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Northern Roots

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

The Bay Area has seen its share of start-ups, and when the San Jose Sharks began play in 1991-92, there were built in competitive challenges, as there are for any first year National Hockey League club.

“You get absolutely no respect as an expansion team,” said Jack Ferreira, the Los Angeles Kings’ special assistant to the general manager and the inaugural Sharks general manager before he signed on with the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the same role.

“So when I went to Anaheim, I made sure we had a big, strong team, and we got a lot of respect.”

The Mighty Ducks had more wins in their first season than the Sharks had in their first two seasons combined, and the presence of enforcers such as alternate captains Todd Ewen and Stu Grimson, and a heavier, difficult-to-play-against characteristic the team was able to uphold led to a respectable 19-20-3 road record during the then-84 game NHL schedule.

Though the Ducks have been a fine franchise competitively and have won a Stanley Cup, whereas the Sharks have not, San Jose has been more than competitive and has made the playoffs all but one year since the 1997-98 season. The high level of play that Northern California’s NHL franchise has established is sustained by players, coaches and executives that have roots in past and present Los Angeles Kings teams.

“They’re every year a hundred point team,” said Darryl Sutter, who coached San Jose to playoff berths in each of his five full seasons with the club and led it to its first Pacific Division title in 2001-02.

“So if every year you’re a hundred point team, you are a team that’s looked on – they have been looked on – as a favorite, or in the top six or seven teams every year for the last, what, seven years? For sure. Quite honest, since 2004 they’ve been certainly looked on as a team that could, should would.”

Brad Stuart is the only current Shark who also played for the Kings, though there was heavier crossover when San Jose took a step forward in setting the base of its future success. In 1997-98, Sutter’s first year as head coach and the first year in a stretch of 15 playoff appearances in 16 seasons, Bernie Nicholls, Tony Granato and Marty McSorley donned teal, while Kelly Hrudey spent his final NHL season in the Bay Area after having signed with the Sharks in the 1996 off-season.

The decision Hrudey made to sign with San Jose came as the result of several in depth meetings with then-Sharks general manager and current Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi, who had taken on many duties as the club’s assistant general manager following its 1991 entrance into the NHL. It was clear that there was an identity developing within an organization that while it had twice posted first round upsets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, had not yet enjoyed a winning record in the regular season.

“Yep, there’s no question about it,” Hrudey said, affirming that team’s identity was beginning to take form. “I was really lucky. When I went from LA and made the move to San Jose, what I really noticed right off the get go was just how good of a manager Dean Lombardi is, and also Wayne Thomas, the assistant general manager at the time. I just thought they were unbelievably thorough, and I recall vividly the first meetings I had with them. I went down to San Jose to meet them as a free agent, and I met them on a weekend, and both Saturday and Sunday, we had about two, two and a half hour meetings both Saturday and Sunday about me, also about the team and the direction and so on. I was just really impressed with the thoroughness of those interviews and Dean’s passion for building the organization up.”

“That’s an awful lot of conversation between a manager and a player. I just recall he had a game plan – Dean did, and Wayne as well – and they were going to stick to it, and they were see this through the long haul.”

That there were extended conversations with Lombardi doesn’t surprise anyone.

“Everybody that’s ever played with Dean has had lengthy conversations. That’s just his style,” Ferreira said. “Dean is very, very involved.”

While Ferreira’s original blueprint with San Jose was to build from the back out, by the mid-to-late 1990’s, after he had left the organization, a clearer thrust of supplementing young, developing talent with character veterans was taking hold.

“When I look at the roster, I go back now and I see they had so many good young players coming through at that time – there’s Owen Nolan, Jeff Friesen, Viktor Kozlov, Marco Sturm, Patrick Marleau, Shean Donovan at that time, Mike Rathje,” Hrudey said. “There was just a real strong group of young guys coming up that I really thought that under the proper tutelage that they’d make the proper strides. I must say now looking back, I’m even more impressed with the growth that they’ve had considering that…they’ve only missed the playoffs once in that time from my second year there. That’s very impressive in an incredibly difficult and competitive league.”

In an expansion draft, a team selects from a limited group of players that other teams didn’t want. But through trades and free agency, it was now easier to be more discerning towards a player’s character. When Doug Bodger and Todd Gill were brought in, it was with a motive that appears familiar to the way the Los Angeles Kings are built.

“There were a lot of veteran guys, too, to sort of show those [young] guys the proper way to prepare,” said Hrudey, who may as well have taken a page out of Los Angeles’ developmental playbook. Lombardi has in the past referenced younger players developing quality practice traits by learning through the on and off-ice habits and examples set by veteran players such as Jarret Stoll. Anze Kopitar’s preparation has been upheld as an example by Sutter that is beneficial in the development of younger players such as Linden Vey. Off the ice, Hrudey’s family also housed Patrick Marleau in the young star’s 18-year-old season and said “he became like a big brother to our daughters.”

As for character, “it’s part of the formula that we look for, that’s for sure,” Ferreira said.

Permanence is a word hardly associated with sports, and after the team hung its first of six divisional banners in 2002, the Sharks failed to make the playoffs in 2003, the one year out of the past 16 seasons in which they failed to do so. That season saw Lombardi fire Darryl Sutter before he was ultimately let go in mid-March despite tying an NHL record by improving a team’s point total for six consecutive seasons the year prior. In 2003-04, San Jose won another division title and came within two games of the Stanley Cup Final using 18 players that had been acquired by Lombardi.

“It was quite a bit different team,” Sutter said of the transitional years in which he played a role in setting the base for the organization’s future success. Since the non-playoff year, the Sharks have averaged 105.7 points per season, a number that includes their pro-rated point total in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season.

“The first couple years we were happy to make it because they hadn’t had much success there and it was in a really rebuilding mode. So what it was, it was a lot of top, older quality character guys and then some kids that were coming up, so that’s how we made it. Probably the mindset of the organization was they were happy to make it, and as we went forward it was about seeing how far we could go. That’s what they’ve been able to do. They had a couple down years, and then they came back.”

That’s thanks in part to those who have ties between the two organizations that will meet in a seven-game series beginning Thursday at the SAP Center.

“They’re good,” Sutter said. “I’m not saying it because we’re playing ‘em.”

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