SAN JOSE (AP) — The San Jose Sharks have come a long way from their original home at the Cow Palace with its undersized ice rink and lingering aroma from its use for rodeos and other livestock events.
There were the records for futility in their second season with NHL worsts of 17 straight losses and 71 overall. Then came the two decades of playoff disappointments as the team many expected to be able to compete for the Stanley Cup always seemed to fall short.
The 25-year journey from those early days has finally led to the Stanley Cup. The Sharks will host their first Stanley Cup Final game in team history on Saturday night when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 3 of the series. The Sharks trail the series 2-0 but expect a raucous environment Saturday.
“This is a dream of a lifetime,” said Dan Rusanowsky, the voice of the Sharks since their debut season in 1991-92. “There’s so much to take pride in when you look at where we started. From where the club started, getting to this level was just a dream back then. The fact that we had an NHL team that put its arms around San Jose was enough.”
Sharks general manager Doug Wilson, the captain of the original team, fondly recalled those Cow Palace days when the roof sometimes leaked, a wedding was once staged at intermission and a game was once delayed by almost an hour when the Zamboni dragged a goal peg on the ice by accident.
But those years helped build a relationship between hockey and the region that endures to this day.
“What I loved about it was the fans were right there,” Wilson said. “We were connected to the fans. We didn’t have great teams, but we had great people, we had great character. A lot of one-goal games that for us was like going into a gun fight with a water pistol. But we knew we were going to battle. But the fans were there for us through thick and thin, and the guys that played on that team made sure of giving everything they had.”
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan played on the first Sharks team and remembers having to walk upstairs to the locker room between periods. There even needed to be chairs at the bottom so players who were on the ice for the final shift of the period could catch their breath before going up.
Many of those fans who packed the Cow Palace those first two seasons moved to the team’s new arena in downtown San Jose in 1993-94 that gave California’s third-largest city its first major pro sports team.
Some have kept their tickets for a quarter century, watching the team lose its first three trips to the conference finals, get knocked out as the top seed in the first round in 2009, blow a 3-0 series lead to Los Angeles in 2014 and then miss the playoffs entirely last season.
Those disappointments will be forgotten come Saturday night when the Stanley Cup finally arrives in Silicon Valley.
“They’ve been through a lot,” Sharks center Logan Couture said. “It’s been a long time that we’ve been the favorite. They’ve had a lot of high hopes and a lot of people have stuck with this franchise and supported over the years. So, a lot of credit to the people that have had season tickets and kept them through these last couple of years. They deserve this.”
The Sharks’ playoff struggles could be best described by the fact that until this season their biggest postseason highlight came from the first playoff series they ever played back in 1994.
After getting into the playoffs as the eighth seed, the Sharks shocked top-seeded Detroit in the opener and then forced the series to seven games. That’s when Jamie Baker delivered the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win that sent San Jose to the second round.
Baker, an analyst on the team’s television broadcasts, spent years hoping to be supplanted as the most important goal in Sharks history and passed the baton to Joel Ward after he scored the game-winner in the Western Conference final clincher against St. Louis.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Baker said. “I want to go down to notch number three with a Stanley Cup winner. I’d be good with that.”