Every Game A Story: I Guess This is Growing Up

The San Jose Sharks, and their fans, had to start somewhere.
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Any story about the San Jose Sharks worth its salt inevitably begins at Patty’s Inn, that saltiest of locales a couple blocks south of the SAP Center. And so it was that in the hours before Game 1 of the 2004 Western Conference playoff first-round matchup between my San Jose Sharks and the hated St. Louis Blues, I found myself pushing through the teal-clad crowd toward Patty’s bar—my own approximation of a defenseman fighting for puck possession in his own corner.

Patty’s, nestled beside the crisscross of railroad tracks and beneath an even more dizzying web of telephone and power lines, is a charmingly derelict little spot. There are, or at least there were, $2 Molsons and cheap hot dogs and a fairly lax interpretation of the 21-and-older law. Directly across the street, in what’s now a parking lot for the Diridon Train Station, there’s a vintage billboard for Stephen’s Meat Products—a lonely remnant hinting at the neighborhood’s former industry (and itself a likely beneficiary of some historical preservation committee). Even today, situated as it is within range of a good slapshot from the gleaming, steel-and-glass façade of the Sharks’ SAP Center, the scene around Patty’s is made up of mostly vacant, vaguely commercial-looking lots, and where the bar’s patrons sometimes relieve themselves before making the mad two-block scramble to reach their seats in time for the puck to drop.

All of which is to say is that Patty’s stands in stark and somewhat refreshing contrast to the commercial sheen of the Sharks’ current digs. In an emotional sense, it also serves as a useful reminder of how far the team—and Sharks fandom—has come since its garish early days.

To wit: A fun game to play at Patty’s is to try to spot as many jerseys as possible from the team’s first two seasons, when it compiled a 28-139-7 record while playing home games at the old Cow Palace in Daly City—a venue that looks exactly like what it sounds like. No rereleased, “vintage” throwback jerseys allowed. Think Kelly Kisio, Sandis Ozolinsh, Arturs Irbe. They’re certainly there, but rare enough to make the game pretty fun, owing primarily to the awfulness of those first teams, and also to the fact that, frankly, you had to be some sort of real weirdo (or a Canadian) to have followed the Sharks back then.

And yet that’s exactly what I was (a weirdo, not a Canadian).

I myself became a Sharks fan the same time I started playing hockey, in 1991, which happens to be not only the Sharks’ birth year, but also as far back as USA Hockey tracks state-by-state player registration. That year, while the Sharks had circles skated around them in the cigarette-smoke-filled Cow Palace, I was one of the blessed 4,483 souls to lace up their skates in California. Regardless of how a sports fan today views hockey’s place in the athletic-industrial-complex hierarchy, it must be said that the sport back then occupied a decidedly niche market out west. And judging from some of the early crowds at the Cow Palace, that niche was composed primarily of the following: chain-smokers, displaced Canadian tech workers, X-treme sports enthusiasts of the sort catered to by ESPN2, and those who’d been offered tickets for free through work acquaintances.

While that core demographic has remained (see: Patty’s Inn, pregame), the fact is that hockey’s reach very quickly exploded. Five years after I started playing (I was, in the lexicon of Silicon Valley, an early adopter), the number of people statewide playing hockey had jumped over 200 percent. Today, over 26,000 people play hockey in California, of which I remain one, in an on-again, off-again capacity as a third-liner on the San Francisco adult C-league’s Chieftains.

It’s safe to say, then, that my own history as a hockey-playing and -watching fan aligns closely with the larger statewide trend toward the game. And while much of that growth surely owes to the mythic power of “The Gretzky Effect,” an equal share must be given to the Sharks’ own marketing efforts. While the silver-and-teal were an utter embarrassment on the ice in those first few years, the team’s outreach or communications or whatever-it-was department apparently knew what it was doing, buying up and constructing rinks around Northern California. (Sharks Ice now operates a massive seven-rink property in San Jose, as well as others in Fremont and Oakland.) There are, today, rinks with youth teams in towns all across the state, from metro complexes in San Francisco to rinks in shopping mall towns like Vacaville and Pleasanton.

The Junior Sharks program now boasts 28 youth teams. Oakland Tech—alma mater of the NFL’s Marshawn Lynch—of all places, now has a high school hockey team.

If in 1991 I was skating, unknowingly, on the frontlines of west-coast hockey fandom—part of the swarm of future patrons the team hoped to one day reap the financial and emotional support of—then by 2004, I’d graduated into the team’s actual, money-paying target demo, albeit on the cheapskate end of the spectrum.

In 2004, I was in college just over the hill in Santa Cruz, and a fellow hockey-obsessed friend of mine and I had taken the Highway 17 bus the hour or so up for the game. (Quick aside: Being a hockey fan was still a sort of pain in the ass: The only bus home left right at 10 p.m., meaning staying for overtime meant trying to thumb a ride back to Santa Cruz, which is the sort of thing half-drunk college kids were willing to do, but not everyone.)

The legacy of the 2003-2004 San Jose Sharks isn’t of the kind that inspires Sports Illustrated retrospective videos, but it’s important nonetheless. For one thing, the team was damn good. The Sharks had, in their history, produced a few moments of brilliance—beating the Wings in the 1994 playoffs; Owen Nolan calling his shot a la Babe Ruth in the 1997 All-Star Game, played in San Jose—but had yet to ever put together enough consistent play to be taken seriously.

This group was different, though: Patty Marleau, Evgeni Nabokov, Jonathan Cheechoo. We could sense that vintage had staying power. The start of a real, honest-to-God run. Finally, after years wandering in the existential wilderness of expansion-team indifference, our time had come.

And so we drank. And cheered. And promised to lay waste to the old guard.

Consider for a moment the plight of the expansion team fan. Or any team that willingly makes its primary color teal. There is an inherent fraudulence associated with claiming any sort of deep emotional attachment to, say, the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Florida Marlins. We have no grainy old memories to cherish. No stories from Grandpa to hook us for life. No good old days to relive—just an embarrassing number of corporate-looking types wearing giveaway T-shirts over their oxford collars.

Yet—and I hope this isn’t just the nostalgia or the Molson talking here—being there inside Patty’s, clock ticking down toward gametime, it didn’t take much to convince the fanbase—still basically in its adolescent phase—that we were, right then, living in what we knew we’d someday think back on as the good old days.

Both the team and the first-gen native fans like me had finally ascended to our rightful station. No more explaining that Yes, there’s a hockey team here. No more half-empty nights at the Cow Palace. We were no longer an expansion franchise. Soon it’d be us, laughing down at the also-rans in Toronto and Long Island.

And indeed we were right: Niko Dimitrakos scored on an overtime breakaway for a euphoric 1-0 win that night, and we beat the Blues in five, and then the Avs in six before finally falling just short of reaching the Finals. The lockout robbed us of our surefire Cup win the next year, but the team kept on winning, reaching the playoffs each of the next ten years, finishing first or second in the division all but once and cementing themselves as a sort of a model case-study in how to build a sustained winner.

Those golden moments of youth can never last, though. And as the years have passed, the ecstatic rush of finally joining the big-kids table has waned. Battle fatigue set in; the psychic scars of each successive playoff flameout eventually took their toll. The consistency of fielding good, but just barely-sub-championship-quality teams became, frankly, a bummer. It was decided that we needed to rebuild.

So that’s what happened. Most of the roster has turned over, although Patty Marleau, forever our miscast leader, soldiers on. Joe Pavelski’s our captain now. There’s even a kid from California on the team. It’s October, which means the Sharks look pretty good again. I watched them crush the L.A. Kings on Opening Night and decided for the fifteenth year in a row that, dammit, this might be the team to get it done.

As for me, I didn’t rebuild so much as I just built. Jobs, layoffs, more jobs, marriage. There’s no thumbing rides home from games these days. What few games I go to now tend to be in those corporate-comped seats I used to sneer at. No one—or, I should say, no one who follows hockey in any serious way—doubts the Sharks’ bonafides. We all joined the mainstream. Even the jersey, so jarring at its unveiling with the bold blue-green hue, now seems if not exactly a classic then at least utterly respectable.

The team signed a new lease earlier this year that promises to keep them at the SAP Center for 15 more years, and possibly through 2040. I can only hope Patty’s holds on that long. It’s as good a place as any for me to tell my kids, if I have them, stories from the good old days.

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