Dena Acolatse admits that "Slap Shot" is one of her favorite films. That's basically the only connection her family ever had to hockey. Dena grew up in the Bay Area and worked in Silicon Valley, and her husband, Connel, came to California from Ghana to study and eventually work.
There wasn't any reason for them to believe their son, Sena, had a future in the sport. But a year after Sena was born, the San Jose Sharks arrived in Northern California.
Now 21 years old, Sena Acolatse is on the cusp of being the first Bay Area native to play for the Sharks.
"It's funny. One of my favorite movies of all time is 'Slap Shot' with Paul Newman. Great movie," Dena Acolatse told NHL.com. "That was always my impression of hockey: a bunch of people fighting in the stands and all the hitting and fighting. So it was kind of funny to end up a hockey mom."
Sena's first sporting exploits were in soccer, a favorite in his father's native country. But living in Fremont, Calif., a few blocks from the Iceoplex, it was only a matter of time before Sena ventured to the rink to learn to skate. Once he saw the Sharks play, Sena was hooked.
"That's what got me into hockey: watching the Sharks," Sena said.
It helped that the team was rounding into form at that time. It acquired Owen Nolan from the Colorado Avalanche to go along with young talents Jeff Friesen, Marco Sturm and Patrick Marleau. With coach Darryl Sutter leading the Sharks' first era of sustained success, Sena Acolatse was captivated.
"When he was in first grade, he first went to a Sharks game. You could just see his eyes wide as could be. He had never seen anything like that," Dena said of Sena. "The Sharks just ignited this passion in him. It's from that point he said, 'I want to do this.' It just took him over."
When the family relocated to Edmonton, 7-year-old Sena protested. But the move helped kick-start his life in hockey, setting the stage for what could someday be a historic return to the Bay Area.
"I remember putting up a huge fight about it, but I ended up loving Edmonton," Sena said. "I was still a Sharks fan for a bit, then I got converted to the Oilers. I'd try to tape my socks and sticks like Doug Weight. He was my favorite player."
Adopting the Oilers as a favorite team wasn't the only major change for Acolatse. In Fremont, Sena laced up the skates a couple of times a week; hockey in Edmonton was a daily affair. That fast track in Alberta eventually landed the defenseman with the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League. After a 31-point second season, Acolatse struggled in his final two campaigns and was ignored in the NHL Draft.
That's when the Sharks came calling.
"I guess everything happens for a reason. It worked out in the end," said Acolatse, whom the Sharks signed as a free agent in April 2011. "When I heard 'Sharks,' I was more than excited. I still watched them. I still followed them. When I heard they were interested in me, I didn't hesitate."
Acolatse quickly made his mark last season in his first full campaign with the Sharks' American Hockey League team in Worcester, ranking fifth among the league's rookie defensemen in goals (8). Now looking to improve his defensive game, Acolatse is poised to become the first player from the Bay Area to suit up for the San Jose Sharks (although, to be fair, Worcester teammate Matt Tennyson lived briefly in Northern California after being born and raised in Minnesota).
One of Acolatse's childhood heroes could have a hand in the prospect eventually playing for the Sharks: San Jose's development coach Mike Ricci works with the team's AHL prospects and was a longtime favorite of Acolatse's during his playing days.
"I was a little shocked when I first saw him. He had no teeth. He still has no teeth," Acolatse said. "He's so funny and good with the guys. It's kind of cool that one of my favorite guys is someone I can work with now."
If Sena Acolatse gets to play for San Jose, he could prove as influential to local players as Ricci was to him.