Since the San Jose Sharks made their National Hockey League debut in 1991, the number of registered USA Hockey players in the Pacific region has increased by more than 240 percent. In fact, more than 20,000 registered players now play in California at various levels, running the gamut from young to old, rookie to veteran, casual to competitive.
Where has that growth come from? In the Bay Area, a majority can be attributed to the San Jose Jr. Sharks and their home rink, Sharks Ice at San Jose.
The Jr. Sharks youth hockey organization’s mission is to provide a fun atmosphere that fosters a lasting love for the game. The organization currently has 20 traveling club teams that serve boys and girls, ages 8 to 18, along with numerous in-house teams that compete in tournaments and games.
Led by Curtis Brown, who played 13 NHL seasons, including two-plus seasons in San Jose, the Jr. Sharks coaching staff is dedicated to teaching essential life lessons of discipline, teamwork and accountability.
Balancing family, school and hockey can be a difficult task, but the coaching staff takes great pride in developing outstanding citizens as well as hockey players.
“Regardless of how competitive a kid or a parent approaches hockey, it has to be fun,” Brown said. “That’s always No. 1. We’re developing players to their highest potential and giving them lessons they can take with them.”
The program also has a keen eye for talent and giving players an opportunity to grow. Along with developing an impressive list of alumni who have played in the Canadian and United States junior hockey system, the NCAA and professional leagues around the world, the Jr. Sharks program is now seeing its efforts showcased by players advancing to the NHL. At least eight players have come through the Jr. Sharks program or Sharks Ice and now play within an NHL organizations system.
Developing high-end NHL level players has been an important part of the program’s explosive growth. But that growth also has a lot to do with the increasing number of people falling in love with the game of hockey. Brown credits good depth as an instrumental factor in how strong the program has become.
“The strength of hockey isn’t at the top, it’s at the bottom,” Brown said. “These are the people that are giving hockey a try, just getting into the sport. This has led to more people coming to our classes at Sharks Ice, joining our various leagues and, in turn, trying out for the Jr. Sharks and pushing everyone in the program forward.”
Along with Brown, numerous other NHL players and coaches are involved at some level with the program. Joining the Jr. Sharks coaching staff this season is former Sharks defenseman Kyle McLaren, who played on San Jose’s first Western Conference Final team in 2004. Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson and Head Coach Todd McLellan have children who have been or are involved in the program. Other Sharks alums such as current Development Coach Mike Ricci, Owen Nolan and David Maley have their own kids enrolled in the program or assist when available.
Parents of players and others also play a huge role in the Jr. Sharks success. From helping run tournaments to reinforcing lessons taught at the rink, parents and volunteers are considered a crucial aspect of the organization’s daily operations.
Surrounding players with these core values and excellent hockey minds has paid big dividends. Each year, the organization has more tryouts, greater retention of players and more families coming to the rink. The result? A growing hockey culture in the Bay Area.
“We’re starting to see hockey families, not just a single person coming to the rink,” Jr. Sharks Hockey Manager Tyler Shaffar said. “The guy who watched Sharks hockey in the mid-90s as a teenager, now he’s bringing his kids to the rink to play, his wife to play. It’s more ingrained in the culture now rather than a novelty.”
Along with serving as the headquarters of the Jr. Sharks and being the official practice facility of the San Jose Sharks, Sharks Ice has four NHL-sized rinks that accommodate ice hockey, figure skating, broomball, curling, speed skating, ice dancing and public skating. Starting at 5 a.m., more than 400 employees keep the facility open to the public for 20 hours per day, growing the game and providing a world-class experience for customers.
Their dedication has paid off.
Of all USA Hockey registered players in California, 28 percent skate at Sharks Ice. The adult hockey program is the largest in the United States, boasting 4,500 participants, which is roughly 1,000 more members than the second-leading facility. And the largest recreational ice facility west of the Mississippi is open 364 days a year, serving more than 1.5 million customers annually.
Most importantly, the facility generates millions of dollars towards the San Jose and Bay Area economies through the numerous large-scale hockey and skating tournaments held at Sharks Ice, delivering upward of 7,000 room-nights each year to Bay Area hotels. That business overflows to local restaurants and retail shops.
This type of growth is exciting, but does present a unique set of challenges when trying to find ice time for more and more players each year.
"We've grown exponentially over the past five years," Sharks Ice General Manager Jon Gustafson said. "We're at a point right now where we can't take any more teams due to the simple fact that we just don't have the ice time. That's our biggest challenge right now."
The true strength of a sustainable hockey community lies in the steady increase of new players each season. Opportunities for expansion of the facility are always possible as long as demand is there. More families coming to the rink means demand is only expected to grow.
“Scouts, coaches and managers don’t consider California non-traditional anymore,” Shaffar said. “That’s been a big change over the last five years.”
The opportunity for younger players to develop in the Bay Area is growing alongside the rise of the sport in the area and throughout California.
The success of Sharks Ice and the Jr. Sharks speaks volumes about the thirst for hockey in a the Bay Area. It also provides a blueprint for other communities across the United States when developing their own programs and unique hockey culture.