In 1991-92, the San Jose Sharks joined the NHL as the league’s 22nd franchise. Although the team struggled on the ice during its first two seasons, it made quite a splash off the ice in terms of marketing and merchandising.
The team was the hobbyhorse of brothers Gordon and George Gund III, who were awarded a franchise to be located in the Bay Area on the condition they sold their current team at the time, the Minnesota North Stars, to Norm Green at a reduced price. In their inaugural season, the Sharks finished last with 17 wins and 39 points. Their sophomore season was even worse. They won just 11 games, though they had company in the basement alongside the expansion Ottawa Senators, whom they tied with 24 points.
In Season 3, however, the Sharks shocked the hockey world by eliminating the top-seeded Red Wings, who’d finished 18 points ahead of them, in the first round of the playoffs. San Jose set a league record with a 58-point improvement in the regular season and proved it was no fluke by eliminating Detroit and then taking the Toronto Maple Leafs to seven games in the playoffs.
This is the story of the early years of the Sharks, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2015-16.
GEORGE KINGSTON, COACH: I would tell the players that effort, attitude and work ethic is everything. I talked a lot about being successful and what made successful people. The focus was simply on the people and bringing out their best while being able to park their frustration and distraction and being able to think of nothing other than living in the moment and giving your best and getting better every day.
DOUG WILSON, D: We had a group of players who understood that, yes, we had to compete even though we didn’t have much talent, but also we had to interact with our fans.
BRIAN LAWTON, C: What really stands out is the great collection of really good people we had. Guys like Doug Wilson, Kelly Kisio, Brian Mullen, Bob McGill – just a really strong group of character players. In starting a franchise, that is a key component to laying a solid foundation.
BOB MCGILL, D: I was excited, but I wasn’t excited at the same time. The three previous years my former team, the Chicago Blackhawks, were in the conference final twice and won the Presidents’ Trophy in 1991. The flip side is it was a brand new team and I was a veteran. It was probably the only time in my entire career I felt secure going to training camp that I’d be on the team. I ended up being voted an alternate captain, and I was able to provide some leadership to a group that was going to go through a tough expansion season.
WILSON: There was a game in Pittsburgh that we lost 10-2 (Dec. 17, 1991) and our goalie, Jarmo Myllys, allowed a goal from center ice that defied gravity. How it stayed in the air I’ll never know. It was a dump in and he missed it three times. He reached out with his glove and whiffed on it. He reached back and tried to grab it but missed it. Then he threw his body at it as the puck went into the net to make it 10-2. He slammed his stick over the crossbar and shattered it. I skated past him and said, “Jarmo, there’s no reason to get that mad because honestly, you’re not that good.”
The Sharks played their first two seasons at the Cow Palace near San Francisco, which opened in 1941. It was a quirky building constructed as a livestock pavilion.
WILSON: It is an appropriate name. The rodeo would be in there, so it would have a unique odor on occasion. It was a small rink, but it was loud and passionate.
MCGILL: You had fans in San Francisco who hadn’t had hockey there for a long time, and they were so enthusiastic. We didn’t win many games, but the fans got behind us and were fantastic.
LAWTON: It was in a rough neighborhood. I think the first time I went there they were having a gun show in the building. It was old, but it had a lot of character.
Kingston was beloved by most of his players in the two years he coached the Sharks. He was intelligent, and had a reputation for being a teacher. He took the job with high hopes, but things didn’t go as he planned. Kingston left town with a 28-129-7 record and a mixed bag of memories.
KINGSTON: My memories are bitter sweet, though mostly sweet. The bottom line is I left the NHL with unfinished business because of what I had hoped to accomplish – and that was working with (GM) Jack Ferreira for a three- to five-year period. We started out thinking we were going to be competitive in Years 3, 4 and 5.
LAWTON: George was a great guy. All he ever did was yell, “Shoot!” It was a big joke with the players. You would get the puck breaking out of your own zone and George would be yelling, “Shoooooot! Shoooooot!” He was such a good and gracious man, but I just wanted to shout back, “Shut the f— up! I can’t shoot because I’m still 170 feet from the other team’s net.” He even had the players over to his house. I played in the league for eight years, and nobody was doing that stuff. Do you think Darryl Sutter is having anybody over to his house on an off day? Not a chance. George was a kind man with a big heart.
MCGILL: He was a positive guy. He never swore once. He never got mad and snapped on people. I had just played for the biggest f—ing a–hole in the world in Mike Keenan for three years in Chicago where it was all about winning.
If the Sharks weren’t successful on the ice in the first two years, they were trendsetters in marketing – from getting fans involved with the naming of the team to their unusual jersey color scheme to interacting with the fans.
After Art Savage was hired as the team’s president, the organization hired Matt Levine as the director of marketing. Levine had a long history of working with the team’s owners and quickly went about putting the organization on the sports map. He was aggressive and successful in getting national and international coverage for a team in its initial season. He helped design the jersey and logo and even convinced Gordie Howe to skate on the ice with Gund when the team unveiled its uniform.
MATT LEVINE, MARKETING: Coming into the Bay Area where there were two established NFL teams, two established MLB teams and an established NBA team, we knew we had to get credibility quickly. At the Cow Palace, we had an opening week, not an opening night. We went out and hired the people who produced the Pink Floyd concerts. We created an opening night with animated lasers where an opposing player would start skating around the ice and he gets chased by a Sharks player who morphs into a shark and eats him. When we initially introduced the logo and uniforms, I personally contacted Gordie Howe and said, “You can really honor us by coming to a press conference and skating onto the ice rink with our owner Gordon Gund.” I mean, this was the Babe Ruth of hockey. We had a press conference and erected stands on the ice. We had 300 fans sitting in the stands, and the only way they could get invited was to come up with a name for our name-the-team sweepstakes. Then we had Gordie and Gordon skating onto the ice. Internally we generated some 200 team nicknames and narrowed it down to 10, which included Blades and Sharks. Blades came in at No. 1 and Sharks was No. 2. Our research eliminated Blades because of the gang-related connotations. I contacted five companies to find out what shade of blue had legs on it and discovered there are 20 shades of teal. I wanted a three-dimensional logo, something that is coming out of the jersey. That’s why the shark biting the stick was truncated to give it the image of bursting out of the triangle. Finally, we had the name Sharks done in a serrated typeface. It was the word Sharks looking like teeth in the shark.
The Sharks enjoyed a dramatic turnaround in 1993-94. Kevin Constantine, just 34 years old at the time, was hired as coach, and the team acquired a pair of high-flying Russians, Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov. Considering San Jose started the season 0-8-1, it was a remarkable year.
KEVIN CONSTANTINE, COACH: Two things happened: 1) we were losing at the start, and 2) the Russians didn’t want to play the way I wanted the team to play. In fact, they refused to play that way. I’d coach a certain way, and the team would practise a certain way, and then Larionov and Makarov would go out and do their own thing. It was out of failure that I told my assistant coach, Wayne Thomas, that we’d take the five players (Makarov, Larionov, Johan Garpenlov, Sandis Ozolinsh and Jeff Norton) that weren’t doing anything I’m telling them and play them together. I gave them to Wayne and said the only thing I’m going to do is if they are minus in a game, they’re going to hear from me. By the end of the year I thought they were the most dynamic group of five in the NHL. They were hard to stop and so much fun to watch.
BOB ERREY, LW: They were personable guys and leaders. They circled the puck, they brought it back, they rotated. There was a lot of circular motion and regrouping. I don’t know why coaches don’t do that now. Why should Sidney Crosby play the same way as Craig Adams? I have never understood why one system has to be implemented for the entire team. It befuddles me.
JAMIE BAKER, C: Larionov is the best player I ever played with. I played with Joe Sakic, Guy Lafleur, Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, Doug Gilmour and Kirk Muller, but Larionov was the best. He was so selfless and played such a puck possession game that he wasn’t worried about putting up 150 points. He could have put up more points, but he was always looking for the right play, and he didn’t want to turn the puck over.
Although it was a total team effort in 1993-94, one player stood above the rest: goaltender Arturs Irbe. The little Latvian established an NHL record for most minutes played in a season at 4,412.
CONSTANTINE: We didn’t want to wear him out, so I gave him a game off. After practice, in protest of me not playing him, he chased the Zamboni around the ice doing ups-and-downs for the entire 15 minutes. It was his way of saying, “You guys think I’m tired, but I am not. Look at me go.”
ERREY: You can’t talk about that season without mentioning Arturs Irbe. He was a character, but he made huge save after huge save. He was such a competitor. He even sewed his own equipment on the airplane. He had this old equipment, and he’d get a big needle and thread out and do his own maintenance.
San Jose vs. Detroit in the first round of playoffs was viewed as David vs. Goliath, but not by the Sharks players, especially Jamie Baker, who scored the series-winning goal, and Bob Errey, who was named captain prior to the season. Errey had helped the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990-91 and 1991-92, and Constantine had no trouble leaning on the veteran for help.
CONSTANTINE: When we knew we were in the playoffs, I asked Errey if he would address the team, and he took it so seriously that he gave a 16-point speech. I asked him why 16 points, and he said, “That’s how many games you have to win in the playoffs to win the Stanley Cup, so I want to tell them 16 things we have to do to have any prayer at all.” That was really powerful, because it came from a teammate and not a coach.
BAKER: We had the fifth-best record in in the second half. We were an eighth seed, but we were playing much better than that.
CONSTANTINE: We played Detroit with not too many games remaining in the regular season, and I believe it had already been established the Red Wings were going to play us in the playoffs. The Detroit staff went to the front desk at their hotel in San Jose and asked the receptionist to make a copy of a 10-page document. She looked at what she was copying, and it was their game plan against us. She was dating a guy on our team, so she made an extra copy. The next day, the player came in our office and plopped it on our desk and said, “You guys might want to take a look at this.” We had Detroit’s plan.
ERREY: We had a parade after beating Detroit in the first round and then losing to Toronto. We actually had a parade – like we had won the Stanley Cup.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the November 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.