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Adult Leagues Thriving in San Jose

by Corey Masisak / San Jose Sharks

SAN JOSE -- Chuck Kosowicz grew up, like many people in Toronto, as a hockey player.

When Kosowicz, 55, came to Northern California 15 years ago for a job with Cisco Systems, he brought his hockey equipment with the hopes of finding a place to skate and a few people with similar interests.

What Kosowicz found is one of the largest organized hockey programs in North America.

"I was just hoping that I could find a place to play," Kosowicz said. "I was crossing my fingers that I could play. I found out there was hockey here and I could play and it was wonderful. I am very happy about that.

"I've probably played more hockey here than I ever had before."

The Sharks Ice Adult Hockey League (SIAHL) has more than 3,000 registered players and more than 170 teams. During the 2014-15 winter season, those teams compete in 19 divisions across 16 skill levels.

The league is based at Sharks Ice, a rink with four sheets that is also home to the Junior Sharks youth hockey program and where the San Jose Sharks typically practice.

San Jose has become one of the strongest hockey towns in the NHL, and the massive adult league has played an integral part.

The Sharks will play the Los Angeles Kings in the 2015 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game Sunday, Feb. 22, at Levi's Stadium in nearby Santa Clara, Calif. The event will be a celebration of the area's hockey community.

Kids who grow up playing hockey here can't wait to turn 18 and be able to participate in the Sharks Ice Adult Hockey League. Parents learn how to skate and play to keep up with their children. Sharks fans decide to try playing the game and develop a love for it.

It's all part of an incredible hockey ecosystem that sprouted from almost nothing not long after Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings and the Sharks arrived on the NHL scene.

"I'm at the rink with my boys, so I get to see everyone," Sharks forward Patrick Marleau said. "The ice sheets are always packed. There's a lot of adults. And during the day it is a lot of kids. It's nice to see.

"It is surprising to a lot of people, but it goes to show how the game has grown here. It is great to have this place for them to play at."

Robert Savoie was living in Quebec City when his wife, a scientist, was offered a job in the Bay Area in 1994. His reaction was similar to Kosowicz's a few years later.

"When we moved here, I told my wife, 'Should I bring my hockey gear to California?'" Savoie said.

The French-speaking Savoie relocated but spoke very little English. He did, however, know a member of the Sharks at the time, Gaetan Duchesne, who helped him get work at Sharks Ice, which had two sheets at the time.

Savoie became the director of hockey at Sharks Ice and has been integral in helping grow the league to a thriving metropolis for players of all ages, skills and sizes.

"We had 10 teams here, 10 adult teams. At the time we had another league as well using the building, so from there I just started coordinating the league," Savoie said. "I never really had any idea how big the league would get. It was right about the same time, a couple years after the Sharks started.

"Also, right about that time from about 1994 to 1998, we have a big amount of Canadians moving here because of the tech companies. That brought us a lot more hockey players too. Cisco had one team that was more than half Canadians.

"It just kept growing. It's not anything that we did too much to promote it. I think the Sharks being here is what has promoted it the most. It's been pretty steady growing. We have a big push every time we add a new rink. When we went to three and four rinks, there was a big spike for new teams and new players. We still need more ice."

Tyler Shaffar grew up at Sharks Ice, playing in the house youth league and then for the Junior Sharks. He played club hockey at the University of Oregon before returning to the area and getting a job at the rink.

Shaffar has worked at Sharks Ice for about 10 years and is the hockey manager. When he has time, he plays in the top division, Senior A. He's in charge of logistics for the league, which includes crafting a schedule and dealing with formal protests.

"The tough part is we're limited with our ice slots," Shaffar said. "Teams are starting to play at 7 p.m. and we're going to 11:30, 11:45 p.m. throughout the week. You're trying to balance that, making sure no teams have too many late games and making sure every team plays during the week. That's our biggest challenge. Well, there are three: [The schedule], ringers … ringers being high-level guys playing at the lower levels, and just players dealing with referees."

There are two seasons, one in the winter and one in the summer. A group of players can form a team or have one pieced together with free agents.

The levels work in a pyramid, from Senior A to Senior B and BB and so forth through Senior EEEEE, which is the lowest level for beginning players. Shaffar will put players in preseason games to help them find their appropriate level, but he said most of them have a pretty good idea where they fit.

"Some of it is historical, some of it is just trial and error," Shaffar said. "We have [16] different skill levels. Are there really [16] different skill levels? Probably not, but people kind of know where they belong. The difference between a EEE player and a D player might not be that great, and we kind of move players up as they get better."

Kyle Dutra, like Shaffar, grew up playing hockey at Sharks Ice. Dutra, 25, played club hockey at San Jose State and now plays on Shaffar's team, the Pager Flakes, in the Senior A division.

Dutra is the leading scorer in the top division, with 26 goals and 64 points in 15 games. The SIAHL has a website with standings and full team statistics. It updates in real time because every game has an official scorekeeper, and people can follow along when games are being played.

"I was always watching the league when I was a kid and it looked like a lot of fun," Dutra said. "It is really competitive. Right now there are only four teams [in the top division], but in the summer there are more. It is a lot of fun."

Senior A has four teams for the winter season but swells to six or seven during the summer. Though the number of players in the lower leagues is similar from winter to summer, there is an influx of talent at the top.

Locals who left the area to play in junior leagues or NCAA hockey are back in town and bring a new level of intensity.

"There are fights in the summer league. It is very serious," said Mattia Bortolotto, a 22-year-old member of Pager Flakes who works construction with his father but has played in the Western Hockey League, North American Hockey League and Alberta Junior Hockey League.

Others on the Pager Flakes have played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, ECHL, and British Columbia Hockey League. Two players, Mike Janda and Darrell Draper, played at Rochester Institute of Technology. The team that won the top division this summer included Max Vallis, a junior at Michigan Tech, and Dan Senbeil, a junior at Vermont.

A few members of the Sharks have dropped by to participate, either while in the NHL or shortly after they finished their careers. Kyle McLaren has played for the Pager Flakes in multiple seasons, including during the lockout that delayed the start of the 2012-13 NHL schedule.

Curtis Brown and Jamie Baker have played in the league. Dutra said goaltender Evgeni Nabokov suited up in the summer.

"The old guys like the winter league because it is a little slower, but the young guys like the summer because it gets really competitive," Shaffar said. "The key is to have the playoffs after [the college and junior kids] all leave so the older guys get to do their thing too. It gets a little more physical for sure."

Rose Fajardo, 25, played hockey as a child but stopped before the age when travel hockey becomes a thing. She plays in a women's league that has games in Fremont and Redwood City, Calif., and at Sharks Ice, for Los Tiburones, a team in the Senior EE division.

"We're only limited to like one game a week [in the women's league], so I kind of have to get my fix somewhere else," Fajardo said. "It is pretty fun. I like what Sharks Ice is doing, trying to help people who are just learning how to skate and kind of find their way through the league.

"It was definitely hard when I was a kid. There wasn't much hockey for girls. It's nice to see that it is starting to get bigger. Especially at this rink. They will do learn-to-play hockey sessions just for girls and that is nice."

Sharks Ice is the hub for all things hockey in San Jose. Along with the four sheets of ice, there is a large pro shop with gear and Sharks apparel. There is a place to grab food downstairs, and the requisite vending machines and arcade games. The best place to gather is upstairs at Stanley's, which overlooks three of the four ice sheets and has plenty of televisions to watch NHL games.

During the day, the place is filled with kids dreaming of being a hockey player or a figure skater, but at night Sharks Ice belongs to the adult league. There is a steady stream of traffic in and out of the building.

The rink is nestled between Spartan Stadium, where San Jose State plays football, and San Jose Municipal Stadium, where the San Jose Giants play minor league baseball in the California League.

Players carrying their equipment are coming and going, some stopping to watch a game and others focused on their own contest to come.

The San Jose Mercury News published a feature in 2013 on Tony "Pops" Sanchez, who was 80 at the time and the oldest player in SIAHL. Sanchez plays for Ice Monkeys, a team in the Senior EE division.

This is Silicon Valley, and the country's major tech corporations have played a role in populating and expanding the SIAHL.

"We've definitely had some big names play in in the league," Shaffar said. "[Scott] McNealy [former CEO of Sun Microsystems], [John] Chambers [CEO] from Cisco. At one point we were going to create a corporate league. Cisco had four or five teams at one point. Now eBay has a team, LinkedIn has a team. You can't quite match their skill levels though. The funny thing is, when they're out on the ice, you'd never know the guy next to you is running a billion dollar company. He's just a guy trying to win a puck battle."

Christopher Romeo, 19, plays for Sasquatch, a Senior CC team, with his older brother Nicolas. Romeo's father is the captain of a Senior EE team. Christopher turned 18 years old and made his SIAHL debut the next day. Most of the players on their team played with one of the Romeos at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose.

"It is amazing," Romeo said. "A lot of it has to do with the Sharks and the popularity of the Sharks. A lot of the guys start off playing roller hockey and then they transition over to ice. I'd say four or five of the guys I've known for a while because I played with them in high school.

"Last year, me and my older brother put together a team that was nothing but guys who played at our high school, and even had our high school coach."

Kevin Bertron, 27, is a bartender by day but a hockey goalie by night and that often makes him in demand. Though teams in the league have flexibility with their rosters, the most important thing is making sure someone with the big equipment bag full of goalie gear shows up when it's time to play.

Bertron plays for the Jets in Senior CC, but he estimates he's suited up for six teams in the past two seasons.

"My dad had season tickets for like the first four years of the Sharks," Bertron said. "I was really young at the time. At that time, it was a little too expensive to play in this area. There was only one rink in the area. It wasn't that big yet. I couldn't really play back then, but I always loved the Sharks and I would go to 10 games, 12 games a year and just always had that passion.

"I played at noon today and have another game 11:15 p.m. tonight. The people at Sharks Ice take really good care of the local police and firemen. They have their own games and I play with them a few times a week."

Shamil Patel, 27, had never skated when he decided he wanted to play hockey. That was two years ago. Now, not only does Patel play for the Chieftains 3, a Senior EEEEE team, but he works as a referee.

If the goaltenders of the SIAHL aren't the most in-demand participants, then certainly the officials are. Every game needs two officials and one scorekeeper.

Shaffar said about 150 referees work youth and adult games at Sharks Ice. They are contracted through Ice Hockey Officials of Northern California.

"I just threw myself into hockey classes," Patel said. "I never did the skating class thing, but every week I'd be at the rink for public sessions, 3-4 times a week practicing my skating. It's addicting once you get into it. It consumes you. It takes time."

The players generally come from one of three backgrounds: Someone who played locally as a kid; someone who played elsewhere and is a transplant to the area; or someone, like Patel, who started playing as an adult.

There are more people like that in the Bay Area than someone from outside this place might think. Another in that group is Mark Hartley, 49, who grew up in Long Beach but moved to the Bay Area and went to his first Sharks game in 1995.

Hartley quickly became a Sharks fan at the age of 35 and decided it was time to start playing.

"The intensity in the building [at the arena now called SAP Center] was just amazing," said Hartley, who has two sons who play in the league. "I really wanted to play then, so I started out in roller hockey and did that for a few years. Once I started playing ice [hockey] I just never looked back. I played goalie. I'm not very good. I started really late. I play in the lower leagues and I just really have a blast."

Hartley and his oldest son also officiate games, and he works as a scorekeeper. He estimates he's at one of the local rinks 3-5 times per week.

"Five years ago I started officiating games and had to put [on] regular ice skates for the first time," Hartley said. "It was quite the transition. I'm doing a little bit better. I probably am almost to the point where I enjoy officiating close to as much as I do playing, but that's because I don't win a lot."

As Shaffar mentioned, players in the league take games seriously. It falls on the officials to keep the peace.

"It takes a certain type of person to be able to just stand there and take the abuse," Patel said. "I do about an average of four games a week. I had a game this morning I refereed in Dublin, [Calif.], then I am doing three games this afternoon and then I have a game to play tonight."

Nick Rossetta, 23, wanted to be a hockey player growing up, but last season, when the Sharks were in the process of losing in the first round of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Kings, he was focused on something else: Rossetta was a relief pitcher for the Long Beach State Dirtbags, one of the top college baseball programs in the country.

He pitched 36 innings as a senior, including nine in relief against the University of San Diego, but now Rossetta is back playing the sport that was his first love.

"I started out in roller hockey when I was 6 or 7. Played hockey until I was 13 and got into travel baseball. This is my first season back in hockey," Rossetta said. "Once you were playing growing up, it just becomes part of what you do. I grew up loving the Sharks and loving hockey but I just played baseball. Now that I'm done with baseball, I'm back and I will keep playing [hockey]."

Rossetta plays on a team called OHC (short for Old-time Hockey Club) 2 in the Senior DDDD division. His father, Dan, plays on the team. Dan Rossetta started playing when his son told him at a young age he wanted to be a hockey player.

On this Sunday morning in January, OHC 2 has an 11 a.m. game, but it's being played at SAP Center, not Sharks Ice. The younger Rossetta had an assist on their goal in a 3-1 loss.

"This was my first time [playing at SAP Center] and I really liked it," Rossetta said. "You sit up there and imagine what it would be like to be one of the pros. You always kind of dream about that. It was cool to skate on their ice, see what life is like."

There are games throughout the SIAHL calendar played at SAP Center. The Sharks lost to the New York Rangers on Saturday, Jan. 10, and the following day the NHL arena was filled with adult hockey league players.

Abdullah Mourad, 30, plays for Benders, the team that defeated Rossetta's. Mourad is a software engineer who played roller hockey as a kid and started as an ice hockey player five years ago.

"It is so awesome [playing at SAP Center]. It's really cool," Mourad said. "The step to get onto the ice is way bigger than you expect. The benches are way higher than you expect. Sitting at the benches takes a little bit of getting used to. But I come to games here all the time, so to get to play on the ice is amazing. Especially like last night, you're watching the Sharks play here and then 13 hours later you're out on the ice and skating."

For the people who organize the league, being able to stage games at SAP Center is more than a perk.

"It is a two-way street," Shaffar said. "On one hand, it is a treat for the players to get play there, but on the other hand we are also beyond capacity and need to use it. It works out as kind of being our fifth rink. They love it and take it seriously."

Southern California staged an outdoor hockey game last season, when the Kings played the Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium, and it was a smashing success. Now NoCal gets its chance to be the center of the NHL universe.

The Kings and Ducks have won the Stanley Cup. Though the Sharks have not, they've been a successful, consistent franchise, and the fan base in the area has multiplied.

"There was no way I could even imagine an outdoor game in California when I moved here," Savoie said. "I think it is great to have one here. People here are so passionate about the game, and this gives them something to be proud of. It is a big show. There is a nice new stadium. It should be a lot of fun."

Dutra said, "There are a lot of people that like hockey around here. I started playing about 20 years ago and it has grown tremendously since then. It has been really fun to see. You walk down the street now and see all kinds of different Sharks jerseys. It is really cool.

"No one thinks of San Jose or Northern California as a great hockey place, but you'd be surprised. Everyone here has Sharks gear and everyone loves the Sharks."

Well, everyone except Dutra, maybe. He's just finished playing a league game and is on his way to the parking lot wearing a Philadelphia Flyers shirt.

"Yeah, I am a Flyers fan," he said. "But it makes it fun when the Flyers come to town."

The SIAHL continues to grow and help feed the area's hockey ecosystem. The biggest challenge for organizers, like in other parts of the United States where a hockey hotbed is emerging, is to find enough ice time for everyone.

More rinks in the area could be on the horizon, but for now players, coaches and referees continue to file in and out of Sharks Ice in San Jose and at Fremont rink.

"The success of the Sharks has been a big part of it," Shaffar said. "When you have fans who are also playing the game, or people like me who grew up here and have played partly because of them since I was a kid, it gets ingrained in my culture.

"If I have kids, I'll probably put them in hockey too."


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