SAN DIEGO — Welcome to the Valley View Casino Center. Step inside. It’s dark. Notice the smell of popcorn, hot dogs, beer and sweat lingering in the air from who knows how long ago? It’s noisy, too, when it’s filled with cheering fans of the San Diego Gulls of the American Hockey League.
This is where the magic happens.
This relic of 1960s-era optimism is where Ducks prospects turn into NHL players.
Well, here and in the Gulls’ new training facility in suburban Poway.
Defensemen Brandon Montour and Shea Theodore, forwards Nick Ritchie, Logan Shaw and Chris Wagner and goaltender John Gibson cut their teeth in the AHL, paying their dues, learning their craft and moving through the ranks faster than anyone might have expected.
Now, they’re playing significant roles for the Ducks, who will need more than ever from them going into Game 3 of their second-round playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday. The Ducks trail the best-of-7 series, 2-0, after a pair of narrow losses at Honda Center.
Certainly, it’s a lot to ask of Montour, Theodore and Ritchie, in particular. They arrived sooner than expected this season and with a greater impact. Given a chance to fill key roles, they accepted them and made something of their opportunities. It’s been impossible to get them out of the lineup.
The Ducks are better for it this season, advancing to the second round of the playoffs for the third time in five seasons after winning a fifth consecutive Pacific Division championship. A comeback against the Oilers is possible, but it’s going to take a determined rally from everyone on the roster.
Depth got the Ducks this far, and it could carry them deeper into the playoffs.
“It’s one thing to develop players to play in the NHL, but what we try to instill in them is we want players to win in the NHL,” Gulls general manager Bob Ferguson said. “I think there’s a big difference. We try to create a winning environment. We don’t want them just to go up there. We want them to go up there and succeed. We’ve had pretty good luck with it.”
Montour, 23, played 36 games this season in San Diego and 27 more with the Ducks after a midseason promotion, earning a regular shift in the NHL. He had two goals and six points and a plus-11 defensive rating with the Ducks, who couldn’t take him out of their lineup.
Theodore, 21, played 26 games with the Gulls and then 34 more with the Ducks, scoring two goals and nine points with a minus-six defensive rating. Theodore was on the I-5 Shuttle, driving back and forth between Anaheim and San Diego because of salary-cap considerations before he stuck.
Ritchie, 20, split last season between Anaheim and San Diego before settling into a role in 2016-17 that’s been expanded to the point that he’s played on the Ducks’ top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Patrick Eaves frequently down the stretch and in the playoffs. He played 77 games with the Ducks.
Shaw, 24, Wagner, 25, and Gibson, 23, apparently…