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SAP Center: Looking Back

Over the Past 25 Years, SAP Center Calls Itself Home to a Variety of Memorable Events

by Mark Purdy /

Bruce Tharaldson has seen it all. Right from the beginning. He has been in the SAP Center driver's seat since the building opened in 1993, as the man who operates the Zamboni for Sharks' games.

That's a lot of resurfaced ice. That's a lot of Zamboni miles.

But the real payoff has come when Tharaldson parks his machine behind Section 121. He walks out to the large tunnel behind the east goal. He stands there behind the glass. He watches the action. He may have the best view in the house.

Nothing he witnessed over all those years, however, can or could match the climactic events of April 23, 2019, in a now-mythic Game 7 of a first-round playoff series.

First, the Sharks erased a 3-0 deficit against the Vegas Golden Knights by scoring four straight goals. Then, after Vegas tied the score at 4-4, the Sharks' Barclay Goodrow scored the winning overtime goal directly in front of Tharaldson.

Decibels detonated. The roof rattled. Tharaldson could barely hear himself wonder if this was the best SAP moment ever.

"When the score was 3-0 with 15 minutes left in the third period," he said, "I turned to someone in the tunnel and said: 'Well, all we need is to score one goal every five minutes.' I didn't expect four goals in five minutes. The noise was . . . well, it was kind of like the old days. Maybe my hearing is going bad. I'm getting older. But I hadn't heard the building that loud for a five-minute or six-minute stretch since those first playoff games of ours."

Big noise in 1993. Big noise in 2019. A complete circle of cacophony. A continuum of din.

And now, we await what will be a memorable finish line for the 25th anniversary season of SAP Center.

The anniversary commemoration began in September with a gala dinner and Opening Night game against rival Anaheim. It will conclude with the most meaningful hockey games a team can play in the springtime. The Sharks, after defeating Colorado in the second round of the NHL playoffs, advanced to the fifth conference championship series in their history, putting them in position to reach their second Stanley Cup Final.

What more perfect silver anniversary gift could a building want?

Of course, the 2018-2019 arena season has also featured the other elements that have made the structure such a Bay Area event magnet for the past two and a half decades.

For instance, the SAP 25th anniversary season included the NHL All-Star Game. It included six NCAA Basketball Tournament early round games. It included the nationally-broadcast media day for the College Football Playoff National Championship game between Alabama and Clemson that was played at nearby Levi's Stadium.

Thus, you could say that the arena hosted significant attractions in three of America's four major sports -- or all four, if you include the cameo appearances of three Major League Baseball players who participated in the traditional dressing-room-door-opening sequence for Sharks' playoff games: Brandon Belt of the San Francisco Giants and Mark Canha and Liam Hendricks of the Oakland A's.

In the non-hockey sports category? There were multiple Mixed Martial Arts shows staged by Bellator, the promotional company headed up by San Jose native Scott Coker. You can also toss in the Stars On Ice figure skating extravaganza. If you stretch the parameters back a few months, you could include tennis star Roger Federer's charity exhibition. And depending on whether you consider pro wrestling to be sport or sideshow, the WWE also made its regular visits.

The music calendar of the past eight months was also full. Fleetwood Mac, Childish Gambino and Pink took the stage on Santa Clara Street. There was also the Elton John concert in January, part of his "Farewell Yellow Brick Road" tour.

From behind his piano, the rock star reminisced about his previous San Jose concerts going back to the building's early years-specifically mentioning a young man with a medical issue he'd befriended before one local show--and thanked the South Bay audience for always "buying the tickets" and applauding in all the right places.

But who are we kidding? Hockey is the motor that has kept SAP's engine roaring. And the 2018-19 Sharks provided loads of roar-worthy regular season highlights, especially as veteran center Joe Thornton kept racking up milestone after milestone. So many that he nearly ran out of racks.

Every night, it seemed, the SAP overhead scoreboard was pushing "pause" to inform the crowd about yet another Jumbo entry in the record book. Against Nashville on Nov. 13, Thornton became only the seventh player in NHL history to play 1,500 games, accumulate 1,000 assists and score 400 goals. Later, he would pass Steve Yzerman to reach eighth on the league's all-time assist list and surmount Stan Mikita to stand 14th on the all-time NHL points list.

Yet the warmest crowd salute at SAP welled up on Jan. 15. On that night, Thornton played his 1,000th game as a Shark and scored a goal to ignite a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Afterward, Pittsburgh goalie Matt Murray complimented Thornton but also noted: "That's a pretty good team over there."

As Batman once said: Well analyzed, Penguin.

The Sharks won 16 of 19 games during a hot stretch from early January to mid-February. A late-season raft of injuries hampered the quest to win the Pacific Division, although the team's 101 points were second best in the Western Conference. Then came the stunning first-round comeback against Vegas.

That electric Game 7 victory over the Golden Knights set up the Sharks' second-round matchup with Colorado -- the building's 40th all-time playoff series. That's more than any other current NHL arena has seen over the past 25 years. In a league with more parity than ever, the achievement is especially impressive.

The formula for Shark playoff success, as always, contained large doses of that big noise and oppressive SAP crowd teal-osity that former Colorado forward Stephane Yelle once said made him feel "as if the place was closing in on me."

Shark coach Pete DeBoer agreed that SAP was again living up to its own special postseason reputation.

"It's a huge advantage," DeBoer said. "Especially in a long playoff run where you're tired, fatigued and injured."

In other words, even after 25 years, The Tank hasn't lost its spank. Matt Nieto, who spent parts of four seasons with the Sharks before leaving for the Avalanche himself, said during the second round series that one thing he loved most about SAP was skating out through the giant Shark head before every game.

"I think it's the most iconic entrance in hockey," Nieto said.

That entrance, which also began back in 1993, served as more than a trademark introduction for the beloved Los Tiburones. It also introduced the South Bay to what has become the South Bay's unofficial congregation jamboree and campfire meeting place.

When the City of San Jose's arena project first took shape in the late 1980's, the vision of those who championed it was of a focal point for a mongrel urban/suburban community that didn't really have one.

That vision - espoused by then-mayor Tom McEnery and a grassroots support group called Fund Arena Now - was not just to bring a major professional franchise to town. It was to create a significant place where the area's diverse citizens could have more face-to-face interaction while appreciating whatever was happening on the arena floor below, be it a hockey team or a hot Spanish language entertainer or Hulk Hogan.

Thanks primarily to those 73,409 San Jose voters who checked "yes" on the 1988 ballot measure that approved redevelopment money to finance the arena, the vision came true. And it endures. On event nights, before the shows or during Shark game intermissions, the arena concourse is a strolling town square. Families and friends write memorable chapters of their lives around playoff games or U2 concerts.

"It was very successful right from the get-go in 1993," said the arena management team's executive vice-president, Jim Goddard, who has also been around since Day One. "There's no question in my mind that the event/attendance schedule has exceeded my expectations.

Arena architect Charles Sink's work has indeed held up well. So has the building itself, which has been kept clean and functional. So has Tharaldson, who has distinctively curly hair and is frequently recognized around the South Bay as "that Sharks Zamboni guy."

To be sure, it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing over the past quarter century. There was the escaped Russian circus bear (he was rescued with no casualties) and the SJ Sharkie rappelling stunt that went awry and left the team mascot hanging halfway between the rafters and the ice (he was also rescued with no casualties). But all of that just adds to the building's lore.

As does this story: Tharaldson recalls when a Sharks team photo was once scheduled for the morning of a home game. He drove the Zamboni out to center ice to be used as a background prop. SJ Sharkie, doing one of those wacky SJ Sharkie thing, inadvertently pulled a lever that melted a huge and deep hole in the ice. Over the next five hours, Tharaldson and his crew somehow managed to patch up and repair the hole barely in time for that night's faceoff.

"We created a miracle," Tharaldson said.

From the building's inception right through however this 25th anniversary commemoration ends - maybe a long-awaited Stanley Cup? -- you might say the exact same thing about SAP Center.

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