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Fan's hope for Sharks: 'CUP B4 I DIE'

Reaching Cup Final puts spring in step of optimistic backer

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SAN JOSE -- Michael Young never thought he would be walking down West Santa Clara Street over the Guadalupe River to SAP Center in late May. He never thought the San Jose Sharks would be playing so long. Not this season.

But Wednesday, he was on his way to Game 6 of the Western Conference Final, high-fiving S.J. Sharkie when the mascot rode by on a hoverboard, drawing attention almost as if he were a mascot himself. A stranger wearing an old-school Mike Ricci Sharks sweater approached him.

"That is the best," the stranger said, using a colorful adjective, "jersey I have ever seen."

"Thanks," Young said with a laugh. "I hope they don't have to bury me in it."

Young was wearing a Sharks Heritage jersey, an homage to the past with the original striping, number and lettering format. He had it customized with No. 91, commemorating the year the Sharks began playing in the NHL.

The nameplate?

"CUP B4 I DIE."

Young is 26. He hasn't waited nearly as long as fans in, say, Toronto or St. Louis. But forgive him for being so morbidly pessimistic, and feel his excitement now that he might be granted his dying wish before the age of 27.

Video: Sharks Head Coach Peter DeBoer on Stanley Cup Final

He sat in section 212, row 13, seat 4 when the Sharks defeated the St. Louis Blues 5-2 and advanced to the first Stanley Cup Final in their 25-year history. They play the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

"Witnessing the Sharks clinch at home was one of the happiest days of my life, a dream come true," Young said later. "As a tortured fan for many years, I finally get to see my team compete for the Stanley Cup. There are still teams who can't say that, so I consider myself a lucky fan."

Young's story reflects the story of the Sharks in San Jose: how they got people into the sport of hockey, how they raised their hopes, how they disappointed them and how now they are pleasantly surprising them.

His parents are native Californians. They were not hockey fans. Born not long before the Sharks were, he did not become a hockey fan until he started watching the Sharks on television randomly, and he started to appreciate the players' skill and toughness.

"I mean, you see NBA players go night in and night out, and you see baseball players play every night," Young said. "But hockey players ... You see all the effort they put in."

He got his parents into hockey, and they became Sharks season-ticket holders. They watched the Sharks make the playoffs year after year, advancing as far as the conference final in 2010 and 2011, only to fall short year after year.

"I think every group of friends have their running jokes: 'This is the year.' 'Trade 'em all.' 'There goes the Cup,'" Young said. "You keep coming back for more. … It's your team. You're loyal. I've watched this team, every single player in and out. We've gotten to the point where my friends and I are like, 'Let's look at the prospects. Who are we going to draft?' "

Young's friend Chris Roberts, 28, was wearing a Tomas Hertl sweater Wednesday. He was a Hertl fan before it was cool. He started following him when Hertl was still just a promising first-round pick playing in the Czech Republic, and he ordered the jersey during Hertl's first training camp in San Jose.

"I called them up, and they said, 'We don't have any of those. We'd have to custom-make it,'" Roberts said. "I said, 'That's fine.' So they custom-made it. Now everyone's got the Hertl jersey."

Two years ago, the Sharks blew a 3-0 series lead in the first round and lost to the Los Angeles Kings. Last year, they didn't make the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. The Sharks fired coach Todd McLellan and hired Peter DeBoer, and general manager Doug Wilson added goaltender Martin Jones, defenseman Paul Martin and forwards Joel Ward and Joonas Donskoi.

Video: Previewing the 2016 Stanley Cup Final

Fans reached the point where they wondered if the Sharks were ever going to do it. Young ordered his No. 91 "CUP B4 I DIE" sweater before this season.

"I think a lot of people were skeptical about dropping McLellan, picking DeBoer," Young said.

That's what has made this run so fun.

"The best part about this season is, there was no real expectation," Young said.

If the Sharks defeat the Penguins, Young will have to retire the jersey he just bought. But that's all right. He said he would order another one.

What would the new nameplate be?

"2 CUPS B4 I DIE."

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