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All-Star Game chance for Sharks to reward fans, inspire more in San Jose

Host event again 22 years after Nolan hat trick made for lasting memory

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

SAN JOSE -- The moment came late in the 1997 NHL All-Star Game.

In front of his home crowd in the building now known as SAP Center, San Jose Sharks forward Owen Nolan had scored twice in eight seconds in the second period, the record for the fastest two goals in an All-Star Game.

He'd gone for the hat trick repeatedly in the third, only to be denied by Dominik Hasek.

Now Mark Messier mishandled the puck and overskated it in the neutral zone, and here was another chance. Nolan gathered the puck and turned in on a breakaway, head up. With a grin, he pointed to the upper right corner of the net, then snapped the puck to that spot, clanking it bar down.

"To that point, I hadn't been in an earthquake," Nolan said. "After that third goal went in, I thought the roof was coming down."

The horn sounded as hats rained onto the ice. The organ played Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2" as fans shouted, "Hey!"

"Can you believe he called the shot?" FOX Sports analyst John Davidson said as he broke down the replay on the TV broadcast. "Look at him!"

Davidson downright cackled.

"It took a second to really comprehend, 'Did he really do that? Was he really trying to do that?'" said Sharks radio voice Dan Rusanowsky, who had just finished interviewing astronaut Wally Schirra in the stands at the time. "Then you see the first replay, and you're like, 'Oh, my God.'"

Did it matter that the goal was the last of a 11-7 loss for the Western Conference? Or that Mark Recchi was named most valuable player for his hat trick for the East?

What does everyone remember?

There is a reason the Sharks gave away Owen Nolan "Calls His Shot" Bobbleheads when they played the Tampa Bay Lightning on Jan. 5 and will host the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Game at SAP Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). 

"We bid on this event for our fans," Sharks president John Tortora said. "I would say at least once a week a fan comes up to me and says, 'I was at the All-Star Game in 1997. When are you getting it back?'"

Moments like Nolan's are the whole, well, point.

"I've always said the All-Star Game is for the fans and the players to have fun," Nolan said. "It's not a serious game. We're there to entertain. We're in the entertainment business. The season is such a grind. You beat each other up. So it's nice to go out and play some shinny hockey.

"The opportunity was there, I decided to have some fun, and it panned out. If it doesn't work, you look like a fool for a week. But here we are 22 years later. We're still talking about it."

* * * * 

The Sharks have had a hard-core following since they entered the NHL in 1991-92. They still have about 800 season ticket accounts that go back to the Cow Palace, the old arena in Daly City where they played their first two seasons.

"People will say, 'I was at the Cow Palace,'" said general manager Doug Wilson, the Sharks captain in those days. "Well, the Cow Palace must have had a capacity of 40,000 people for all the people that tell me they were at the Cow Palace."

But the Sharks have come a long way since, growing their organization, their fan base and the game itself. They hope this All-Star Game will reward their fans and inspire more.

"It's always been a strong fan base," said Nolan, who played for the Sharks from 1995-96 to 2002-03 and lives in the area. "When I got here, the place was always packed. … As the years went on and the team got better, they learned to appreciate good hockey, and now they demand good hockey."

Video: NHL Tonight talks about the upcoming All-Star Game

In the past 20 seasons, the Sharks have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs 18 times. Since Wilson became GM in 2003-04, they have the most wins (664) and points (1,468) in the NHL and have appeared in 27 playoff rounds. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins (29) have appeared in more.

The Sharks drew 70,205, the fourth-largest crowd in NHL history, to Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara when they hosted the Los Angeles Kings in the Stadium Series on Feb. 21, 2015. They brought the Stanley Cup Final to SAP Center when played the Penguins in 2016.

"We showed the hockey world that we can support major NHL events, and the All-Star Game became the next one on the list," Tortora said.

Forward Joe Pavelski and defensemen Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson are scheduled to represent San Jose this weekend. Karlsson has been out with a lower-body injury, but the Sharks hope he will participate.

"I'm proud that we've got three guys," Wilson said. "We could probably have four or five guys. But I think it's an event that our fans get to see the great players in this league, and they deserve that."

The Sharks moved their American Hockey League affiliate to SAP Center in 2015, calling it the Barracuda.

They operate a four-sheet facility in San Jose, a two-sheet facility in Oakland and a one-sheet rink in Fremont. The facility in San Jose, Solar4America Ice, is one of the largest in the western United States and open 20 hours a day, 364 days a year.

The day it is closed? The Fourth of July.

"We're open Christmas," said Jon Gustafson, vice president of Solar4America Ice and the Barracuda. "Are you kidding me? I think we had over 400 people here on Christmas Day for public sessions."

The Junior Sharks program has about 590 house players in San Jose, 200 in Oakland and another 100 in Fremont, plus 31 travel teams. Nolan and fellow Sharks alumni Evgeni Nabokov and Curtis Brown coach their sons on one team. Dylan Nolan, 11, wears No. 11, just like his dad did.

The Sharks operate a high school league with 28 teams from the Bay Area, including varsity and junior varsity. 

Solar4America Ice has 170 adult teams, the largest adult program registered with USA Hockey.

"We're definitely growing," Gustafson said. "In the market, our challenge is, we're running out of ice, which is a good problem to have."

The Sharks are working with the city of San Jose to build two more sheets, including a 4,000-seat rink that would be the new home of the Barracuda, though plans are not ready to be announced yet.

These are the ripples of the trade that sent Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings in 1988.

"All of a sudden we got the team here," Gustafson said. "All of a sudden the game was introduced to a lot of people, and people kind of got into it. But now those kids have grown up, gone away to school and have come back and are working and having their own kids.

"So we [have] true hockey families. It's really more part of our culture now, which is really awesome. The Sharks' successes have been just tremendous. We've had a team here, a great team here, for so long. It really has made a great dent in the community."

* * * * 

To people in San Jose, one appeal of the Sharks is that they are not the San Francisco Sharks or the Bay Area Sharks. They are the San Jose Sharks. 

And unlike some other major sporting events in the area, the 2019 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend will be all San Jose.

"The NHL made it a focus to make sure all the events were right here in San Jose and for the most part all in walking distance to the arena," Tortora said.

Tortora said more than 10,000 hotel rooms will be occupied over the weekend.

The iconic outdoor ice rink at the Circle of Palms downtown did not close after the holidays as usual. It will be open through Sunday, and kids wearing NHL jerseys will skate for free.

Video: Taking a look at the 2019 All-Star Game jerseys

The 2019 NHL Fan Fair presented by SAP will be inside the San Jose McEnery Convention Center from Thursday through Sunday, with everything from a Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit to interactive games.

Oversized pucks featuring images of players in the All-Star Game will line the path from the convention center to the arena.

Nolan will be back, this time as an alumnus, a father and a fan.

"It doesn't happen that often, and so when it's in your home city, you should take full advantage of it," Nolan said. "And it's not just the stuff in the rink. It's the stuff going on downtown. It's a big festival. Try to take in as much as you can."

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