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Sharks' popularity taking off in Northern California

by Roger Phillips /
SAN JOSE -- Thirty-four years ago, the California Golden Seals skated off to Cleveland and then into oblivion, and everyone from Oakland to San Jose to San Francisco yawned, aside from what few hockey diehards existed in the region.

With that as a backdrop, it's hard to imagine how much things have changed 10 years into the new millennium.

Saturday morning, the San Jose Sharks opened training camp at Sharks Ice -- a rink with four surfaces, more than any other ice skating facility in the United States west of the Mississippi.

The huge parking lot was packed on a picture-perfect Northern California day when there were so many other things fans could have been doing. Instead, those fans packed the stands inside the building, while in the parking lot they snapped photographs and snagged autographs whenever players headed to their cars.

In his office, San Jose General Manager Doug Wilson uttered words unimaginable back in the bygone days of the Seals.

"This is a great hockey town," Wilson said. "This is a great hockey market."

It's hard to argue with him, and the performance on the ice has had a great deal to do with hockey's growth in Northern California.

The Sharks, who reached the Western Conference Finals last season before being swept by the eventual-champion Blackhawks, have been a playoff team 10 of the last 11 seasons and have recorded 104 or more points in five of the last six.

About the only thing they have not done is reach the Stanley Cup Final and bring the coveted chalice home. The Sharks are hoping that will finally happen this season.

The success of the team in the standings, the endless attractions of living in Northern California and the reputation the organization has gained for developing talent and treating its players well have made the franchise one that veterans from elsewhere want to come be a part of.

"(Two years ago) I had a chance to go where I wanted, and this was at the top of the list," said veteran defenseman Dan Boyle, citing the organization and Northern California lifestyle, "not to mention a pretty good hockey team."

Wilson added, "Players want to be in a place where it's exciting and there's a full building. They want a chance to win and to be treated well. We couldn't do what we do if players didn't want to be here."

About the full building: Since entering the NHL in 1991-92, the Sharks have played to less than 96-percent capacity only once and haven't been below 99.5-percent capacity since the year after the work stoppage.

Next month, at least 80 Sharks fans will make the trek from Northern California to Stockholm, Sweden, to watch their team open the season with two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Those fans are paying roughly $5,000 apiece for the package the Sharks offered.

But the endless full houses and traveling fans are only the most obvious manifestation of San Jose's love affair.

Those four sheets of ice at the training practice facility are also full almost all the time -- with hockey players, figure skaters and recreational skaters.

"If they built a fifth rink, we could fill it," said Director of Media Relations Scott Emmert, who has been with the organization for 11 years.

As it is, the facility boasts more registered adult-league hockey players than any other rink in the country, and the Junior Sharks program is starting to produce NHL talent. Center Casey Wellman of the Minnesota Wild is one example of a Junior Sharks graduate reaching the big-time.

The Sharks have reached out to the entire region, operating additional rinks up the road in Oakland and Fremont. And they've established an affiliation 75 miles away with the Stockton Thunder, who regularly lead the ECHL in attendance.

"Players want to be in a place where it's exciting and there's a full building. They want a chance to win and to be treated well. We couldn't do what we do if players didn't want to be here."
-- Sharks GM Doug Wilson

"People try to quantify (the Sharks' popularity) with attendance," Emmert said. "We've always been blessed with a very strong fan base. That's been pretty consistent over time. But the biggest thing is the growth of the game in the area. A lot of people here take a lot of pride in how much the game has grown here."

Coach Todd McLellan has noticed exactly that since arriving in San Jose two years ago after serving as a Red Wings assistant in Detroit.

Asked to compare Hockeytown with Silicon Valley, McLellan said, "The passion for the Red Wings is real strong. But I see a lot of that here. It's just outside our Shark world that people don't know that really exists. But when you're in the community and you're out for dinner and you're walking around, (there's a) pretty passionate, pretty knowledgeable following here in the Bay Area.

"You can't run away from it here. When you go out for dinner, when you walk around, when you're in the rink, when you're at a school, when you're in the mall, people know who you are and they know the effort that you gave them the night before. And they're not afraid to talk about it.

"Outside perception is, 'Hey, head to California. You can go surf and play hockey at the same time.' That's not how it is."

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