Shark with Bite San Jose's hard-hitting Owen Nolan has found his old scoring touch

March 20, 2000

The answer: In a crawl space under a bomb shelter beneath the
cellar of the NHL's Pacific Division.

The question: Where would the Sharks be this year without Owen
Nolan?

As it is, San Jose will spend the rest of the season in familiar
fashion: biting its nails, nervously monitoring out-of-town
scores and sweating every point as it struggles to squeeze into
the final Western Conference playoff spot. That the Sharks are
even on the postseason bubble is a testament to Nolan's newfound
ability to carry a team.

Power forwards such as Nolan have soft hands around the net and
deliver hard checks all over the ice. While not among the best
known brothers in this fraternity, which boasts stars such as
Eric Lindros of the Flyers and Keith Tkachuk of the Coyotes, the
6'1", 210-pound Nolan is the power forward having the best
season. After scoring a total of 33 goals in his previous two
campaigns, the 28-year-old Nolan, a right wing, had 40 through
Sunday, second in the league to Panther Pavel Bure's 46, and 78
points, third in the league.

It's not unusual to see the Belfast-born Nolan get his Irish up
on the ice. "He's got a crazy edge," says linemate Vincent
Damphousse, "a look in his eyes that puts fear in the other
players. When the defensemen know he's coming up on them, they
tend to give up the puck a little quicker. There's more room when
Owen is on the ice."

In a somewhat silly and subjective attempt to quantify toughness,
the NHL now keeps a statistic called "hits," which tracks the
number of bodychecks by each player. No other player in the top
five in scoring was within 90 of Nolan's 192 hits through Sunday.
On consecutive nights in late January he fought the Canucks'
6'3", 225-pound Todd Bertuzzi to a draw and won a decision over
Islanders enforcer Gino Odjick. Nolan picked both fights, though
he had no gripe with either guy. "Our team, me included, was in a
funk," he says. "I figured I'd try to spark some excitement."

He spoke while squinting through a swollen and sutured left
eyelid that had been sliced two nights earlier by a Red Wing's
inadvertent high stick. Nolan's goal in that game was his 40th,
making him the first Shark ever to reach that milestone. More
important, it earned San Jose, which was in eighth place in the
Western Conference at week's end, a 1-1 tie at a time when it
needs every point it can get. After bolting to the best start in
franchise history (8-1-0-0), the Sharks have looked more like
their old selves, having failed to win back-to-back games since
early December. "I always thought he was a very good player, but
I didn't know he could play to this level," says San Jose winger
Tony Granato. "He's been our best player almost every game. It
seems that Owen's been part of every important goal we've
scored."

Why should Granato or anyone else be surprised by Nolan's play?
He had a total of 78 goals in his first two full NHL seasons. The
question isn't Where did this guy come from? Rather, it should be
Where has he been?

Selected by the Nordiques with the first pick of the 1990 draft,
Nolan started his NHL career strongly, but in October 1995 he was
traded to San Jose for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. By then the
Nordiques had become the Avalanche, which was on the cusp of the
Stanley Cup. The Sharks were one of the worst teams in the
league. "Let's face it," says San Jose general manager Dean
Lombardi. "When he got here, we weren't good."

The brooding Nolan didn't need much of a reason to go into a
funk. Trading places with Ozolinsh and then watching his Colorado
buddies win the Cup discouraged him. He had a decent season in
1996-97, but in '97-98 and '98-99 combined, he scored nine fewer
goals than he had in his first full NHL season (42). "They were
ugly times," says Nolan. "We were a defensive team, we never had
a lot of offensive players, and when I did get opportunities, I
didn't take advantage of them."

Even as he struggled to regain his scoring touch, Nolan polished
other aspects of his game--defense, play away from the puck and
fighting. "You've got to give Owen credit," says coach Darryl
Sutter. "He's learned a lot about the game--and about himself."

The most frequently cited reason for Nolan's return to prominence
is his decision to engage in off-season activity more taxing than
his beloved boar hunting. After the Sharks' first-round playoff
loss to Colorado, he spent last summer pumping iron and going on
torturous mountain bike rides with Jeff Friesen, San Jose's
fitness fanatic. "In his draft year he could outpower you and
outskate you," says Lombardi. "That part of his skating wasn't
there the last couple years. This year it's back."

And so is he.

--Austin Murphy

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Nolan has more than doubled his goal total of 1998-99.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)