There are aficionados aplenty in San Diego, a sun-drenched, smogless, fogless town on the California coast only a bull's throw from downtown Tijuana. But the aficionados there don't care much for the corrida; they're hockey fans, and because of them the San Diego Gulls are occupying one of the most prosperous franchises in all of professional hockey.
So far this season the Gulls have averaged nearly 9,500 for each of their Western Hockey League home games at the San Diego International Sports Arena, easily outdrawing the two major league teams in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area. This is nothing new. In 1966-67, for instance, the smallest crowd for a home game in San Diego was as large as the average crowd in Los Angeles. In 1968-69 the average crowd in San Diego—9,166—was twice the size of the average crowd in Oakland. Last year, despite the fact that the Los Angeles and Oakland teams padded their attendance figures, the Gulls still outdrew them easily.
Why, then, doesn't Bob Breitbard, the owner of the Gulls, apply to the NHL for a franchise in San Diego? "Well, we've got a pretty good thing going here," says Breitbard, "so why should we ruin it? We make a lot of money on minor league hockey, and we'd only price ourselves right out of the market if we bought an NHL franchise." What Breitbard means is that he does not consider an NHL franchise worth the $10 million it would cost him to join the big boys.
Breitbard, who was born and raised in San Diego and made his money in the laundry business, also owns the San Diego Rockets of the National Basketball Association. He admits that he loses money on the basketball operation (the Gulls draw 2,500 more fans per game than the Rockets) but claims, with reverse logic, that the NBA's "nationwide exposure" makes the loss worthwhile. Most San Diegans believe this is simply doubletalk for the fact that Breitbard is a basketball fan first and a hockey fan only second. Says Breitbard himself: "I've got to be careful not to get myself between the two teams. I can't have Walter Kennedy and the NBA mad at me, and I don't want the hockey people mad at me, either."
Breitbard's hockey team arrived in San Diego in 1966, some 17 years after the city's former hockey team, the San Diego Sky Hawks, had folded. The beautiful new sports arena was being made ready, and since the Rockets were not even in existence the Gulls had San Diego pretty much to themselves. The arena is one of Breitbard's favorite subjects.
"We built the thing backwards," he says. "We told the seating people to give us their best seat plan, and then we hired a few draftsmen and told them to design a shell around the seats. We felt all along that good sight lines were more important than a lot of frills." If Breitbard's arena was built backwards, then all sports arenas should be built that way, for the $6.5 million structure is a superior facility. The spectator who pays $2.50 for a general-admission ticket to a Gulls game has a far better view than the spectator who pays $8.50 for a reserved seat in Madison Square Garden.
But it was obvious even to this enthusiast that a new arena alone was not enough to sell hockey in San Diego, so Breitbard and his staff got to work peddling the virtues of a sport most people in San Diego knew little or nothing about. Max McNab, the Gulls' coach and general manager, immersed himself in a junior hockey program for the city, and in only four years the number of boys competing in the various leagues multiplied six times.
Meanwhile, Ron Oakes, the voice of the Gulls, touted his team as the equal of any club in the NHL. "Our first year we had to play our first 13 games on the road because the arena was not finished," Oakes says. "We only won two of those games, but when we finally came home the people poured out to meet us. They had listened to the broadcasts and, well, they just thought we were the unluckiest team anywhere. Actually, I think we were lucky to win the two games that we did."
To put the Gulls across, Reed Nessel, the public-relations chief, used all of the standard tricks plus inventing a few of his own. The Gulls have Family Night every Sunday, when the wife and kids get in for a reduced rate, and then, after the game, the entire family is invited to skate for an hour. Every night they have a Puck Shoot, in which two fans try to shoot a puck from the two blue lines through an eight-inch hole into a goal. If the fan succeeds from the near blue line, he wins $100. If he makes the goal from the far blue line, he wins $1,000.
Wednesday night is Ladies' Night and every night is Military Night, with service personnel permitted to buy general-admission tickets at half price. All over San Diego local businesses give away hockey instructional booklets, hockey sticks, pens, letter openers and pucks supplied by the Gulls. Almost every fan at a Gulls home game wears a button saying WE'RE GULLNIKS or GULL WATCHERS SOCIETY, and there are Gull banners hung throughout the sports arena.
Perhaps the most important promotional effect undertaken by the Gulls, though, is the club's speaking program. "We'll go to a breakfast at 7 a.m. or to a cocktail party at 9 p.m. if they'll let us talk about the Gulls," says McNab, whose players make some 250 personal appearances every season in their attempts to sell hockey. "You don't mind it at all," says Irv Spencer, a Gulls defenseman who played for three teams in the NHL. "The people are interested. They haven't heard about the game, and they listen to what you say. They don't think they know it all."
Of all the Gulls' players, only Jack Evans, a 42-year-old defenseman who played for 14 years in the NHL, really has a reputation in hockey. The rest, players such as Jack McCartan (the goalie who led the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in 1960), Willie O'Ree (one of the few black men in the game), John Miszuk, Alain (Boom-Boom) Caron, Billy McNeill and Allan Nicholson, were never quite fast enough or smart enough or, in most cases, tough enough to play regularly in the NHL.
Although Breitbard and his staff seem to realize there is a great difference in National and Western League hockey, the people of San Diego think the Gulls could be the Stanley Cup champions if they were allowed to play against the NHL. "We've never had an NHL team play in our building, and we don't plan to schedule any exhibitions against NHL teams," Breitbard says. "If we lose badly, like 9-1, then our fans might leave us. So we're not going to risk anything like that right now."