They were lovable losers – heavy emphasis on the lovable part – the San Jose Sharks' team that entered the NHL in 1991-92. The one calm oasis in an otherwise dysfunctional storm was a quiet and unassuming first-year NHLer named Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan had four years of college hockey and one year of minor pro under his belt when he signed with the expansion Sharks as a free agent a month before their inaugural NHL season. Now, some 25 years later, Sullivan is coaching the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup final against the Sharks, a team he helped usher into the NHL. The series opens Monday night in Pittsburgh.
San Jose eventually became a model NHL organization, but that first year, according to former Shark Perry Berezan, was a year of "absolute chaos." Weirdly, Berezan says that now with a great deal of affection, noting how Sullivan was "stuck with a lot of Bad News Bears castaways. With all the goofballs and antics and Link Gaetz and you name it, Mike was Mr. Serious. He was Mr. Serious all the time; and I don't think he's changed a bit. He managed to survive – I don't know how."
The Sharks landed in the NHL as its 22nd franchise in 1991-92, in arguably the most convoluted transaction in league history. Half the team was stocked through a traditional expansion draft. The other half came from Minnesota, where the owner of the North Stars, George Gund, wanted to shift the money-losing franchise to San Jose. Reluctant to lose a traditional U.S. hockey market, the league granted Gund an expansion franchise in exchange for his promise to sell the North Stars to a group of NHL designated investors who promised to keep the team in the Twin Cities. Gund paid a then-record price of $50-million (U.S.) for the privilege of the San Jose start-up.
Under terms of that agreement, Minnesota got to protect 14 players and two goaltenders off its roster, so the Sharks received only the scraps from them. The expansion draft didn't yield much more talent either.
The Sharks would go on to lose 71 games in their second year of existence, still an NHL record. It was all coach George Kingston and assistant Bob Murdoch could do to keep the players positive every day, Berezan said.
"That first year, we went to Sun Valley, Idaho, at Christmas because the Gunds owned a bunch of land there," Berezan said. "Right after practice on an outdoor rink, when George and Bob were putting their ski boots on, here comes Link Gaetz down the hill, doing a jump and a spread-eagle – in the middle of the season, and with a San Jose cameraman at the bottom of the hill filming it all.
"When will that ever happen again? It can't. It almost felt like it wasn't a real season. Why would you let a team do that? Well, it was because they knew we weren't going to win enough anyway, so why not let them have some fun? So they did. Losing sucks so badly that you better be sure you're doing something to have some fun."
The Sharks won the second home game they ever played, Brian Hayward picking up the victory in net, Kelly Kisio scoring the winning goal, and then promptly lost 13 in a row, finishing the season with a 17-58-5 record. Their leading scorer ended up being Pat Falloon, chosen second overall in the 1991 entry draft after Eric Lindros. San Jose received the first pick in every round of that year's entry draft except for the first one, because the NHL didn't want such a coveted prospect – Lindros – to fall to an expansion team.
The smell wasn't limited to just their record, either. The Sharks played their first season in the Cow Palace and the odour of decades of rodeos and agricultural fairs permeated the building, no matter how high they cranked up the air conditioning.
The real success story occurred off the ice, where the Sharks set records for merchandise sales. The distinctive teal colour of their jerseys, plus the shark crunching the hockey stick, became hugely popular all across North America.
"I don't know how or why it caught on, but it was phenomenal," said Jack Ferreira, the team's first GM, who came over from Minnesota with the Gunds. "I had friends calling me from back home, wanting stuff for their kids, guys I went to high school with. The crazy thing is it almost didn't happen.
"That summer, I get a package in my office and it was our uniform, but the colours were wrong. They were the colours of the Seattle Seahawks – the blue and the green, not the teal we'd selected. So all of a sudden, a bell goes off. I think someone's trying to change the colours. But luckily, it never happened – because they had all these reveal-your-teal nights. It was a popular colour and real unique. I don't think anyone else had it at the time."
The team ran all sorts of promotions to generate fan interest that year, including one that occurred in the first intermission of a game against Montreal, in which 20 couples were married on the ice between periods.
"I ran into Pat Burns in the corridor," Ferreira remembered. "They're out there performing these marriage ceremonies and we're just shaking our heads."
For Ferreira, San Jose's presence in the final is bittersweet, given that they eliminated the Los Angeles Kings, his current team, in the opening round.
But he is rooting for Sullivan and recalled how in that first year in San Jose, the NHL players association staged a 10-day player strike near the end of the season. Just before that occurred, teams were instructed to send to the minors as many players as were eligible in case the strike dragged on. Ferreira, knowing Sullivan's wife was pregnant and about to give birth, refused to do so and kept him on the NHL roster instead.
"I did not send him down because that would have changed his insurance status – and if there were any complications, I didn't want to risk that," Ferreira said. "But I took some grief from some of the old-timers when I didn't send Mike down.
"Years later, I was in Phoenix and they announced on the scoreboard that Mike Sullivan was playing his 700th NHL game that night. So after the game was over, I went down to ice level to congratulate Mike and he sees me and comes walking over and we talked about that story and how that all unfolded. And he said, 'Here, I want you to meet someone.' It was his daughter, the little girl that was born that year."
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