunities to develop beyond those available to him in the Golden State. He had to travel a thousand miles north to find his first big break.
“I was discovered to play juniors at a hockey school in Nelson, British Columbia. At the end of the two-week hockey school, we had a game on the weekend,” recalls Sommer. “There happened to a scout in the stands the game I played – a guy named Wayne Myers that scouted for the Edmonton Oil Kings – he saw me and invited me to come to the Edmonton Oil King camp.”
Although Sommer didn’t land a spot with the Oil Kings, he found a home instead with the Spruce Grove Mets of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. Spruce Grove won the Centennial Cup as Canada’s junior A champions, opening the door for Sommer to an opportunity at the major junior level the next season, and eventually creating enough notoriety for the Toronto Maple Leafs to draft him in 1977.
At 20-years-old, and as a late-round pick, Sommer still had a big climb ahead of him when he joined the Saginaw Gears of the International Hockey League that fall. Making circumstances more challenging, that strong Gears team didn’t have a place for him, setting up his brief sojourn with the Black Hawks.
“I was loaned out by Saginaw,” says Sommer, “because I just wasn’t playing a lot. They tried to get me some ice time. I think Jack Barzee must have called and said ‘Hey, do you guys have any extra players,’ and I think that’s probably how I got loaned out there.”
Barzee – the Black Hawks head coach at the time – was in an interesting personnel situation during the autumn of 1977. In the offseason, the senior-level United States Hockey League had merged with the Midwest Junior Hockey League. The 1977/78 campaign was to include hybrid rosters with former USHL clubs being required to include a handful of juniors. Many of the league’s older, established players either retired or left for other hockey opportunities. Sommer’s age made him one of the youngest senior players, just outside of the junior category.
On and off the ice, he was paired on a forward line with Black Hawks veteran Dave Klingbiel, who brought a unique combination of scoring ability and toughness. Like Sommer, Klingbeil had gone far from home to pursue the game, playing college hockey at the University of Alaska after growing up in North Dakota.
“He would play hockey down there [in Waterloo] and go back to Alaska in the summer to work as a welder on the oil pipeline,” Sommer remembers about his roommate.
During their brief time as linemates, Sommer and Klingbeil found chemistry quickly. Their most notable exploits came in a 5-4 come-from-behind overtime win against the Sioux City Musketeers on November 18, 1977. Klingbeil set up Sommer’s game-tying goal with 54 seconds left in regulation; 36 seconds into overtime, Sommer recorded his third assist of the night on Klingbeil’s game-winner.
A week later, Sommer was on his way back to Saginaw.
He moved around to a number of clubs in the next few years, making the most of several unique and timely experiences, none more so than a 1979 tryout with the U.S. Olympic Team. Even though Sommer didn’t make Herb Brooks’ squad, the experience later opened another door while Sommer was called up by the Houston Apollos in the Central Hockey League.
“I was supposed to be there for three games, and we ended up playing the Olympic team. I got a goal and an assist or something like that, and we were one of the only minor league teams to beat them, and instead of being in Houston for three games, I ended up staying there.”
When the Edmonton Oilers moved their CHL farm club from Houston to Wichita the next year, Sommer went with. By January of 1981, he was brought up to Edmonton, making him one of the first California-born players to appear in the NHL. Sommer joined an Oilers team on the verge of becoming one of the greatest of their era.
“You could tell that whole organization was going to be good. Just a lot of really young, good, gifted kids.”
Kids who would become future All-Stars and Hall of Famers like Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, and Paul Coffey.
And there was a youngster named Wayne, not quite two years younger than the then-24-year-old Sommer.
“[Gretzky] was a little skinny guy, about 170 pounds,” says Sommer.
The Great One and the forward from California played three games together. Sommer scored during his first night on NHL ice – a 9-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens – and was involved in a fight with another future Hall of Famer, defenseman Rod Langway.
Sommer was not there for Oilers’ Stanley Cups in the years which followed. In fact, he had left the ice for the bench well before Edmonton won their fifth Cup in 1990.
Sommer began a long association with the Sharks after they became northern California’s new team. He served a couple of seasons in San Jose as an assistant before spending more than 20 years coaching the organization’s top prospects in the American Hockey League.
His long tenure brought him into contact with an array of former Black Hawks: Eriah Hayes, James Marcou, Matt Fornataro, and Corey Quirk for full seasons with the Worcester Sharks. Many others for abbreviated stays there. For just a matter of weeks, Joe Pavelski was one of his charges before starting an All-Star career at the NHL level.
On his own “call up” to the Sharks’ NHL staff this winter, Sommer reflects, “It was fun getting back to the NHL, but it’s a different animal though, I’ll tell you that, than the American League.”
A different animal, perhaps, but nothing Sommer hasn’t seen as the game has taken him from California, through Waterloo, and to places in every other direction on the compass.
Where Are They Now Features are presented by Karen’s Print Rite.
Special thanks to Ben Guerrero and the San Jose Sharks for the photo which accompanies this story.