Sharks Tales: First season was classic exercise in futility
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Start with the holiday party, hosted by the head coach at his three-level house, located up in the Emerald Hills neighborhood of northern California. George Kingston had offered the spot when the San Jose Sharks couldn’t find anywhere else, but his generosity came with one odd condition: The players, Kingston instructed, would convene a committee and pick games for everyone to play.
One of the chosen activities was charades, which, as drinks and food flowed quickly, descended into Absurdist Theater. Instead of mining movies or books, the two separated squads of Sharks began recounting all the bizarre moments they had encountered during that 1991-92 season, the first in franchise history. And though the calendar hadn’t yet reached New Years’ Eve and the schedule wasn’t halfway finished, there was no shortage of stories to submit. “You can imagine how much hooting and hollering and shouting was involved,” Kingston says. Later, the coach learned that Joe Montana’s father, who was visiting his son down the block, had ambled past the property and wondered what all the commotion was about.
These were the inaugural San Jose Sharks. Even with an 8-28-3 record at the time, and destined for only nine more victories the rest of the way, they were still yoked together by their experiences, laughing about the black comedy of it all. And now, 25 years later, entering Monday night’s Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final, the stories are spilling out, just like they did in Kingston’s living room.
There was trainer Tommy Woodcock’s affinity for sticking horse liniment, an anti-inflammatory rub, in the jockstraps of those who dared prank him. “The hot crotch,” Kingston says. “The player of course had to show this. He looked like a rap singer grabbing his groin.” And the time San Jose’s chartered plane landed in Vancouver for the first road game, only to be surrounded by the flashing lights of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who promptly arrested enforcer Link Gaetz on a warrant. And the inauspicious start to the team’s third trip, when a flat tire grounded the flight before it departed for Hartford. During the delay, assistant coach Drew Remenda handed out per diem for all seven games, a foolish mistake since most of the cash promptly went into the pot for the group’s favorite card game, Pass the Ace. “Guys doubled their meal money, guys were broke for 15 days,” defenseman Rob Zettler says.
As everyone waited for their plane and hours passed, Doug Wilson, the team's captain, bolted at Remenda from around the corner, looking for Woodcock. At first, Remenda reminded himself to never believe anything that emerged from Wilson's mouth. The defenseman (and current GM) was San Jose’s foremost practical joker and verbal con artist. But Wilson insisted that medical attention was needed. As Remenda recalls, Wilson kept blurting that veteran forward Paul Fenton had collapsed at the water fountain, stumbled backwards, and split open his head. “He finds Woody and sure enough Paul’s on the floor,” Remenda says. It took several more hours for the plane's tire to get fixed, so Fenton scurried to the hospital, received stitches, checked himself out, and returned in time to make the departure. “I had just been traded from Hartford to San Jose the week before, hadn’t seen my kids,” he says. “I wasn’t staying in California. They wanted me to stay and get observations. I went back and played the next night.”
This was hardly the only time that a member of San Jose’s ranks had been bloodied by a fall. As the organization gathered for the team picture, flanked by the ice re-surfacer that had been outfitted with a shark’s fin, owner George Gund began shuffling across the ice. A proud businessman who co-owned the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers with his brother, Gordon, George had embraced hockey with open arms and acquired more than a passing familiarity with ineptitude. The Gunds started as minority owners of the colorfully woeful California Golden Seals, which eventually ended up in Cleveland as the equally bad Barons before being merged with the Minnesota North Stars, who fared no better at the box office. Seeking to move their struggling club back to the Bay Area, the Gunds were told by the NHL they could have a new franchise there instead as long as they sold the North Stars. And so the Sharks were spawned.
George Gund loved strutting around while wearing his leather Sharks jacket with the NHL’s most popular logo on the back. Naturally, as he attempted to join his motley squad for the team photo, Gund slipped on the ice, bonked his head, and needed stitches like Fenton. But being ever the gamer, much like the rest of the team, he insisted on returning once practice ended to pose beside everyone.
“Just when you thought you’d seen everything, something else happened,” says defenseman Bob McGill. “It became comical. That’s how you got through it. It’s like, ‘Holy s---, another thing happened?’”
No, these were not normal circumstances. Nor was this a normal club. Cobbled together via the 1991 expansion draft that stocked the Sharks with former North Stars and castoffs from the rest of the league while restocking Minnesota's latest edition, San Jose's new team was welcomed with great enthusiasm by Bay Area fans.
Though wins were in short supply there was no shortage of fish tales, such as the still-breathing shark, the best catch from a morning's fishing before practice, that someone brought into the dressing room and dangled from the ceiling by skate laces. And the group vacation in Sun Valley, Idaho, around New Year's Eve, when Gund flew everyone’s families to the resort destination and covered all expenses. The Sharks practiced in the morning before their departure, but the ski boots they brought to the rink indicated that their minds were elsewhere. After their arrival, the NHL's worst team rubbed elbows with celebrities. Several players met Steve Gutenberg at the lobby bar. Arnold Schwarzenegger was spotted at the gym. Clint Eastwood and Jamie Lee Curtis and JFK Jr. were seen around the area. “It seems insane, that during the season while everyone else is playing games, where were the San Jose Sharks?” says forward Perry Berezan. “But we were so bad, they needed to make sure we all didn’t go crazy from all of the losing.”
A large portion of that burden fell onto the man who would oversee the Sharks’ first Stanley Cup Final appearance from atop their front office 25 years later.
Perhaps the nadir of the inaugural season happened in mid-December, ironically enough against the franchise that Wilson and his Sharks would meet to battle for the 2016 championship. On the road against the juggernaut Pittsburgh Penguins, who were star-dusted with names like Lemieux and Jagr, San Jose got waxed, 10–2. Sharks goaltender Jarmo Myllys was mercilessly bombarded, allowing all 10 goals on 33 shots until mercifully being allowed to exit before the third period even though his replacement, Brian Hayward, was still recovering from back surgery.
“So the next day in practice, Doug Wilson gets Jarmo’s glove, and then there is a replay of the goals being scored, over Doug Wilson, with his theatrics to show how many ways he could miss the puck, and over and over and over,” Kingston says. “By the end of the practice, literally all of us are laying on the ice howling. This epitomized the … I don’t want to say futility … but the fact is that Pittsburgh was good and we were bad. And we howled and howled and howled.
“It was one of the lightest moments at the darkest hour.”
This was the levity that Wilson injected into, as Remenda called them, “the cool sad sacks.” A former Norris Trophy winner who had spent his entire 14-year career with the Blackhawks, Wilson waived his no-trade clause to join San Jose, thrilled with the possibility of building something from the ground floor. He gave instant credibility to the Sharks’ blue line and hell to everyone in the building. When one player was running late to practice, veteran forward Dean Evason recalls Wilson dipping several donuts in hot wax, masking them as glazed. Once, Wilson dumped out Remenda’s Pepsi, the assistant’s favorite beverage, and poured Coke into the can to see if Remenda would notice.
“With Doug, it was always about, don’t ever forget to smile,” Remenda says. “Don’t ever forget to enjoy what you’re doing, where you’re doing it. He was always about that. He was always about making sure, yeah, we’re not winning, but stick together. We never once tore at the seams of each other. We never quit. A lot of that had to do with what Doug was bringing in the dressing room.” For instance, after the shellacking in Pittsburgh and before Wilson's comedy show the next morning, he treated his fellow defensemen to dinner in St. Louis. He also organized frequent golf outings, some two dozen Sharks hitting the links, and when Wilson whacked a good shot he’d always say, “That’s good livin’ right there.”
Indeed, despite their on-ice foibles, the Sharks loved the Northern California experience. The locals, many of whom were being introduced to the game—Kingston remembers hearing one fan discussing the game's “three quarters and two half-times”—embraced them fully. Zettler’s future wife sat beside someone who wondered “how they got that one big piece of ice into the building at one time.” Jerseys disappeared fast, sometimes by legal purchase, other times by theft. Opposing buildings were filled with Sharks logos. Their home rink, the Cow Palace, was sold out every night, and across the street the locals outside the liquor store toasted the team bus with raised brown paper bags whenever the Sharks headed to the airport. “They were some of our best fans,” Berezan says.
And now, for a moment, let’s pause to remember that arena and all its early-'90s madness. The surrounding area was so rough that when an NHL security official delivered his preseason speech, the main message was, “If you have family or friends coming to see you here, you tell them this: Turn left, pay for parking. Turn right and die.” But the Sharks loved the Cow Palace, which now mostly hosts gun shows and rodeos, for its many quirks: The one corner where water leaked from the ceiling. The tall plywood stairs leading to the dressing room, a brutal walk for anyone who got last shift before the horn blared. And how mad the Montreal Canadiens were when the Zamboni driver dragged a peg across the ice, leaving a massive gouge and delaying the game.
“We were laughing our asses off knowing the Canadiens were used to being pampered,” Berezan says. “They were threatening, ‘We’re done, we’re not playing this game, this is ridiculous, look at this dressing room, an hour delay.’ We laughed. Heck, we’re the Sharks. This is normal. “
The first coach in Sharks history calls from his cabin in central British Columbia, nestled in the north end of wine country. He spends spring and summer in the heavily forested area, chopping down cedar trees, milling lumber and working on carpentry projects. He missed some playoff games while helping Team Lithuania at the world championships, but otherwise Kingston has followed the Sharks' deep run this spring with great interest. Last year, he and his wife Wendy outfitted the cabin with cable television.
More than most things that happened in 1991-92, Kingston marvels at how so many of his players still work in hockey. Fenton serves as Nashville’s assistant GM, and helped hire his old linemate, Evason, as the head coach of the Predators' AHL affiliate. Zettler returned to the Sharks as an assistant coach for five years, and now is looking for a new assignment after four seasons helming the minor-league Syracuse Crunch. Remenda calls games for the Edmonton Oilers, McGill for the Toronto Marlies. And now, at the epicenter of the Cup final, are Wilson, the former captain who Kingston calls “a wonderful role model,” and the forward who arrived in San Jose as a rookie: current Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan. “So there’s a little bit of conflicted thought here,” Kingston says.
Teammates remember Sullivan, who was promoted from the IHL right before Halloween and logged 64 games, as a rugged, defensive-minded center. The booming voice that now commands Pittsburgh’s dressing room was a hallmark attribute, even when he was in his early 20s after graduating from Boston University. “Everything that Mike did was detailed, even from his rookie season,” says Evason, who often fished off Sullivan’s boat in the bay at night. “Always had a fun, dry personality.”
Yes, there are sad memories, too. Gaetz’s car accident, suffered in early April during a brief break when the players went on strike, left him partially comatose and ended his career. The enforcer was charismatic and beloved by fans, but he also ran afoul of the law on several occasions. “My job was to keep Link Gaetz on the straight and narrow,” Kingston says. “Sometimes I said that 90% of my coaching time was to work with Link Gaetz and 10% with the rest of the players.” But even those are balanced by the funny times, like when Gaetz chased an opponent who had dealt a particularly hard hit, brandishing his stick like an axe. “That one you could do in charades and everyone would get it,” Zettler says.
The camaraderie that was built during that maiden voyage began dissolving the next season, which wound up being Wilson’s last. The Sharks went 11-71-2 (a winning percentage of .143), the second-worst record in NHL history after the 1974-75 Washington Capitals (8-67-5, .131), and tied the mark for the longest losing streak at 17 games. GM Jack Ferreria was also fired before the fall, which has left some bitterness in Kingston, who calls it “one of the dirtiest things to have ever happened to a person in sport.”
Still, as he watches from his cabin, Kingston's mind fondly returns to that first year—the scud missile airplane landings and the steadfastness of veterans like Wilson and the hot-crotch charades. When told that several stories have emerged from his former rank and file, Kingston laughs. “They’re all true,” he says. “You need to go no further.”