I think Gary Bettman is an idiot. You think Gary Bettman is an idiot. We ALL think Gary Bettman is an idiot. And what am I talking about, “think”? We all KNOW it. And we know that for a thousand different reasons, one being a rather poorly-thought out version of the Southern Strategy. Although there were a few successes, the whole thing has been justifiably written off as a massive bomb. It was a just a stupid idea – you can’t place teams in places without any history of hockey or knowledge of what it is to be a cold culture and expect them to make money.
Thing is, though, the efforts have been met with occasional success. The San Jose Sharks kicked off the league’s obsession with warm-weather hockey, quickly found an audience, and are today one of the most popular and respected teams in the league.
Okay, we can’t get too excited here – the Sharks were actually the second team the NHL tried to place in California’s Bay Area. The first was the California Seals… Um, I mean the Oakland Seals… Sorry, California Golden Seals… Yeah, the extensive efforts to rename the team were probably one of the reasons potential fans in California weren’t able to really connect with the team. Name and location disputes aside, though, the Seals were created in the 1967 expansion that doubled the size of the NHL. That expansion, however, was probably – in fact, probably even likely – done with a different ethos in mind. By 1967, the Original Six teams – the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Blackhawks – had been literally the only teams the league had for the previous 25 years. The rat bastards who owned those teams really wanted some TV money, so they decided to expand to get some. Unfortunately, the Original Six era passed by with one owner having stakes in four teams, and the Maple Leafs and Canadiens dominated the NHL. In 25 years, those two teams won the Stanley Cup a combined total of 20 times. Four of those other victories went to the Red Wings, they of the man who owned four teams (and only doted over the Wings). The aberration was by Chicago in 1961.
With that kind of hierarchy and corruption, we can safely assume that the six teams created in 1967 were pulled out of the air with the intent to keep the older teams dominant. Hell, the new structure created to accommodate the new teams simply involved tossing all the n00bs into a conference of their own. And it worked out pretty well though the 70’s; although Boston finally broke the iron grip of Montreal and Toronto in 1970, they were still another Original Six team. The back-to-back Stanley Cups the new Philadelphia Flyers won in 1974 and 1975 turned a few heads – especially that 1975 Cup, where they beat the even newer Buffalo Sabres in the first-ever all-expansion Final – things were normal again for the last half of the decade, with Montreal winning the Cup every year to close it all out. Things didn’t change until the 80’s, when the expansion New York Islanders were off to the races, winning the Cup every year from 1980 to 1983. That was particularly humiliating to any Original Six purists, because at the time the Rangers had only won three Cups, and the most recent was in 1940. After another Montreal reprieve, the Edmonton Oilers slammed through the league like a wrecking ball, winning five Cups in seven years. One of the Cups they didn’t win was the one in 1989, when the winner was the Calgary Flames – really the only team capable of challenging the Oilers. Then the 90’s kicked off when the Pittsburgh Penguins got a couple of turns. Although Montreal and the Rangers finally brought the Cup back to the old school in 1993 and 1994, anyone with any stakes in an Original Six-dominated league was either dead or too old to care.
George and Gordon Gund were the owners of the Seals. That’s pretty important, because even though they were eventually forced to move the Seals to Cleveland and then finally merge them with the Minnesota North Stars, they really liked the idea of hockey in the Bay Area. There was a group that wanted to bring the NHL to San Jose, and at the time, the Gunds were still holding on to the North Stars as minority owners. But they had enough influence there to try to ask the league for permission to move the North Stars to somewhere in that vicinity, and they made a pitch to do just that. The league said no. There was, however, a whole other group looking to plop a team down in San Jose, where there was a new arena being built. So the NHL then offered a nice compromise to the Gunds: Sell what was left of their ownership share of the North Stars to these weird new guys, and get an expansion team of their very own! Just for the Bay Area! The Gunds said yes, sold their share, and walked off with their shiny new hockey team! Asking the fans what the team should be called, they got over 5000 submissions with suggestions. The top choice was “Blades.” For some reason, the Gunds rejected that name on the grounds of being associated with gang weapons. At least that was the official explanation. Why the better explanation – that “Blades” was a generic and shitty name that no fan with a brain would ever be caught dead rooting for – wasn’t the one they went with is beyond me. But it doesn’t change the fact that the second-place suggestion was “Sharks,” which they went with. That also sounds generic, but there were also seven varieties of sharks living in the water surrounding the Bay Area, so at least it gave the new team a geographical distinction. Matt Levine, the team’s first marketing head, said of the new name that, “Sharks are relentless, determined, swift, agile, bright and fearless. We plan to build an organization that has all those qualities.”
George Kingston was the team’s first coach. Pat Falloon was the first Draft pick. Those picks were… Not good. In the team’s inaugural season, the Sharks won 17 games. In their sophomore season, they won 11. Yes, that’s 11. E-L-E-V-E-N. W-I-N-S. Expansion drafts, you know? Yeah, the Sharks were a lot of journeymen, minor-leaguers, and rookies. They did manage to get one notable player, Doug Wilson, who was a 14-year vet with a Norris Trophy to his name. Wilson was the first Captain of the Sharks, and the team’s first All-Star. The 1993 season was particularly bad, though, as the team lost 71 games and earned only 24 points in the standings. But they did win one contest that counted: They were leading the entire league in merchandise sales! Clearly, the San Jose Sharks had some kind of appeal. Kingston was replaced for Kevin Constantine the next season, and the Sharks pulled off the greatest single-season turnaround in league history!… Which didn’t mean a whole lot, considering what happened the year before. But their record was 33-35-16, which was good enough to make the playoffs and get dumped by the Red Wings. At least, that’s what everyone thought would happen in the playoffs. Detroit was a popular Stanley Cup favorite that year. So it was a massive shocker when the Sharks managed to upend them and move on to the second round. And in the second round, they managed to put up a 3-2 series lead against the Leafs before Toronto woke up, said, “Hey, didn’t these guys win only 11 games just last season? What the fuck are we doing?” and won the last two games of the series.
1995 featured the only rainout in the history of the NHL. The Guadalupe River banks flooded over in March, which made it impossible for anyone to get to the arena for the game. In spite of that weird event, the Sharks went back to the playoffs. They were matched against the Flames, but the Sharks took the series the distance and clinched it in a double overtime classic seventh game. That cued the return of the Red Wings, who promptly dumped them.
1996 saw the return of the Sharks to familiar territory: Last place. Although the Sharks spent the next two seasons sucking again, they were also digging up a few building blocks: Owen Nolan came from the Colorado Avalanche and Patrick Marleau came from the Draft. A couple of years later, Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Mike Vernon and Vincent Damphousse came to San Jose, the Sharks notched their first-ever winning record in 2000, and… Well, suffice it to say they haven’t spent a whole lot of time losing since then. To the playoffs they went again, to face the President’s Trophy-winning St. Louis Blues. In an upset comparable to what they had pulled off against Detroit in the first trip to the playoffs, San Jose overcame the odds and finished the Blues in a series which went the distance. A down year came in 2002, but by 2004, the Sharks weren’t just good – they were dominant. They posted 104 points, which made them the third-best team in the league that season.
From here, it’s going to be simple to point out a particular pattern you’re going to see emerge from the Sharks: They’re going to fucking dominate the regular season with any number of stars, then drop out of the playoffs. Sometimes the playoff run will go deeper than other times. Sometimes, they may even win the President’s Trophy. (Okay, well, once, in 2009.) In 2007, the Sharks were the league’s youngest team in average age and the biggest team in average weight. Although they started the 2006-07 season with a stunning 20-7-0 record, fans noticed they were lacking a left winger to compliment Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. The team tried to address that by nabbing Mark Bell from Chicago, but Bell was always getting into trouble off the ice for something or other. And on the ice, he was either a scratch or a fourth-liner by the end of the season. He didn’t slow the Sharks down, though, especially not after they made trade deadline acquisitions for Craig Rivet and Bill Guerin. Put together with great performance after great performance by Evgeni Nabokov, and you’ve got yourself a record of 51-26-5! That made them a great Stanley Cup favorite. Favorites aren’t necessarily winners, though, and the Sharks were done in the second round. It was Detroit. Again.
53 wins and 117 points were both team records in 2009. That made the Sharks the best team in the league for the first time ever, and they won the President’s Trophy. That didn’t even make it through one playoff round. It was the Anaheim Ducks that did the job this time. This was an era when the Sharks kept on being favorites, only to choke in the playoffs, just to keep it short. Sometimes they just tanked against a worse team, like Anaheim up there in the first round. Sometimes, like in 2010, they could get to the Conference Final, but end up losing to the league’s Team of Destiny that year.
In 2014, the Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Their record wasn’t actually bad – it was 40-33-9 – but they spent much of the latter part of the season playing like the playoff version of the Sharks, just before the playoffs started this year. They kept blowing key games against their conference opponents. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Sharks were finally able to batter their way through the playoff gauntlet completely and win the Western Conference. They beat the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, and Blues. Notable about that set of opponents is the Blues – they’re another team famous for their ability to choke away a sure thing right when it’s the least convenient. But no matter – the Sharks finally had their Campbell Bowl. They also had a lot of experience going into the Final. The opposing Penguins, however, had experience in the Final before – they had a good number of players left from a 2009 Stanley Cup victory and a Stanley Cup Final loss to Detroit from 2008. They also had more speed. Pittsburgh won the Cup pretty decisively, but the Sharks aren’t looking like they’ll be out of contention anytime soon.
You’re going to have to forgive this bland history. Almost half of the teams in the NHL now are younger than I am, and the team histories are so bite-sized that there’s not even a separate page for them.
The young teams don’t have any retired numbers, but damn if the Sharks aren’t packing marquee names! We can start with the great Patrick Marleau. If there’s one player on this team who can be called Mr. Shark, it’s Marleau. The second overall Draft pick of 1997, Marleau has only ever played for San Jose. He owns almost every significant record in the team’s history, including goals and points. He’s second in assists only behind Joe Thornton, who was ironically the one player drafted ahead of him in 1997. (He went to the Bruins; the Sharks got him through free agency in 2005.) With 481 goals and 555 assists, he’s looking like a lock to be the team’s first retired number and lifelong player. Although Marleau never won a major individual trophy, his high stands of both play and on-ice conduct have made him the runner-up for the Lady Byng twice and won him respect of players and fans everywhere. His teammate Joe Thornton is looking like another Shark legend. Thornton established himself in Boston, but decided to move on to San Jose in 2005 as a free agent. He’s now second in Sharks history in points, third in goals, and first in assists. Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture are looking like the most immediate successors to Marleau and Thornton. From 2004 to 2009, Jonathan Cheechoo was a league headliner. Owen Nolan had some of his best years in San Jose. Mark Ricci and Vincent Damphousse both added bullet points to long and productive careers as Sharks. Rob Blake was a team Captain. These are some of the NHL’s best, and most of them were actually pretty solid contributors to the Sharks as well.
So what goes on in San Jose with the choking? It’s hard to tell. This team has only missed the playoffs six times. They’ve made it past the first round 13 times. But they’ve only gotten beyond the second round four times, and hoisted the Campbell Bowl just once. It’s not like there’s some mythological hockey curse out to get these guys; if anything, the NHL probably wants them to win the Stanley Cup one of these days. So far, not winning the Stanley Cup is the only way the Sharks haven’t been successful. In every other respect, the team has been a rousing success, up to and including the point where fans have created a culture devoted to them. They’re perennial league leaders in merchandise, their attendance isn’t bad, and they’ve usually got a great team to watch.
The fan culture of the Sharks naturally revolves around sharks. The team’s home arena has one of the most famous nicknames in sports: The Shark Tank! When teams are introduced at a Sharks game, a 17-foot open shark mouth is lowered from the rafters. A live view of the locker room tunnel is shown on the scoreboard as the team’s goalie leads them out of the giant shark mouth and onto the ice to the tune of Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy.” Whenever the Sharks go on the power play, the theme from Jaws plays and the fans move their arms in an up-and-down opening and closing motion. Since so many of the teams in the NHL, they have to depend on catchy hooks like this in order to find an audience, and it seems to have worked in San Jose.
The San Jose Sharks may be a warm weather team, but their one that has truly worked. They have everything an adopting hockey fan could hope to find in a team – a consistently good on-ice product, great fans – none other than Jeremy Roenick said Sharks fans rank among the NHL’s best – and a brand which embraced a really cool fan culture. Plus, sharks. What’s not to love?
Animal Planet dedicates a week to celebrating the animal they’re named after; have had seemingly every identifiable face in the modern NHL; have worked the Jaws theme into their game days; always seem to be a Stanley Cup favorite; Syfy will probably end up making a movie about them one of these days
Are now the only team in California that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup; fans stand to be quickly dismissed by haughty hockey easterners; NHL has to keep emphasizing the Bay Area to appease potential fans around San Francisco and Oakland; Syfy will probably end up making a movie about them one of these days.
Should you be a fan?
Certainly! If not for the fan culture and constant chance to win the Stanley Cup, then for the cool teal color scheme and chance of the next great Syfy movie being about them!