Thirteen to one. At first glance it looked like the score of a Canadian Football League game—seeing as how in Canadian football you can score a single point by kicking the ball into the end zone, eh? But this was a hockey score, and a gruesome one for the San Jose Sharks.
After taking a 1-0 lead over the Calgary Flames on Feb. 10, the Sharks lapsed briefly, yielding 13 goals. Among the eight Flames who each finished with at least two points were winger Theoren Fleury, who was plus nine, and Jeff Reese, whose three assists set an NHL record for points by a goaltender in a single game. For the Sharks the loss was the worst in the two-year history of the franchise.
While the Sharks can't find a way to stop the opposition, they are finding new and painful ways to make the record book. The Calgary defeat was number 16 in San Jose's league-record-tying 17-game losing streak, a streak that spanned seven weeks and two presidential administrations, a streak not to be confused with the nine- and 13-game losing streaks the Sharks had endured earlier in the season, or the six-game streak in which they were mired as of Sunday. "The scary part," says San Jose co-general manager Dean Lombardi, "is that last year we lost 58 games, but we were competitive in those losses. This season we're out of games early."
The Sharks, who were 8-55-2 at week's end, have indeed regressed. If they are not the worst team in NHL history—the 1974-75 expansion Washington Capitals, the only other team to lose 17 in a row, finished with 21 points, while Sad Jose, as the Sharks are known around the league, is on a pace to get 23—the Sharks are the sorriest second-year team in league annals. What we are seeing is less sophomore jinx than Biblical plague.
Why the slide? For starters, the Sharks lack talent and depth. Before this season, management released many of the veterans who'd helped the team win a surprising 17 games in its first season. Time to start developing the young talent, went management's thinking. But some of that talent—notably Pat Falloon, the Sharks' only sharpshooter, and Sandis Ozolinsh, a promising rookie defenseman—has been injured most of the second half of the season. What's more, some of that young talent is less talented than San Jose scouts had hoped. Says coach George Kingston, "We discovered that just because you're young doesn't mean you're going to get better."
It did not help that last June, team president Art Savage fired general manager Jack Ferreira, an astute hockey man who commanded respect around the NHL. Rather than replace Ferreira, Savage instructed that the duties of general manager be shared by Kingston, then assistant general manager Lombardi and director of player personnel Chuck Grillo, who have become known as both the Three-headed Shark and the Kingston Trio. Many NHL observers have their doubts, to say the least, about this unorthodox troika.
Says Phil Esposito, general manager of the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning, whose 19 wins through Sunday have thrown the dreadfulness of the Sharks into even sharper focus, "If I want to talk about a deal [with San Jose], I don't know who to call."
The team, though, is still enjoying a honeymoon in northern California. All but six of this season's home games at the ancient, malodorous 11,089-seat Cow Palace have been sellouts. And Shark merchandise of snappy gray, black and blue—oh, sorry, that's Pacific teal—is walking off the shelves at stores, and not just in the Bay Area. As of last June, national sales of Shark gear totaled about $150 million, an unprecedented figure for an NHL franchise. This is not happenstance.
After a franchise was awarded to San Jose, team marketing people spent 13 months on consumer research before choosing San Jose's name, colors and logos. Why a shark? "A shark immediately summons an image of aggression, speed and strength," says San Jose vice-president Matt Levine, inadvertently listing qualities that the current Sharks lack.
Levine went to Neiman-Marcus, Bloomingdale's, L.L. Bean, Starter and other companies and asked, "What shades of blue sell best?" Teal, he heard over and over. Studies showed that by itself, teal appealed to women; when it was combined with black, men went for it too. After the logo was finally completed, it was introduced at a press conference conducted on the ice in San Jose. "ESPN and CNN picked it up," says Levine. "It became a national story."
Shark merchandise is worn by ghetto kids in Southern California and by adults in rural Alabama. The only thing many owners of Shark hats and jackets have in common is that they've never been to a hockey game. Last July, Advertising Age included the Sharks in its "Marketing 100," an annual compendium of the stars of marketing. If San Jose's hockey people were as good as its marketers, the Sharks might have some teeth.
If I kick over a garbage can and yell and scream, then what? It'll just make them feel lower than whale droppings.George Kingstonx
This season began with a flicker of promise. The Sharks beat the Winnipeg Jets in overtime on opening night—and then dropped nine consecutive games. It didn't help that San Jose had to play seven road games during the skid because of a rodeo at the Cow Palace. Another rodeo will force the Sharks to take a seven-game road trip later this month.
To make matters worse, the team has had little luck. Falloon dislocated his right shoulder against the expansion Ottawa Senators on Jan. 10. He could miss the rest of the season. The only positive note for the Sharks was that they lost that game to the Senators, their primary competition in the so-called Daigle Cup. Alexandre Daigle, a superstar in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, is expected to be the first pick in this June's NHL draft.
Injuries, in fact, have haunted the Sharks. They were so banged up before a Jan. 30 game against Calgary that they dressed only 19 players instead of the 20 that teams are allowed to dress. The Sharks, however, had one of their better efforts, losing only 5-4.
Looking for bright spots? Center Kelly Kisio, who for most of his 11 seasons in the league was the quintessential plumber, leads San Jose in scoring. But when asked to recall the Sharks' highlights this season, Kisio thought for about 10 seconds before saying, "Not much in the way of highlights."
Tim Bryant, San Jose's public relations director, has more answers. "Arturs Irbe had the first shutout in franchise history," he says. "And Rob Gaudreau had the first and second hat tricks in franchise history. Of course, we did lose both those games."
Captain Doug Wilson, a 16-year NHL veteran, didn't hesitate when asked for a highlight. "The resiliency the guys showed during our 17-game losing streak," said Wilson. "When things got bad, I've seen guys go into a survival mode, blaming teammates instead of looking in the mirror. It never happened here."
Wilson has also been wowed by the enthusiasm of the fans. Before the Sharks' Feb. 12 game against the Oilers in Edmonton, which came two days after the 13-1 debacle in Calgary, a box containing hundreds of faxes and letters of support arrived in the San Jose dressing room. After every Shark home game—win or lose—as the players trudge into the tunnel, a hundred or so fans line the railing and cheer them. One fan, season-ticket holder Pamela Rankin, exhorts the Sharks with poetry. Posted on the bulletin board outside the San Jose dressing room is a copy of Rankin's "Shark Pride." A sample stanza:
Don't get too upset
When times are tough and you lose,
It's all part of growing
Into that fin of bright teal blue.
Despite that mellifluous advice, goaltender Jeff Hackett did get upset after the Sharks dropped the Feb. 12 game to the Oilers, 6-0, for their record-tying 17th loss in a row. As he left the ice, Hackett mashed his stick against the boards. Kingston, who seldom publicly criticizes his players, described the tantrum as "an unacceptable response" and chewed out Hackett in the dressing room.
The incident set off a debate among Shark watchers. Many were of the opinion that Gentle George, as Kingston is sometimes called, should be more concerned with the Sharks who weren't pitching fits. Kingston is an ultramarathoner, and his avocation is well-suited to his current position: He is long on perseverance and patience.
For 16 years Kingston coached at the University of Calgary, where he was also a professor of physical education for 21 years. The Sharks recruited him expressly to teach young players. When asked during the streak why he never resorted to fire-and-brimstone speeches, Kingston gave this memorable reply: "If I kick over a garbage can and yell and scream, then what? It'll just make them feel lower than whale droppings."
Kingston does have a rare genius for finding silver linings, a talent he displays in postgame press conferences. On Feb. 23 the Sharks faced Calgary for the first time since the 13-1 blowout. San Jose's intention that night was to earn the Flames' respect, which the Sharks were well on their way to doing until the game's 24th second, when Fleury scored a ridiculously easy goal on a shot that trickled between Irbe's pads. Following the 6-3 loss, Kingston put his finger on Irbe's problem. "Soft pads," he said. "That shot hit the inside of his pad. Thicker pads, I think, would have resisted."
Two nights later, after the Toronto Maple Leafs manhandled San Jose en route to a 5-0 victory, Kingston bubbled that "we did a much better job of penetrating the slot area than the last time Toronto came in here." The suspicion among many Shark observers is that in his infinite patience, Kingston has created an atmosphere in which players are comfortable with defeat. The players dispute this assessment. Center Dean Evason says the constant losing "eats up" every Shark.
"I have this neighbor who says, 'When are you guys going to win a game?' " continues Evason. "It's all in good fun, but deep down inside it's frustrating and embarrassing. All you can do is smile and hold it inside."
Last month, when it became clear that San Jose and Ottawa would be the only serious contenders for the Daigle Cup, the Senators' management, concerned that the bumbling Sharks were in position to deprive Ottawa of the No. 1 selection, made a novel suggestion. To discourage tanking, said the Senators, why not award the team that finishes next to last the top selection in the draft? The Sharks declined.
Says Lombardi, "If you've gone through the season and given everything you've got, as our guys have, and you finish last, you deserve to pick first. I mean, you've gone through hell."