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Sharks Alumni guide Jr. Sharks to Championship

by Missy Zielinski / sjsharks.com

Earlier this month, the San Jose Jr. Sharks Squirt 2007-1 team captured the Silver Stick Championship in Pelham, Ontario, Canada after a 2-0 shutout in the championship game versus the Lincoln Jr. Stars.

It was the first time in 10 years that the Jr. Sharks clinched a title for San Jose at the international tournament and it came with a group of former NHL players, and Sharks alumni, at the helm.

With 2,633 games of combined NHL experience, Curtis Brown, Evgeni Nabokov and Owen Nolan, all decided to return to the game in different roles. But after years of playing in a variety of cities across the United States and Canada, the coaches may have not had the opportunity to celebrate their team's Silver Stick success if it had not been for their ties with their former NHL team.

"If the Sharks didn't exist, Owen, [Nabokov] and I wouldn't have been here," Brown said. "It's so cool that on this one team, Owen, Nabby and myself get to give back to the game of hockey through these kids and it's all because of the Sharks."

Brown's career included stints with the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks and the Sharks before playing with Kloten and Biel in Switzerland where he got his first taste of being a bench boss. 

It was there that Brown's sons Gage, Garrett and his "little whipper snapper" Griffin had the unique experience of beginning hockey careers of their own overseas.

"While I was playing in Switzerland, I had the opportunity to get on the ice and do a little coaching," he said. "That's where the coaching bug began for me."

When Brown retired, an opportunity emerged for him to return to the Bay Area. It was also a way for him to continue his coaching career, which had barely begun to blossom.

"I figured an opportunity to give back to youth hockey, an opportunity to get on the ice with my kids and an opportunity to be part of the Sharks were all positives," Brown said. "So I took a leap of faith."

Now that decision has left him as an integral part of the Jr. Sharks youth hockey program in San Jose and the reason that Nabokov and Nolan found themselves as part of his coaching staff.

Nolan, who played in the Silver Stick Tournament as a child, began coaching "years before" his first season as a Jr. Sharks coach with his son's house leagues.

"I saw some things I knew I could help the kids with," Nolan said. "[I wanted to help them] get better faster and help them focus on doing drills correctly, so the mistakes don't continue."

As for Nabokov, he was praised for his mentorship of the Tampa Bay Lightning's goaltending staff, which included 2012 first round draft pick and fellow Russian netminder, Andrei Vasilevskiy, during his final year in the league.

"We all have the same goal," Nolan said. "We would love to see every kid make it to the NHL, but we realistically that's not going to happen. If we can help get them a [hockey] scholarship to a university or college that's a realistic goal for us."

For this trio, the transition from player to coach has translated quite well and they have been able to instill their knowledge of the game with their young team, who is at a critical stage of their development.

"The benefit of being a coach who has been in the league is that you've been in a lot of different situations," Nolan said. "It's how you react to them. You have to teach them how to handle their emotions and how to play right."

"Kids are like sponges," Brown added. "They pick things up so quickly."

It's also something they get to share with their children too, as Brown, Nabokov and Nolan all have a son on the 10U team.

"With boys all the same age, it was neat that we all landed in Northern California to enjoy this journey together," Brown said.

"It's really fun playing for my dad," Jr. Sharks player and Brown's son Griffin Brown said. "Every drill they push you until you fall on the ground, so you get really good."

And despite their reputation, these youngsters are not star struck by their teachers on the ice, but they are educated on each of their careers.

"The Sharks are everything in this city, so the kids follow it pretty closely," Nolan said. "Whether you're a retired player or a current player, they know pretty much everything."

Including some of Nolan's most iconic goals in Sharks history.

"[I knew about] his slapshot from the red line and how he scored from there," Jr. Sharks player Tanner Fast said. "And his All-Star goal when he pointed out the place where he wanted to shoot the puck and then scored from there."

After winning one of the largest tournaments in Canada, the Jr. Sharks continues to build a reputation for itself in the Bay Area. And the Sharks alumni that are joining the youth hockey ranks are as an important part of this program as they are to the hockey culture in the area.

"It's undeniable that the Sharks have had the biggest impact in the growth of hockey in Northern California," Brown said. "It's great to have NHL alumni giving back to youth hockey. Some San Jose alumni that have been known to give back include Mike Rathje, Scott Hannan, Mark Smith, Dave Maley Tom Pederson, Kyle McLaren, Jamie Baker and Rob Zettler. It has just had a residual impact in the Bay Area."

With the first generations of players staying in San Jose and giving back to the game, youth hockey's presence in the area continues to grow. And in no time at all, the Sharks could find multiple former Jr. Sharks suiting up in their NHL lineup.

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