Eulogy for the San Jose Sharks
By Lawrence Everson
Sports Informant Contributing Writer
I’ve lost my voice multiple times cheering this season. And there was much to cheer for. Most wins in franchise history. Most points in franchise history. Only three home losses in the first half of the season. Third best power play in the league…
Screaming wildly during the multitude of victories, I watched the Sharks set franchise records. I cheered as they tied an 80-year NHL record for the fastest team to reach 50 points. I cheered as they crushed Boston late in the season in a heavyweight matchup of conference top seeds. I yelled my heart out every time I saw Patrick Marleau tear down the ice on a shorthanded breakaway, or whenever Dan Boyle snuck in from the blue line on the power play to rifle a shot past the opposing goalie from the bottom of the faceoff circles.
So why is it that with so much to cheer for, I am sitting here with the same feelings of anger and regret that have become so familiar every single postseason? Why does this year feel so much worse?
Pundits and naysayers were calling choke before the postseason even began, relying on years of premature exits and second round playoff defeats. But true Sharks fans didn’t believe it. This year was our year. We were the best team in the league. Nobody had ever seen a team play in the first half of the year like we did. And then suddenly we were looking at the wrong side of two home losses to begin the quarterfinals, and the doubts and accusations grew into a deafening roar.
Despite this, I continued to cheer.
I cheered in Game 3 when San Jose overpowered the Ducks and brought the series to a one game deficit. Then came an abysmal Game 4 that many said proved the Sharks’ true colors. Game 5 gave us heart despite the third period meltdown that forced overtime, and we drew the series back into contention. In the East we watched the Capitals, also down 3-1 in their series, force a Game 7 at home and we knew we could do the same. In Game 6, the Sharks came roaring out the gate and drew first blood, both with fists and with a goal. We knew we could win it. And then quickly, almost before we knew what was happening, it was all over. With a quiet handshake and quick retreat to the dressing room, and a few soft murmured words to the press, the cheering died out.
The fans went home and put their teal and black jerseys into the closet for another long offseason. The commentators said their final few words, offered their last analyses and packed up their gear. The doors to the Shark Tank closed with more home games to play, but no team to cheer on into the next playoff rounds.
And worst of all, that white elephant that for so long stood silently in the corner is now dancing center stage underneath a blinding spotlight, holding a shiny President’s Trophy up high for all to see.
Scott Burnside of ESPN.com called the Sharks arena the “Choke Tank.” Sports commentator Ross McKeon wrote, “The Sharks should feel too embarrassed over what happened the last 10 days to ever fall into the trap of talking about winning a championship again.” And the Canadian Press called the Sharks “a team that plays incredible hockey until the games that matter the most.”
How did it go this wrong? How could this happen, again?
On paper the Sharks were perfect. Each weakness from past playoff series was addressed. For years, the blame fell upon the coaching staff, so coach Ron Wilson was yanked and talented fresh blood Todd McLellan was added behind the bench. Critics said they were too thin on the blue-line, so GM Doug Wilson added Boyle, the best offensive defenseman in the league, and bolstered him with Rob Blake and Brad Lukowich. Analysts said they lacked toughness and grit, so brawler Jody Shelley was brought on board, followed by Travis Moen at the trade deadline. And lastly, people said the team lacked experience, so a cavalcade of grizzled veterans bearing Stanley Cup rings entered the locker room. It seemed flawless. An amalgamation of parts built to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup over the heads of 17,000 packed into HP Pavilion.
And the result? A first round exit. Even worse than the many embarrassing defeats so many consecutive seasons before.
It’s easy to point fingers, to assign blame. It’s clear to see the will to win was missing. What’s harder to figure out is why? What ineffable quality makes superstar players perform at subpar levels when they are needed the most? What secret characteristics are buried in the hearts of hungrier teams that enable them to play through adversity and win when their backs are against the walls? How can a team that looks so perfect project themselves as so flawed? These questions don’t come easily, and the answers may cost the franchise dearly.
We may not see Marleau next year, as the burden of failed leadership hangs heavily around his neck. Jonathan Cheechoo has gone from NHL goal-scoring leader to third line winger, clinging to mediocrity at best. Unrestricted free agents Mike Grier, Moen and Alexei Semenov may not return. And let’s not forget Jeremy Roenick and Blake, who are in the sunset of their illustrious careers and were vying for one last blast of glory before hanging up the skates for good. Will this familiar sting of defeat cause them to give up on their pursuit of the Cup once and for all and fade into retirement, or is there enough left in the tank to go through all this again?
That question can also be asked for us Sharks fans as we reel in anger at another unexpected defeat. As we deal with the sadness that there will be no more home games in the playoffs. As we cope with the frustration at seeing the same storylines play out again and again and again like a bent and broken record. Can we return back to the Tank next year with the same level of optimism? Will we scream just as loudly? Will we believe as we have so many times before that this year will be our year? Or will the familiar doubts creep back into our minds? No matter what the team looks like next season, will the elephant in the room continue to stand and stare us in the face?
I don’t have the answers. What I do have is a ball of passion and frustration deep within me. I know our team is a winner. I know I’ll see the Stanley Cup raised in our building at some point. I’m just angry it’s not this year. It should have been this year. And I’m angry at the thought that if not now, when?
I don’t know the answer to that.
I don’t know if anyone does.
But no matter what, I’ll keep cheering.