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Stanley Cup Final

Jr. Sharks paved Tennyson's road to NHL

Defenseman's hockey roots took hold as teenager in youth program

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director, Editorial

SAN JOSE -- Depth defenseman Matt Tennyson hasn't found his way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs yet for the San Jose Sharks.

But that has not diminished his impact in the area. Tennyson, 26, is the first alumnus of the Jr. Sharks program to play for the Sharks in the NHL.

He says the fact he is in a position to be in the League and take part in the wild roller-coaster ride his teammates are charting through the postseason lies with his roots in the Jr. Sharks program as a teenager.

"I don't know if I would still be playing hockey if we didn't move out here," said Tennyson, who was born in Michigan and lived in several Midwest locations before relocating to Pleasanton, Calif. "I know a lot of kids that I played with growing up, and none of them play hockey now.

"If I didn't move out here, maybe I would be having a regular job. You just never know how things would work out, but I don't think I would be where I am today if I didn't play for the Jr. Sharks."

Tennyson moved to Northern California from Wisconsin after his freshman year of high school and he found his way into the Sharks program, playing two seasons for an AAA under-16 team that competed on the national stage.

"What I remember about Matt is you could see he had something different," said Jon Gustafson, who helped start the Jr. Sharks program in 2000 and currently is vice president of Sharks Ice LLC. "He's just such an amazing athlete. He's a great kid from a great family."

Tennyson parlayed his time with the Jr. Sharks into a spot in the North American Hockey League, a United States-based junior league. From there, it was the United States Hockey League before a three-year stint playing for Western Michigan University.

Video: ARI@SJS: Tennyson's snap shot opens scoring in 1st

He was undrafted into the NHL, but signed a free-agent contract with the Sharks in 2012 and has been working his way through the system since. He made his NHL debut with the Sharks in 2013 and played 29 regular-season games for them this season, with one goal and three assists. In his three-season NHL career, he has three goals and 11 assists in 60 games.

"There's validation," Gustafson said of the moment Tennyson skated his first NHL shift. "I credit our hockey guys and our hockey staff. I think we are certainly doing the right things at Sharks Ice. Now we are developing kids and that is the most gratifying things to us."

Presently, Tennyson is a black ace, one of several extra players who practice with the Sharks during the playoffs, but don't play in the games. He finds it hard to believe the journey has come this far for him from the first tentative days trying to find his way with the Jr. Sharks.

"I honestly didn't know what to expect," Tennyson said of his thoughts upon arriving in California. "Triple-A was the only real option then and the Jr. Sharks had a program that was the closest and the best. It just kind of worked out that way.

"It was better, I thought. As a kid, you don't know what to expect. I was surprised at how good it was and how competitive it was. Obviously having NHL teams out here in California probably sparks the interest of the kids."

If it were good when Tennyson played, it is even better now. Three of the Jr. Sharks teams play in the elite level of the USA Hockey youth pyramid. The program has grown to 28 different teams, fielding an A and B team at most levels. 

"It's way different," Gustafson said. "It's crazy; it really is. The numbers have just grown exponentially since we got into the business 18 years ago. We don't see the growth patterns stopping, especially where we are right now in the playoffs. That certainly helps.

Though things have not gone well for the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final -- they trail the best-of-7 series 3-1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins with Game 5 at Consol Energy Center on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports) -- Sharks fever has helped get the word out about the junior program.

Tryouts for several of the Jr. Sharks teams were going on last weekend at Sharks Ice. The real Sharks were using the same facility on practice days. The hopeful Jr. Sharks couldn't help but dream of a link between today and a future, somewhere down the road, with the NHL Sharks.

Tennyson has provided them with the road map. He won't be surprised if others soon follow.

"Kids want to play when they see players from the area playing and playing, obviously, in the playoffs," he said. "It's only going to keep growing, too.

"[Being in the Final] is huge; it's been a long time coming. That's a big thing the city has been missing. We've been so close to the Final so many times and couldn't get there. Now that we are here, for the city, it's a huge rallying point."

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