Sharks hockey

San Jose SharksGoing off on a bit of a tangent here – in celebration of last night’s glorious play-off defeat of the Calgary Flames by the San Jose Sharks, I thought I would resurrect this essay I wrote back in April 2002 when I was a Sharks season ticket-holder. Allow me to wallow in a little nostalgia …

“I have a recommendation for anyone suffering from stress, depression, frustration or similar – go to an ice hockey game. There’s nothing beats the therapeutic effects of three 20-minute periods of feisty, fast, ferocious competition as, to express it simply, two teams whack lumps out of a puck and each other until the one with the most goals wins.

puck dropI latched on to this therapy pretty early on in my hockey-fan career, perhaps from the very first game. I remember the things that impressed me most during that game – I actually understood the rules, fighting (amongst the players at least) was allowed, the jumbotron (the large video monitor) was good entertainment, and the fans were well-behaved (almost no profanities) despite beer being sold. Most of these are superficial reasons for enjoying the game, but perhaps the most significant reason that I went back to the next game, and the next, and the dozens after that, was because I started to care.

I am a fan of the San Jose Sharks, and proud of it. My favorite color is teal, and I can frequently be found at the Tank (aka the HP Pavilion) in downtown San Jose when the Sharks are playing at home. I am a season- ticket holder and I sit in section 201, row 16. From my seat, I have yelled until I’m hoarse, nearly passed out from excitement during the play-offs, laughed at the Kiss Cam, delivered standing ovations to player after player, gasped in awe at a magnificent goal, or an impossible save by Nabokov, punched the air to “Rock and Roll” played after every Sharks goal, hung my head in shame at an embarrassing turnaround or blowout defeat, and yelled at the diabolical officiating whenever the Sharks are at the receiving end of an even slightly dubious ruling. I have never once thought about work or any other worries during that time as, for about 3 hours, I can completely forget everything else in the world except the game at hand. I become absorbed, I am on the ice with the team, I feel their every victory and defeat, every skillful shot into the opponent’s net, and every unlucky point against them.

The attraction is easy. The game is undoubtedly the fastest, most physical, most exciting team sport in the world. The players are the toughest, playing up to 4 or 5 games a week from September through April (or June if you’re a cup contender!) despite injuries that would debilitate a lesser mortal. Hockey is not an American sport despite the fact that most of the NHL teams are in the US. Hockey is Canada, and Canada is hockey, as they say. The majority of NHL players are Canadian, the rest are from Europe (Finland, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Czech Republic feature prominently – alas not Scotland), as well as the US.

Scott ThorntonOur season ticket seats are high in the upper tier of the Tank. They are center-ice and afford us a good perspective of the game. We can see plays develop and we rarely lose track of the puck. Very occasionally, however, we treat ourselves to expensive seats near the ice. Our best seats ever nearly saw us taking shifts on the ice, being in the front row. That is an exceptional way of experiencing the game. There you can see the players’ expressions as they line up an opponent for a bone-shaking hit, you can feel the pain as a player is crushed into the boards, you can duck the puck – and it is then that you truly get a flavor of how fast, intense and brutal a sport it is. Of course, it does contain risks – it was our misfortune to witness 2 fans being hit by a puck (a slapshot from the Ottawa Senators) and requiring medical attention as a result. That’s something that will never happen in row 16 on the top level.

The first thing that a new fan must learn is etiquette. If you want to upset a veteran fan, stand up in the middle of play and negotiate your way out of your seat. Take as much time as you can to do this. Better still, stand in the middle of the aisle gaping at the game until someone yells at you, then spend as much time as possible trying to determine what they are yelling (whilst remaining standing, of course). If you can coincide this with a goal being scored, you will become even more popular. Other “faux pas” include: shouting “Shoot the puck!” repeatedly when, frankly, you don’t know what you’re talking about; or shouting at Mike Rathje to “Hit someone!” because … everyone else does; consuming garlic fries; wearing your best 49ers /Giants /Raiders gear, then guzzling 6 beers and yelling abuse at the Sharks; digging out pseudo-teal items of clothing or a Sharks sweatshirt circa 1991 in an attempt to pretend that you’re a “real” fan when this is the first game you’ve attended since 1991 (we know who you are); taking a “corporate hospitality” seat behind the glass while still dressed in your office wear (hence depriving a REAL fan); or running for the bus with 5 minutes to go when the game is tied 1-1.

The seasoned fan is easily discerned, of course. They can usually be found bedecked in an authentic team jersey (preferably autographed by the whole team) as they take up their season ticket seats. They tend to be slightly less excitable than “newbie” fans, being veterans of the game and evidently having seen it all. Although, as with all sports, some fans are loud and opinionated and it is an unavoidable fact of life that such an individual will inevitably sit directly behind you during many games, this is not always a bad experience. Often it can be informative, or amusing even. Of course, if you want to maximize your chances of experiencing some of the louder representatives of the Sharks fan club, get yourself a seat in section 209. Just don’t be alarmed if the team mascot, SJ Sharkie, body surfs over your head during the game.

The first step in your progression to serious fan-dom, is to learn the rules. There is nothing more shameful (in the eyes of seasoned fans at least) than having to have the rules explained to you during the game. The most important ones relate to those penalty-incurring moves such as hooking, roughing, cross-checking, interference, high-sticking, boarding, charging, elbowing … in other words, anything that involves an illegitimate physical assault on the opposing player. Legitimate assaults are OK. When a player has been found guilty of such an offense, they are immediately removed from the ice to go sit in the penalty box (and feel shame) for the appropriate duration. This depends on the severity of the incident, with 2 minutes being the minimum. That is where “special teams” come in – the group of players who specialize in the one-man advantage – the skilled and finesse players, the snipers. And this is where Sharks fans start waving their hands frantically in a move known as “the chomp” to the accompaniment of the “Jaws” theme tune. All of which is an overture to what should be a primo goal-scoring opportunity, but which more often than not fails to fulfill expectations. The worst-case scenario is when the other team scores a “shortie” (short-handed goal), to the vocal disdain of the crowd.

SJ SharkieThe serious fan does not take SJ Sharkie seriously. He is just a guy dressed in a shark suit and it’s only little kids that like him. My own suspicion is that everyone secretly loves Sharkie. What’s not to love? He’s cute, he’s personable, he’s a daredevil stuntman, he’s the only “person” in the Tank that’s allowed to silly-string opposing team’s fans, and he does his job of goading the opposing team’s players so well that the Sharks’ arch-nemesis, Theo Fleury, felt compelled to inflict a bit of GBH on him on the way to the dressing room (resulting in an alleged broken rib and letter of apology from the New York Rangers). Who can forget the time when, upon rappelling from the Tank’s rafters, the banner he was about to unfurl became tangled around his rope, resulting in his prolonged suspension some 50 feet above the ice and a 15 minute delay in the start of the game? Every little kid in the building held their breath as rescue attempts were planned and discussed amongst officials in the rafters. Judging by the players’ expressions, I personally think they would have been happy to get on with the game and leave him suspended there, or worse still, have the rope cut. It all ended happily when he was duly rescued by some manual hoisting and a death-defying grab from said rafter personnel.

SJ Sharkie and actual hockey are not the only sources of entertainment to be had at the Tank. There’s so much else, like t-shirt throws from the Tank Patrol, when you can witness dozens of fans virtually killing each other in order to gain possession of a cheapo Kragen Auto Parts t-shirt. Or there’s the music played during every pause in the action which ranges from heavy rock to country (serious hockey fans are into heavy rock). There’s the between-period entertainment. This can be quite good, as in the lawnmower races; or quite boring, as in the match up the VW Beetle pictures; or truly sad, as in the catapult a fan into the goal-net competition. Prizes range anywhere from $10,000 to 10 lbs of sausages. My personal favorites on the entertainment front include, the controversial jumbotron footage of Sharkie throwing the much despised Dallas goalie, Eddie Belfour, off of the roof of the Tank; over-the-shoulder close-ups of opposing team players in the penalty box revealing what they’re really up to in there (painting their nails, reading Boyzone magazines, cuddling their teddy); and the Kiss-Cam of course (especially when the camera, after capturing lots of cute couples in the crowd obligingly smooching, zooms in expectantly on 2 players on the opposing team’s bench).

It doesn’t take many visits to the Tank to grasp the special team rivalries. It is a well-known fact that there is absolutely no love lost between the Sharks and the Dallas Stars. I have surprised myself with the levels of simmering animosity of which I am capable at the mere mention of Derian Hatcher’s name, or at a flash of Mike Modano’s teeth. I’m certain that Eddie Belfour still wakes up in the middle of the night screaming at the sound of “Bel-four” being chanted in unison by the 17,500 fans in his head, accompanied by the vision of the moment when he finally lost it and hit Sharks captain, Owen Nolan, as a result. Some of the best fights arise from such rivalries. Whilst the NHL has tightened up on the rules relating to fighting over the years in order to better promote a more “family oriented” image (not unlike Las Vegas trying to portray itself
as Disney World), the fact remains that the fans (and even the non-fans) love a good fight. I think this phenomenon relates to some primal instinct involving a need for a bit of vicarious pummeling. But that doesn’t mean that they are bad people – they are the same fans who gasp in hushed silence when a player is evidently badly injured and who then applaud him as he is carried off the ice on a gurney – even if he is a Dallas Star. No-one really wants to see anyone hurt … at least not badly.

NabokovAs well as singling out least-favored teams, there are also the least-favored officials. Kerry Fraser springs to mind. If you ask the average (serious) fan, they will tell you that he never cuts the Sharks a break, that he’s blatantly biased, that he’s in the pocket of (insert team name here) etc etc. Or maybe they just don’t like his hair, which is always absolutely perfectly in place – let’s face it, that’s just wrong. Then there’s Mick McGeough (pronounced, ironically, “Magoo”), who always seems to be in a very bad mood – kind of like the school principal that no-one wants to cross. Theirs is a thankless job – being boo-ed by the crowd upon setting foot on the ice, meting out justice no matter what the fans’ /players’ /coaches’ reactions, being sandwiched between players, being hit by pucks, even being up-ended into the players’ bench. If it were me, I’m sure I would break down in tears, but they are made of sterner stuff than that.

San Jose SharksIt could be said that going to a Sharks game is like entering another world – a teal-colored world where everything makes sense (except the ref’s officiating perhaps) and the troubles outside can be left behind for a few hours. Players such as Ricci, Marchment, Thornton, Nolan and Selanne become our super-heroes, fighting evil (what other sport has a player named Satan and a team called the Devils?) with good, and looking cool with it. And never is this the case moreso than during playoff time. This is when fan fervour, fired by freebie teal pom-poms, reaches a crescendo, when team rivalries fester into an ugly head, when the Cup is so near you can taste it … at least until the Sharks get thrown out in the second round. The feeling of loss when this first happened took me aback. Visions of Nolan holding the Stanley Cup aloft quickly dissolving, I was left wondering what could possibly replace this gap in my life until September. The fact is that there’s nothing quite like the good old hockey game. I might not see the Sharks winning the Stanley Cup, but I know they can one day. And I know that I am a part of that quest, because … I started to care.”

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