Chase De Leo grew up making the 15-mile pilgrimage between his parents’ house in La Mirada and the Honda Center to watch his hockey heroes take the ice.
Now, De Leo is tasked with guiding his hometown Anaheim Ducks’ top affiliate, the San Diego Gulls. He serves as the team’s top line center for a second consecutive season.
The 24-year-old has thrived in that role, scoring seven goals and tallying six assists for the Gulls, as of January 9.
His first season with the Gulls, in 2018-19, resulted in a career-high 20 goals and 35 assists, leading the team with a +19 rating.
De Leo says playing for his hometown franchise is a dream come true, after two seasons in the Winnipeg Jets organization.
“I think nothing really beats walking into the arena and there’s palm trees that are pretty much attached to the Pechanga Arena,” De Leo says. “It’s usually 75 degrees outside walking into the rink. So, I don’t think anything beats that. Where on practice days you can wear basketball shorts or flip-flops and I don’t many other places allow you to do that.
“So, just to be able to wear shorts or flip-flops or whatever outside the rink, then you get inside and it’s all business, it’s pretty cool to be able to do that.”
De Leo wears his California lineage with pride, remarking on the growth of the game since his childhood days in northeast Los Angeles County.
Part of that pride is the result of years spent watching the Ducks, longing to one day find himself on the other side of the glass.
His immense sense of pride also has to do with being part of an elite fraternity, as he’s one of 13 California-born players to take the ice in either the American Hockey League or the NHL in the 2019-20 season.
“It’s always been my dream. Growing up, my family had season tickets to the Anaheim Ducks, so I didn’t miss too many home games,” De Leo says. “I remember racing home from school, going to practice and then racing home from practice, trying to get as much homework done as possible, and then going straight to the Honda Center and then watching games.
“So, it’s definitely cool to be on the other side of the glass now, when I do get a chance to put on a Ducks jersey and play at the Honda Center, where I used to be a fan banging on the glass; being upset after losses; being pumped after wins, where now I feel like it’s cool to on the other side of it. Be in the locker room and just try to represent my state of California.”
Another point of pride for De Leo is having the opportunity to play for an AHL organization with such a devoted following.
The Gulls led all 30 of the AHL’s franchises in average attendance, at 9,021 per game in 2018-19, bringing a cacophony of noise and passion to the 12,920-seat Pechanga Arena.
“It’s super cool. Pretty much every game we have unreal attendance, and they’re pretty rowdy and very supportive,” De Leo says.
“Even when we play down in Ontario, there’s a bus full of fans who go down there and stand in the tunnel and give us high-fives.
“So, just the support that there is, like I said, the hockey growth in California is huge and it keeps getting bigger and bigger each year.”
De Leo’s goal for the rest of the 2019-20 season is twofold: focusing on doing what he can to get the Gulls back into the AHL playoff race, while also playing well enough to draw a promotion to the NHL.
The key to accomplishing the first part is for everyone on the Gulls to do their part for the team as a whole, pushing in the same direction toward success.
“I think we had a tough start to the year, but we honestly just have to take it one day at a time,” De Leo says. “I know that sounds cliché, but all these points matter when it comes to every single game now. Pretty much every game now is worth four points for us.
“So, it’s definitely important to start getting these wins, and we’re focused up and we know what it takes to turn this ship around and get it to go in the right direction.”
As for his NHL dreams, the former fourth-round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, De Leo believes achieving that goal requires patience and poise.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to be from Southern California and get to represent hockey in Southern California as well. It is, I think, a little bit of extra motivation going to the rink every single day in San Diego,” De Leo says. “To be called up and be an Anaheim Duck and stay with my family. My family lives in La Mirada, so it’d be pretty cool to be with the Anaheim Ducks and stay with them and then spend some time with them as well and get them to come to some home games with all of my buddies.
“So, it’s definitely an honor to be a part of this organization, and I hope to be a part of it for many years to come.”
San Diego Gulls, sandiegogulls.com.