August 15, 2022
By AJ Manderichio/SanDiegoGulls.com
Justin Kirkland knew he wanted to sign with the Anaheim organization.
The Winnipeg native, who just completed a career year with the Stockton Heat, entered free agency this summer with the goal of signing with the Ducks.
“I told my agent, day one, that Anaheim was top of the list,” Kirkland said in a recent phone interview. “That was before I even knew he spoke to them. We’re absolutely thrilled to be working with them and going to SoCal and checking out there. We’re thrilled about that.”
The 2021-22 season saw post-career sixth-year professional highs in goals (25), assists (23) and points (48) while leading the Heat to a first-place finish in the Pacific Division, its highest season. regular. finish in its history in the American Hockey League. Stockton followed up their stellar regular season with a run to the Western Conference Finals, with Kirkland powering the charge. The left-winger scored 7-5=12 points in 13 postseason games as his team lost to eventual Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves 4-2 in the best-of-seven series .
Kirkland credits his strong season to a few simple tweaks to his off-season routine.
“It was exciting to see the hard work paying off,” he said. “It really started the summer before. I moved to Calgary to spend my summers here once I signed with the Flames to skate and train with their staff, strength coaches and skills coaches and things like that. I really believe it was a result of the summer and the work that I did. I felt like I had those skills and stuff for a while, it was just a matter of trust. You try to build your game year after year. I felt like Last year things really clicked. They say it may or may not be a coincidence, but I firmly believe it comes from a very hard summer job. I’m grateful to all the guys who helped me this summer and pushed me to be better. It’s something I’m working on again this summer and I hope that will translate into the coming season.”
At the end of the long term, Kirkland left about a month before free agency opened. The left-winger admitted he felt comfortable with the process, especially a strong season in his back pocket, but felt the stress of the unknown. When it came to identifying the Anaheim organization at the top of his wish list, he discussed the mix of location and opportunity.
“One of the biggest reasons is probably the Southern California way of life,” he explained. “Whether you’re in Anaheim or San Diego, you’re in two of the most beautiful cities, I think, in America. It was very appealing. Every time I traveled to San Diego when I was with Stockton, it was breathtaking. “I loved every trip. I think everyone in professional hockey knows that Anaheim and San Diego are probably the best pairing for cities and places to live. It was an important factor.
“Also, I thought there was an opportunity in Anaheim for me. I’m a guy pushing to try to take the next step and have the confidence that I can. I’m just looking for an opportunity “Hopefully that happens this year with Anaheim and all the hard work pays off. We’re really excited to get out there and get things done.”
Kirkland also enjoyed his visits to Pechanga Arena in San Diego and the atmosphere created by Gulls fans for each game.
“Coming to play there four or five times a year, it was always a battle that you knew was always going to be an uphill battle,” he said. “You knew the fans were going to play a role. A few years ago I was injured and sitting in the stands, being able to see it from that vantage point. It’s exciting, it’s great. They did Fantastic work there developing the game in Southern California. They now have all of the following. It’s pretty exciting.
He also did his own research, talking with former Gulls Mike Liambas and Andy Welinski about the city and the organization.
“Being able to talk to them and ask them a bit about how things are run, the city and the organization and things like that, that really seemed like the perfect fit for me,” Kirkland said. “Like I said, it was the number one organization on my list, and we ended up there. We’re thrilled.”
With a one-year, two-way deal for the upcoming season, the left-winger is back in Calgary, skating with a pro squad led by current Seattle Kraken associate coach Dave Lowry. He also made time to enjoy the offseason, skipping the annual Calgary Stampede but visiting Banff and Lake Louise with his wife and family. The couple have a dog, and Kirkland says they enjoy spending time outdoors. The duo hope to travel to Orange County soon — Kirkland said his wife is a huge Disney fan, so a trip to the park is on their to-do list — and settle in to prepare for summer camp. training with the Ducks.