A tanned smooth-talker reflecting on leadership in a glorified catering hall was pretty much business as usual on a recent aseasonal morning in downtown San Jose. With his practiced delivery, engaging gravitas, and yen for phrases like “experiential learning” and “leadership group,” San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson projected the air of a keynote speaker at a buzzy tech conference. (He even had the right audience: a rapt, if oddball, assortment of followers.) But as he perched on a platform inside a club-level dining room of the SAP Center, trying to put a positive spin on one of the most dispiriting periods in franchise history, it was hard not to compare Wilson to a different Bay Area type — the company founder trying to persuade skeptical investors not to give up just yet.
Five months earlier, in this building, the Sharks had routed their rivals, the Los Angeles Kings, 7-2 in Game 2 of the first round of the playoffs to take a 2-0 series lead. (So thorough was the victory that the usually cheeky L.A. Kings Twitter account was reduced to remarking: “Touchdown for the Sharks.”) Fans skipped out of the arena tittering about stretch passes and the Stanley Cup and this time being different. Historians may well look back on that night as the precise end of an era, Peak Sharks, the moment the butterfly flapped its wings and the trigger was pulled and the whole bubble burst. Knowing what I know now, it’s hard for me to even click on my own recap.
The Sharks’ next home appearance was a dithering Game 5 in which they were shut out 3-0. A few days later, San Jose returned for Game 7, lost 5-1, and squandered a series they had once led three games to zip. (Cocky Kings fans began referring to the comeback win as a “reverse sweep.”) I don’t make it a habit to believe in ghosts, but the SAP Center still feels miserably haunted: There is a chill in the air that can’t be wholly explained by the temperature differential between the rink and the bright, sunny outdoors.
Depending on how specific you or your PR department want to get with your definitions, this was either the first preseason Fan Fest the Sharks have ever held or it was the first one in a good 15 years.1 Either way, it was clearly an attempt by the organization to soothe some bruised souls following an offseason whose most memorable move was a removal: the stripping of the captain’s “C” and alternate captain’s “A” from the jerseys of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
The attempt to placate fans went only so far. The “roundtable” with Wilson and head scout Tim Burke took place at 9:30 a.m., suspiciously concurrent with a popular open-to-the-public Sharks practice, and the only questions came from the team’s TV broadcasters. The effect was that Wilson came across like a well-prepped Bay Area entrepreneur on a promotional roadshow: He talked about “equity” and “ownership” and seemed to be letting you in on a secret when he compared strong leaders to, variously, moms and Adam Graves. Afterward, though, you wondered whether he had revealed anything at all.
“You get tougher, and calloused, going through moments like that,” Wilson said of the Sharks’ excruciating early exit. A wild-haired guy near the stage in a Joe Pavelski jersey nodded his head once, solemnly, as if lost in prayer.
It’s one thing to lose in the playoffs; it’s another to lose in a style rich with lasting, easy narrative. And it’s a different ballgame altogether to crumble in a manner so preordained that it feels not just extra-worldly, but worse: so damn obvious. As anyone who has been a teenager knows, there’s nothing more frustrating, more defeating, than living down to someone’s unfairly low expectations — of earning that sad, cutting glance that says, wordlessly, We hoped it wouldn’t turn out this way, but we always figured it might.
A good many sharp NHL prognosticators who weighed in this time last season picked the San Jose Sharks as Stanley Cup favorites. It was hard not to — there could be no overlooking the team’s depth at center, its blend of rising stars and established character guys, its smart management and highly respected coaching, its kick-ass home-ice experience (seeing that many humans earnestly ensconced in teal making shark-chomp gestures with their arms is a true revelation, and I say this sincerely), and, until everyone changed their minds about this, its veteran leadership.
Nearly all of them hedged their bets with a knowing chuckle, an “I’ll probably regret this, but … ”; a caveat that the Sharks always do this, they always reel you in and spit you back out. That’s what you get when you miss the playoffs only once since 1997 — a truly exceptional run — yet have nothing more than a few uninspiring Western Conference final losses to show for it.
After years of this, it starts to seem like the Sharks have been facing the same problem as so many of the old-guard businesses located in and around their home in Silicon Valley: Their strength was their consistency, and their weakness sometimes was too. While the team was dutifully making the postseason year after year, certain other more volatile Western Conference concerns — the Blackhawks and Kings in particular — were able to snag high draft picks, pivot away from failure, and emerge, as they say, ready to disrupt.
In January, Wilson signed Thornton and Marleau to three-year contracts that would take them deep into their thirties. “What I love about them,” he said then, “is not only do they make some of the other players around them much better, but they’ve really allowed the growth of the Logan Coutures and the Marc-Edouard Vlasics and the Joe Pavelskis.” This had always been the Sharks’ stated tactic: Their older guys could shield the young ones, allowing them to develop at their own pace. But whether the green shoots choked out the old trees or vice versa, by the summer Wilson was trying to trade the two players he’d given no-trade clauses to mere months earlier.
“Immediately we, the media, the fans, we all focus on 19 and 12, Thornton and Marleau,” said Sharks coach Todd McLellan of the decision to shake things up at the top. “And there should be some looking there, but we need to look much broader than that when we talk about captaincy and leadership and why we’ve done what we’ve done.”
What exactly the Sharks have done is a matter of perspective. There are those who believe that the team overreacted to what went down in the playoffs this spring, needlessly alienating two of the franchise’s most important members. There are, at the same time, observers who think that the team didn’t go far enough, that Doug Wilson talked a big and brash game and then wound up with little to show for it.
The facts we do know: Following the Sharks’ meltdown, Doug Wilson promised that he was at the helm of “a tomorrow team” and began throwing around words like “rebuild” and “the future” and “it comes with some pain.” He traded graybeard defenseman Dan Boyle and longtime San Jose fixture Brad Stuart, a onetime first-round draft pick. He called out his team’s culture, saying that “a group of my players” had complained that everyone interacted more like coworkers than teammates. (“That’s Doug’s opinion,” Thornton said.)
And then … nothing, other than a few strange trades at the margin. The biggest surprise of the San Jose offseason was that it concluded with Thornton and Marleau still part of the organization.
The Guadalupe River is alarmingly waterless where it ought to flow underneath Santa Clara Boulevard in downtown San Jose, but that’s how it typically gets this time of year, drought or no drought. If you walk from the SAP Center2 toward the bars and restaurants on the main drag — one of which recently closed down and is reopening as a “gamer lounge” called AFK — you’ll pass over the parched riverbed and under a group of promotional Sharks banners flying from street lamps.
DRIVE, says one featuring 25-year-old All-Star Logan Couture.
SAVVY, reads another, this with 27-year-old defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, known among fans as “Pickle.”
TENACITY: Joe Pavelski. POWER: Forward turned defenseman turned forward turned D again Brent Burns. GRIT: Tommy Wingels. ENERGY: 20-year-old Tomas Hertl, forever beloved. SPEED: Matt Nieto, kind of random for such major marketing purposes, but hey: He’s a California native and a second-round draft pick.
On street level of the SAP Center is the Sharks merchandise store; items for sale include Sharks baby onesies, Sharks wine glasses, Sharks Mardi Gras beads, and a painted piece of wood in the blocky shape of a Sharks jersey that I had assumed was a cutting board but which a store employee informed me was “just a decorative piece.” There were stuffed Sharks figurines that resembled the spawn of a bobblehead and a troll doll: too stiff to cuddle, too soft to place anywhere particularly prone to dust. You couldn’t tell from their blank faces exactly whom they were meant to represent, but turning them around to see their numbers revealed there were only two iterations for sale: one a brown-haired Couture, one a blondish Pavelski.
No nos. 12 or 19 to be found.
Marketing folks, to be fair, have to get these orders finalized so early in the offseason that it’s preferable to just leave a guy out and deal with it later rather than risk making him the center of a campaign just as he’s being shipped out of town. Still, the absences loomed like a shadow. I heard rumors that a Thornton poster was up somewhere around San Jose, but I never did find it.
But when the Sharks held a special press conference with the L.A. Kings and the NHL on Thursday to announce the planned Stadium Series outdoor game there in February, they were ostensibly under no such long-lead-time constraints. And still, the three players on hand to answer questions and represent San Jose were Couture, Pavelski, and Vlasic. (A preview of the three new team captains, many assumed, though everything remains undecided.) The reaction to this event was a bit like the response, a few weeks earlier, to a nearby Apple event announcing the new iPhones: Among the diehards, the headline news wasn’t the dawn of the future — and make no mistake, these three players are certainly a future to be envied — it was the inevitable sunset of the past.
When San Jose mayor Chuck Reed got up to speak, it seemed like — finally! — someone was acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation. Surely his Joe Thornton hat was a deliberate dog whistle to long-suffering Sharks fans uneasy with the offseason distancing between the team and its former captain. But when Mercury News correspondent David Pollak investigated, he was told that there was no hidden meaning; a staffer had just snagged a left-behind piece of Sharks flair in the office to spruce up the mayor. So much for a political demonstration or a show of support: This was nothing more than a lame-duck pol in an ol’ Jumbo hat.
The larger threat to the San Jose Sharks on display during last week’s Levi’s Stadium press conference probably wasn’t any sort of true looming internal leadership crisis, though; the Sharks are better than that. Rather, it was the clear and vested interests the NHL and its partners have in advancing the chump-vs.-champ narrative of San Jose, Traitorous Subject to Our One True Kings. (I imagine a scene out of George R.R. Martin: Everywhere the Sharks turn, small but menacing columns of palace guards in L.A. T-shirts and board shorts step forth wielding spears while Joffrey-as-played-by–Jeff Carter laughs mirthlessly and sucks grapes through his missing teeth.)
With the NHL a few years into a long-term TV deal with NBC, the league is no doubt looking for areas of regional growth. And few things are more beloved by the league and its broadcasters than hate. The realigned postseason structure is designed to force the same teams to meet again and again in the playoffs. NBCSN has turned its Wednesday Night Rivalry programming, however historically irritating it may be to die-hard fans, into a centerpiece of the lineup. Guess which two teams will be featured on the season’s opening broadcast?
The expansion of hockey into California precedes Gary Bettman’s stint as commissioner, but that doesn’t mean he won’t happily take credit for the significant strides the sport has made out West during his tenure. Developing a recurring story line, however crude, around two Pacific coast teams lends national intrigue to a West Coast game and provides a simple double feature to beef up a scheduled night of hockey. What better way to frame it than an easy-to-understand battle Califoroyal?
Gary Bettman’s trollface was characteristically strong as he made clear it was “not by accident” that the Sharks had been selected to travel to Staples Center on Wednesday to shift impatiently back and forth on their skates while their most infuriating rivals raised a second Stanley Cup banner right in their face. Even the Sharks beat writers seem to feel bad about this; before San Jose played L.A. in a preseason game, one half-joked to Thornton that he’d hold off on hammering the Kings story lines for another week.
At any rate, it’s a smart move by the NHL to capture what is quickly becoming one of the league’s most fun-to-follow side plots. At Fan Fest, the usually reticent associate coach and director of player development Larry Robinson earned the day’s loudest and most spontaneous cheers. “I’m like everyone in the Bay Area,” was the line that did it, “I can’t stand L.A.!” During the Stanley Cup final, Drew Doughty shoehorned in a jab at the Sharks while ostensibly talking about the Rangers, recalling that “you could see it in their eyes” that they knew they’d drop the series to the Kings.3 And last week, Kings coach Darryl Sutter, with his team set to play the Sharks in preseason, mused that he didn’t believe in bonding retreats, that “if you have to go somewhere to learn about your personality, you probably have a disorder.” It was no coincidence that the Sharks had recently come back from a bonding trip to Lake Tahoe.
On and on it goes. San Jose may have been awarded the outdoor game the organization has long coveted, but at this point it almost feels punitive, the hockey equivalent of being punished for sneaking a cigarette by being forced to inhale the whole pack. Every moment of publicity will be a reminder of what, and who, went down last spring. Every press conference for the event will involve two surefire points of discussion: bucolic recollections of playing carefree shinny on Alberta ponds as apple-faced kids … and the Sharks-Kings playoff series of 2014. (“Nine months later, does it sting more or less?”)
For the NHL, framing the Sharks as perennial losers is a win-win; if it should turn out that this, finally, this is the year, the league will have a ready-made arc for the ages. If it’s just Same Old Sharks, no big deal: The brand deepens and the legend grows. For the Sharks, though, this season may feel like an anxiety dream from which you just can’t wake up. The only real way to break free from the San Jose stereotype is to win the Stanley Cup, nothing less — and hasn’t that been the goal all along?
Thornton looks a good decade younger sans his playoff beard, more like the gangly kid drafted first overall by the Boston Bruins in 1997 than the grizzled old archetype he’s sometimes sketched as being. It’s maybe one reason why McLellan might have noticed that the 35-year-old skated into the preseason looking fresh. “He’s come to camp in the best shape I’ve ever seen him in,” the coach remarked of his former captain — a seemingly benign comment considering that training camp is so full of these sorts of “best shape of career” assessments that it has become a well-worn sportswriter trope.
Thornton didn’t take the compliment well. “Every training camp I come in good shape,” he responded when filled in on the coach’s remark. “It’s not just this one. For probably 10 years I’ve been taking off-ice training seriously. It helps you prepare.”
It was an odd little moment, the kind of bristling, passive-aggressive flare-up that reminds you the Sharks are entering this season in an uncomfortable arrangement of their own making, like a couple who has split but can’t bear to part with their shared skyline views or below-market rent. And just as anything, everything can and will set them off into a fight, San Jose will likely be tiptoeing through a minefield all season. With the Sharks beginning the first few weeks of their season almost entirely on the road, each new city will bring new sights, new restaurants, and new inquiries about captains and Stanley Cup windows. The team could go 82-0 and it would do nothing but heighten the anticipation for their inevitable postseason crumble.
Maybe making things awkward for everyone is all by design; it’s certainly a page out of the team’s playbook. In 2009, after the Sharks won the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the regular season before flaming out in the first round of the playoffs, Marleau was stripped of his “C.” (Or, as he put it, “made a kind of agreement” with McLellan and Wilson regarding the designation.) A year later, it was given to Thornton. More than likely it will next go to Pavelski, though at this point it is getting harder to know what being captain even means.4 “You never know how long your time will be,” he said after a recent preseason game. He was talking about his memories of being a young player on the bubble trying to make the squad, but it was as if he, like everyone else in the organization, really just wanted to share the hard lessons he’s learned about leadership.
To hear McLellan talk about it, Jumbo and Marleau shouldn’t shoulder the blame for what happened this spring; after all, he and his boss Wilson were accountable too; everyone was. In a wide-ranging monologue during Fan Fest, he calmly called out unnamed guys for being all too willing to spill the beans within the sanctuary of closed doors but not having the guts to speak their minds in the steam of the locker room. He talked about fathers being tough on their children yet being there for them with open arms anytime “that child gets into a situation where there’s a little fear or they’re not sure of themselves.” He told a bland Steve Yzerman anecdote to illustrate the tenets of leadership, because that’s what anyone who has ever touched so much as a skate lace defaults to in these situations. Then he concluded:
“But I always ask the question: Who’s the most important group? The leader? Or all the followers? OK, you can have the best leader in the world, but if the followers aren’t a very strong group, then we’re in trouble. So don’t just focus on 12 and 19, because that’s very unfair to them. And I can’t make it any clearer than that.”
The problem with being told not to focus on something, though, is that you wind up noticing it even more unmistakably from the corner of your eye. Gazing at the complicated constellations in the San Jose Sharks’ sky reminds you of one of those tricks of the night’s light: The harder you try to avert your stare, the brighter the adjacent stars shine.