There’s an unconfirmed theory around San Jose that Joe Thornton began growing a beard when the Sharks played their first game in 1991, and he refused to shave until the team won its first Stanley Cup. If true, the theory would explain a lot.
The Silicon Valley is a region populated by immigrants, some of whom were born elsewhere in the United States, many of whom were born abroad. Many are too young to remember a time when the San Jose Sharks didn’t exist or when agriculture, not silicon, was the backbone of the local economy. That’s why I like the Thornton Beard theory, tall as it is. It’s a useful illustration of how something magnificent can sprout up out of nowhere and blossom, like a tech industry from orchards, or an ice hockey tradition in Northern California.1
The immigrants and millennials and assorted newcomers to the Sharks bandwagon might not believe this, but there was a time when the San Jose area had something of an inferiority complex compared to San Francisco and Oakland, the region’s first safe harbors for major professional sports.
It’s funny what putting the words “SAN JOSE” on an NHL team’s apparel can do to your psyche. It connects you to the world at large in a way that your little dot on the map cannot. More specifically, it connected San Jose to a professional sports league occupied by tenants in Chicago and New York, Montreal and Toronto, great cities that had what San Jose could only aspire to in 1991. That feeling has had 25 years now to blossom and grow.
So when I reflect on what it means to see the Sharks play for their first Stanley Cup, I start with that feeling you get when you connect to something larger than yourself for the first time. That can mean something different to each of us, but the common starting point is always an aspiration. And boy, have those San Jose Sharks done a lot of aspiring over the years.
I don’t mind that Joe Pavelski never grabbed the Clarence Campbell Bowl after San Jose eliminated the St. Louis Blues. It’s a tradition. It’s a part of the world a good hockey team inhabits.
But if I were there, I would have grabbed the trophy and spoken a few words on Joe’s behalf: “This is for you, Bob Errey. For you, Pat Falloon. For Rathje and Odgers and Bodger and Baker…” I might not have stopped until I’d reached the Rob Zettler portion of the 1990s Sharks alphabet. Those lineups had a lot to aspire to.
The Sharks’ many near-misses in the 2000s under Darryl Sutter, Ron Wilson and Todd McLellan may have disenfranchised some fans. To me it was a fact of existence, a part of the package whether you owned season tickets or not. Playing for the Cup was always going to be someone else’s prize at the end of the season. It sucked, but it was all a Sharks fan knew.
This is new. This is different.
Taking a step back, watching the Sharks beat the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference final was bittersweet. The Blues have never won a championship, either. That they had a 24-year head start only makes it harder to imagine: A 49-year-old hockey fan in St. Louis has never seen the Stanley Cup come to town.
But if you were, say, 10 years old when the Sharks came into existence, the mere fact of getting an NHL team might be a treasured childhood memory. The Sharks’ combined .171 winning percentage in years one and two is the sort of inconvenient truth that time tends to wash over. (It’s the same reason why fans in Brooklyn and Montreal fondly wear Dodgers and Expos hats, respectively. Fond memories make it easier to forget how putrid attendance was in their teams’ final seasons.)
A vintage teal Sharks sweater represents a badge of honor, not an idealized historical fiction. That little piece of sports apparel isn’t a sad reminder of a crappy team. It serves as a reminder of something — a city and a team — that began with humble aspirations and blossomed into something bigger and better. That 10-year-old Sharks fan is in his mid-30s now — a peak Childhood Nostalgia Stage of life — but his team is winning more than ever. This Cup run puts 25 years of failure in perspective, at a time when longtime Sharks fans need to be able to dwell in a pleasant present rather than an unpleasant past.
The storyline is very different in Pittsburgh. Their city is special for different reasons, and so is the Penguins’ Cup run. Pittsburgh has celebrated Stanley Cup championships before, once with the Penguins’ present nucleus and once with a different group familiar to an older generation. I’m not from Pittsburgh, though, so I’ll let someone else parse what this moment means to them.
San Jose has moved past the excitement of being a noticeable dot on a map of the United States, a line-item on the NHL schedule. This is a new milestone, one the city has waited 25 years to achieve.
Honestly, it’s about time.
1. I’ve written before about the special relationship the California/Oakland (Golden) Seals hold in the Bay Area. Northern California had an NHL team before 1991, but this story is not about that team.