From the outside, Poway Ice hardly looks like a hockey rink.
Tucked into a nondescript office park in the nondescript hills of northern San Diego, the building serves as the headquarters for the Ducks’ American Hockey League affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. Even for a minor league practice rink, the exterior offers an underwhelming first impression.
Inside, however, the facilities are top-notch, a maze of recently built backrooms and hallways, locker rooms and offices. New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins, who spent the last four seasons coaching the club’s AHL squad, knows the digs well.
“Our organization has done an amazing job with the connection between the two teams,” Eakins said this week, sitting in a Poway Ice office during the Ducks’ two-practice excursion.
With shadow-boxed Gulls jerseys mounted to a wall on his right and Ducks photos hanging to the wall on his left, Eakins raved about the organizational synergy, which he said paved the way for a smooth transition this offseason to the NHL job. Entering his first year in charge in Anaheim, he could hardly feel more at ease.
“The communication between the two teams, the fans being able to go up and down the road,” he said, “it’s been a home run.”
He hopes his tenure with the Ducks, which officially kicks off at Honda Center on Thursday night against the Arizona Coyotes, will be the same.
Eakins’ first crack at the NHL, an 18-month stint with the Edmonton Oilers between 2013-14, was as abysmal as it was brief. In his first season, the team went 29-44-9. The next year, he was fired after a 7-19-5 start.
In San Diego, where he was hired at the start of the 2015-16 season, the 52-year-old coach rehabilitated his reputation and revamped his coaching style. He found his footing in the franchise and freedom in Southern California’s casual hockey culture. Before long, the new club and city started to feel like home.
Since being hired by the Ducks in June, Eakins, described the short move up the coast as a breeze.
“I don’t think I’ve had one uncomfortable day,” he said, sounding almost as relaxed as he looked leaning back in his chair with his legs comfortably crossed. “It’s just because everything is familiar to me.”
He loves the coastal weather. “Especially for our family,” he said. “We’re an outside family. We like to ride bikes, we like to run. My daughter swims. [My kids] like the ocean.”
He loves the low-key attention, something he realized during his first day at Ducks training camp in 2015. That afternoon, he was sitting with then-Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.
When Boudreau was summoned to his first news conference, Eakins tagged along, expecting cameras and a cluster of media. Instead, “there were three people and they just had their tape recorders,” he recalled. “I still consciously remember going, ‘Wow. This must be an amazing place to coach.’ ”
Most of all, Eakins loves already knowing almost everyone in the franchise, from general manager Bob Murray on down.
“My boss is familiar to me, the coaches are familiar to me, the players — we had Nick Ritchie here [in San Diego], we had [Ondrej] Kase here, we had John Gibson here — we had all these players,” he said.
“It’s an awesome luxury to have because, I don’t know, you just know your way around everything. It’s not like I’m trying to figure out what makes my boss click. I already know all these things. … There’s no white noise around me anymore.”
Eakins’ past coaching stops have been in Edmonton and Toronto, where he coached the Maple Leafs’ minor league team from 2009-13. He grew accustomed to life in those hockey bubbles, the pressure that transcended time spent at the rink.
Since joining the Ducks’ franchise, he has been happy to leave such a suffocating atmosphere behind.
“Coming here to San Diego, I really loved that,” he said. “I loved that you could go coach, and then you could grab the family, go do stuff, and the hockey actually turned off. Not for me, but it turned off for the community, where, in other spots, like in Edmonton, it’s never off. No matter where you go, it’s on. I think that can be really draining.”
At times criticized for his high-disciplined and heavy-conditioning style in Edmonton, Eakins organized a Ducks preseason this year that veteran forward Adam Henrique described as both “fun” and “tough.”
“I think everybody’s really buying into what’s happening in the locker room here as a group,” Henrique said, “which is exciting.”
It’s all a reflection of Eakins’ new reality.
His four seasons in San Diego were like an incubator, providing a stable environment for growth. Though he’s leaving the Gulls behind, he has already assimilated into the structure of the Ducks’ franchise. He uses words like “comfort” and “familiar” time and again.
Compared to his stint in Edmonton, he said, this situation feels “night and day” different.
“As you go along, especially as a coach, you eventually get to your true personality and your true self,” he said. “It’s almost like a growing experience. We’ve just grown into the job, the organization. You’ve grown with some players that you’ve coached. It is really interesting how this has gone.”