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With the surprising success of their team, San Jose Shark fans have been bitten by hockey fever

One San Jose Shark fan removes her brassiere and flings it to the ice to celebrate hat tricks. Another sawed a gigantic dorsal fin out of a piece of plywood and bolted it to the roof of his Volkswagen bus, which he christened the Sharkmobile. Another lives in Napa, Calif., and flies his private plane 75 miles to games in San Jose. Still another—Mayor Susan Hammer, whose surname leaves her little choice but to root for the home team—stood before several thousand hockey fans at a recent rally and drilled them on the Chomp, mimicking with her arms the opening and closing of a set of jaws. It wasn't the leader of the free world discussing his underwear preferences, but it wasn't a moment brimming with dignity, either. "They all need a lobotomy," San Jose coach Kevin Constantine has said of his team's fans, "and I mean that in the nicest way."

If Shark fans seem a bit daft these days, it's because they're delirious with joy. Despite Sunday night's 8-3 home-ice loss in Game 4, which evened its second-round NHL playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs at two games apiece, San Jose still stood a good chance of advancing to the Western Conference finals. Nobody expected this third-year expansion team, loser of 129 games its first two seasons in the league, to advance past the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs, let alone engage the Leafs in a battle of attrition in the second.

Then again, nobody expected the Sharks to even make the playoffs this season. Loaded with castoffs, supposedly washed-up veterans and unproven youngsters, they were pulled together by Constantine, their rookie coach, and made into a team. Their defensive style may be boring to fans and their neutral-zone trap may be infuriating to opponents, but no one can quibble with the results.

This on-ice U-turn by the Sharks has highlighted a turnaround in the fortunes of San Jose. The Sharks' fantastic voyage through the postseason is only the latest coup for a city that for decades carried a sequoia-sized inferiority complex.

"This is the most excitement we've had around here since they lynched a couple of guys in St. James Park [in 1933]," observed Steve (the Beamer) Behm, morning drive-time host on KEZR. Behm was one of 3,000 fans who converged on the San Jose Arena, known locally as the Shark Tank, on May 4 to watch a telecast of a 5-1 loss to the Maple Leafs in the second game of the series.

Not far from the Beamer, Todd Johnson, a short man nursing a tall beer, talked about why he had been willing to regularly make the 100-mile round-trip drive from San Jose to the Cow Palace, just south of San Francisco, where the Sharks played in their first two seasons while awaiting the completion of the San Jose Arena. "Before the Sharks, you had to root for the 49ers or the Warriors or the Giants," said Johnson, a computer operator who so enjoyed watching hockey that he decided to learn how to play the game. "This is our team."

The hangings to which Behm referred occurred 35 years before Dionne Warwick posed her famous musical inquiry about the city that raised another question: Why would anyone want to know the way to San Jose? It was a boring backwater whose downtown would have been an apt target for Gertrude Stein's famous put-down: There was no there there. The Sharks' arena marketing director Elaine Sullivan-Digre needs just seven words to sum up San Jose's old image: "Rundown, some crime, nothing to do."

The comeback began in the mid-1980s when then mayor Tom McEnery spearheaded development of the downtown area, large portions of which consisted of razed buildings. McEnery's most lasting legacy is the $162 million Arena, into which the Sharks moved after their stint in the Cow Palace, an ancient venue that hosts an annual rodeo and retains a barnlike odor year-round.

"The best decision that's been made in this city in 20 years was to put the Arena within walking distance of downtown," says Hammer, who succeeded McEnery nearly four years ago. Before and after Arena events, thousands pour into restaurants and bars. Says Hammer, "The economic impact has been incredible."

The rebirth of San Jose (pop. 780,000) has come, to a degree, at the expense of San Francisco (pop. 720,000), in whose shadow it languished for so long. Last year San Jose lured a major men's tennis tournament from the City by the Bay. In April, Luciano Pavarotti played at the San Jose Arena, bypassing San Francisco, as will Barbra Streisand next month, when her world tour takes her to San Jose but not to its famous neighbor to the north. San Jose will host the NHL All-Star Game next year and the National Figure Skating Championships in 1996. Last week an exhibit of works on loan from New York City's Whitney Museum opened not in San Francisco but at the San Jose Museum of Art.

Take a city that was beginning to feel its oats, give it a gleaming new home for its first major league pro team in a sport other than soccer, and have that team make the greatest one-year improvement in the history of the NHL and then embark on a joyride through the postseason, and you'll have a recipe for extreme behavior.

You'll get people breaking into Shark stores in northern California...and opening them in Riga, Latvia. You'll get 7,400 people, including Hammer—who sported a REVEAL YOUR TEAL T-shirt—showing up at the Arena to see a telecast of Game 7 of the Sharks' series against the Red Wings. You'll get several hundred people camping out for two nights to snap up 3,000 tickets for Game 5 of the series against Toronto, which sold out in six minutes. You'll get Mari Ivener of Sunnyvale, Calif., celebrating Shark hat tricks by hurling her brassiere on the ice. (Luckily for Ivener, the Sharks have never had two players score three goals in the same game.) Conspicuous among the hundreds of teal caps flung rinkward following the third goal of right wing Sergei Makarov's March 29 hat trick against the Winnipeg Jets was a frilly red bra, size 36C, the property of Ivener, who confided to the San Francisco Chronicle, "It was a gorgeous red Victoria's Secret garment, perfect for Sergei the Red."

Although no one has asked Ivener to stop—she airmailed another bra to the ice, this time a lacy blue number, following Ulf Dahlen's hat trick against the Leafs in a 5-2 Game 3 win last Friday—she is clearly pushing the envelope of the Sharks' tolerance, because few organizations in pro sports are as image-conscious as San Jose.

The Sharks are superlative corporate citizens, generous with donations that further good works in the community. Through their Sharks and Parks program, the franchise has outfitted 45,000 area kids with street hockey equipment. Certainly there is a bit of enlightened self-interest in the giveaways, which, the Sharks hope, are helping to create tomorrow's season-ticket holders. For now, though, the team is popular beyond management's wildest dreams. Sales of Shark merchandise, which in the regular season exceeded the reported $100 million sold in 1992-93, have skyrocketed since the start of the playoffs.

The desirability of Shark stuff was driven home last month when three men broke into the Arena store, loaded up a truck with teal-and-black merchandise and drove home with their swag. They were later arrested, along with the rent-a-cop who had helped them breach the Arena security.

Teal lust bridges continents. A Baltic company named Nordis recently sent out a fax that breathlessly announced the opening of "the first San Jose Sharks souvenir shop in Riga, Latvia"—birthplace of San Jose goalie Arturs Irbe and defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. The store, it turns out, is actually in the gift shop of the Ridzene Hotel, which means you could actually walk up to the counter and say, "I'd like some unwaxed floss, an International Herald-Tribune and a pair of Arturs Irbe jeans."

The most creative Sharkwear isn't officially licensed. In the San Jose Arena concourse during last Friday's game, on a recruiting table set up by the Hammerhead Club, the Sharks' fan club, rested a marine-blue hard hat to which had been affixed a foot-lone rubber shark. The arresting headgear occasioned much favorable comment from passersby. "I picked up the rubber shark at the Monterey Aquarium," Hammerhead founder Kin Robles was saying. "The whole thing cost maybe eight bucks."

Robles is a native northern Californian who grew fond of hockey while watching the Oakland Seals, who became the California Golden Seals, who went belly up in 1976. "You had the Los Angeles Kings, but I had trouble rooting for a Southern California team," he says. He founded the fan club in 1993, before the Sharks' third season, although the team, acting with its customary caution, didn't officially recognize his group until last January. Since then, Robles says, membership is up more than 400%.

Some Hammerheads maintain higher profiles than others. Three rows from the ice, beneath the gigantic fiberglass shark head out of which the team skates before games, you will find an Abbie Hoffman look-alike known as Frog Man, so nicknamed during the Sharks' inaugural season when he brandished rubber frogs at French Canadian opponents. These days Frog Man's props consist of a gray shark puppet and customized signs. He specializes in making the former Eastern bloc guys feel at home. "This one says YEA SERGEI, YEA IGOR," says Frog Man (a.k.a. Michael Roberts), holding up a sign written in Russian and directed at forwards Makarov and Igor Larionov. He's also got signs in Latvian for the Sharks' two Latvians.

But the wittiest barbs in the Arena consistently come from a woman known only as the Sign Lady, whose slogans are usually more wholesome than the one she posted during a game in March against Toronto, which said IT MAY BE SPRING, BUT THE LEAFS BLOW. A visit by the New York Islanders in the regular season inspired KASPARAITIS CAN BE CURED IN OUR LIFETIME, a reference to grating Islander defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. During the series against Detroit, Red Wing coach Scotty Bowman was bedeviled by the mazelike passageways beneath the Shark Tank, twice having to pound on doors and call for help after locking himself in rooms. The Sign Lady editorialized:




But the Sign Lady's handiwork hardly stands alone. At the south end of the Arena a yellow sign proudly proclaims: 209, THE LOUDEST SECTION IN THE TANK. The loudest person in the loudest section is one Richard (Go Man) Stueven, a transplanted Nebraskan who leads the section in such cheers as "AAAAhhhh! Get out of the water! It's a Shark attack!" and, of course, his signature, "Go Sharks!" Go Man popped throat lozenges throughout last Friday's game, after which he and the other 209ers filed out of the tank pleased with the Sharks' victory and their part in it.

Meanwhile, at the Hammerheads' table, Robles and club secretary Ron Schioldager finally got a chance to tally up the night's new memberships: "We signed up 22," said Schioldager, beaming.

But where was the distinctive Shark hat? It was nowhere to be seen. Said Robles, "Some guy came up and said, 'Will you take $100 for that hat?' I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid."



Fans of every stripe (here framed by the mouth of the team's ersatz shark) come to show their colors and do the Chomp (below).



[See caption above.]



In the swim in the Shark Tank (clockwise from far left): Kristi Yamaguchi cuts an enthusiastic figure; a finned Zamboni; a sign of the times; Irbe shows saving grace; "Yea Sergei, Yea Igor," wrote Frog Man in Makarov and Larionov's native tongue.



[See caption above.]