The sad news of the death of George Gund III, the original owner of the Sharks, brings forth a flood of incredible memories and a large share of gratitude on a multitude of levels.
Where do we begin? Without George Gund’s love and passion for the game of hockey, we wouldn’t be referring to San Jose as a hockey city, which it most definitely is. His excitement over the entrepreneurial challenge, his willingness to take a risk, and his overriding desire to make people happy were among the reasons why he jumped (with both skates) at the chance to make Sharks Hockey a reality.
When George Gund is involved, there is always a story, and that seems to be the case in every facet of his life, whether it involves Western art, independent film, ranching, philanthropy, or hockey. It is because of these stories that a smile inevitably appears on the faces of those who are speaking of him.
I’ll always remember the night of October 24, 1998, when the Sharks played the Dallas Stars at their old home, Reunion Arena. In the locker room after the game, I stopped to inform coach Darryl Sutter that I would not be on the team plane back to San Jose, due to the fact that I was going to catch a plane to New York the next morning to help my parents celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.
Overhearing the conversation, George immediately came over, his famous eyebrows flashing and his eyes twinkling. “I’m going to New York tonight,” he said. “Do you want to join me?”
Who could say no to an opportunity to join George on an adventure? Of course, I had heard that in a similar situation in Davos, Switzerland, he had invited one of his general managers, Jack Ferreira, to a meal after an international tournament game. They met in the lobby of the hotel a little earlier than seemed usual for a dinner, and wound up flying to Reykajvik, Iceland, because George loved the food at one of the restaurants there. Of course, without phoning ahead, the restaurant turned out to be closed, and so they went somewhere else, as the story goes.
In my case, back in 1998, we had no detours, but as it turned out, I got to spend an extra day with my parents and my four siblings in what would prove to be a momentous visit. Since one of my sisters has since died, it would be the last time that all five of us were together with my parents at the same time. I got that extra day because of George Gund.
George’s love of life and generosity extends all across the hockey world, and beyond. As a major patron of the USA Hockey program and a builder of the sport in California, he was presented with the Lester Patrick Award, one of hockey’s most prestigious recognitions. He’s in the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame. He put millions of dollars into helping upgrade the original design of HP Pavilion, making the building the proud showcase it is for Silicon Valley. There are so many more stories of how he built hockey that it is impossible to tell them all.
One of the great aspects of George Gund’s life lies in its diversity. Yes, he loved hockey and he loved the challenge of an entrepreneurial project, but he also loved the beauty of art and literature, from cowboy poetry to suppressed Eastern European filmmakers, who craved the atmosphere of a free society to showcase their work. Through his activity with the San Francisco Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, George helped provide that creative avenue for many such artists.
George was also big on history, and you could see that as he expressed his love for and understanding of a Frederic Remington painting or bronze, many of which are owned by his family’s collection of great art. Still, he truly enjoyed the discovery of new artists, and provided them an opportunity to succeed.
There was always a delightful unpredictability that could be expected when George was around, and it always made meetings with him memorable. One story concerns an NHL Board of Governors meeting in the 1970’s, when many members of the media were going to meet George and his brother Gordon for the first time.
As the story goes, the press knew that Gordon Gund was blind, due to retinitis pigmentosa, while the other brother, George, spoke very softly. When the brothers showed up for this meeting, one brother pushing the other in a wheelchair, someone remarked that it was nice that George was helping his brother navigate the area quickly by pushing the wheelchair.
Well, as it turned out, it was George who had thrown out his back in a hockey game who was in the wheelchair, and his brother Gordon was pushing it, with the help of George telling him which way to go!
But with the delightful unpredictability came a determined focus to make the world a better place, and to make people’s lives more fulfilling, and it didn’t matter whether it was a cattle rancher in Nevada, an A-list movie star, a hockey buddy from a rink in Sun Valley, Idaho, or the President of the United States. With his own brand of individuality displayed over many unique avenues, George Gund achieved that admirable success over his 75 years on this Earth.
The hockey world will truly miss him, and here in San Jose, we all know, love, and cherish his memory. Godspeed, George. I’ll miss seeing you on the road.