By: Eric He
June 18, 2016
It didn’t really hit me until hours after Game 6 ended, when I got in my car in the mostly empty parking lot outside SAP Center and revved up the engine: the San Jose Sharks, the team that I grew up rooting for, that had made me suffer through years of playoff choke jobs, was actually in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 25-year history. And not only was I there to witness it, but I also had access to the locker room, press conferences, ice level — essentially, backstage access to hockey’s premier event.
There are many things I dreamed of doing before I turned 20. Covering a Stanley Cup Final was not even remotely on that list. I mean, the only team I had access to was the Sharks. I had better odds of winning a lottery ticket.
Two years ago, I landed a position as a Sharks’ beat writer with SFBay.ca that got me in the press box for home games. While it was a great experience covering a professional team, it also happened to be same year they missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Interest in the team waned, attendance at SAP Center was slumping, and the team just was playing awful hockey at home. The night they were mathematically knocked out of the playoffs was also the final home game of the season. I wrote a very depressing recap after a 5-1 clubbing, followed it up a week later with a harsh editorial that’s funny to read now, and left for college without covering so much as a playoff game.
I didn’t really follow the Sharks as closely during the regular season. They had lost a lot of trust and interest. Fans were fed up, and even when they snuck into the playoffs, nothing much was expected of them. They finished third in the division and matched up with the Kings in the first round, and to be frank, anything short of another first round debacle might have surpassed expectations.
They ended up winning in five games, shocking the away crowd with a searing 6-3 win. My favorite part of that series was being in the Sharks’ locker room after Game 1 and in the middle of a media scrum around Martin Jones when Sharks’ majority owner Hasso Plattner strolled in, clapping loudly, and praising Brent Burns. I wrote about that here and snapped this shot of the happy German man enjoying pizza with Burns:
While making quick work of the Kings was impressive, I couldn’t really drum up a whole lot of enthusiasm. They would have to do a lot more to make up of the past two years of misery and the past 25 years of postseason mediocrity.
They faced the Predators in the second round, and the semester wrapped up just in time for me to make Game 7 at the Shark Tank.
I was fully prepared a loss. I think years of first supporting and now covering the Sharks has me accustomed to them choking in the biggest moments. But, to everyone’s surprise, they dominated in a 5-0 win.
When I look back at when I actually thought this team would be different, this was the game. I had an inkling in Game 1 in the first round when they were unfazed by an opening goal by the Kings and pulled out a clutch win late in the third period. But this win sealed it. They were confident and poised, unlike any of the meek Sharks’ playoff teams of the past.
Still, I was fully aware the Sharks were 0-3 in their history in the conference finals and had dropped seven of their last eight games in that round. They rarely make it this deep in the playoffs, and even when they do, it ends in woefully short fashion, with every crazy-ass bounce going against them:
They wound up wrapping up the series in six games — Game 6 of the conference finals was the only clinching game I didn’t attend — and earned a spot in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.
It impactful not just for the team but for some of the players, including Joe Thornton, who had been in the league since the year I was born and had yet to make an appearance in the championship. His amazing response to a question about whether he was surprised at his production this late in his career in the press conference after the Game 3 win (“No, I know I’m a great player.”) was the crux of my feature on one of hockey’s active legends.
As I mentioned, I didn’t really have a “holy shit” moment until after the Final ended. Though I fully understood I had somehow short-circuited my way to doing something a majority of sportswriters wait a lot longer to accomplish, I really never thought of it as anything more than just covering a game, like I’ve done countless times in the past.
I went out to practice two days before Game 1 against the Penguins and noted that the Sharks would need to match — if not exceed — Pittsburgh’s speed to win the series.
Promptly, the Sharks allowed the Penguins to swim circles around them in Games 1 and 2 on the road and the came back home down 2-0.
Again, I didn’t think about it at the time, but as I look back, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final — the first Stanley Cup Final game ever in San Jose — was one of the best experiences of my life, both journalistically and as a sports enthusiast in general, much less an avid follower of Sharks hockey.
I arrived at 9 a.m., eight hours before puck drop, in time to catch the optional morning skate and the coaches’ pre-game press conferences in front of the media — and Holy Media, there was a ton of them. National media, international media, even local media who didn’t give a hoot about the Sharks — or hockey, for that matter — all season long until they had to.
The NHL took over SAP Center and installed a place a giant media work area at ice level. I didn’t take a pic of it when it got full, but trust me, all of these rows were eventually packed:
For the Final, the NHL actually took physical seats in the arena and turned them into an auxiliary press area, which provided a much more decent view than sitting in the actual press box high above the rafters (fun note: when SAP Center was built, they forgot about the press box. Walking across catwalks suspended high above the arena is never fun).
As fans streamed into the area, I walked around outside and got some quotes from fans on their thoughts heading into the biggest home game in franchise history (when I heard things from older fans like “I’ve been waiting since high school” for this day or “I remember when the Sharks used to play in the Cow Palace,” I suddenly realized how small my suffering was in comparison).
Outside SAP Center, a rally started a couple of hours before puck drop, and there was a steady stream of fans coming in early.
But a majority of fans were nervous about the game, as they should have been. The Sharks were down 2-0. A win would place them back in the series. A loss would have effectively ended the party after it had barely started.
And man, did the fans want to make this a series. I have never heard the Shark Tank that loud in my life, and the pre-game light show they put on was so, so cool to witness from up above.
When Joel Ward scored in the third period to tie the game 2-2, the crowd erupted like I’ve never seen before.
But quickly, the tension re-entered the building as the final half of the third period was scoreless, but not before the Penguins put on an offensive barrage at the end that had everyone gasping for breath.
Overtime was not much better. The nervousness and uneasiness in the building was palpable as the teams traded dynamite scoring chances. There’s nothing better in sports than overtime in the NHL playoffs, because it’s sudden death. Once there’s a goal, the game’s over just like that, which makes every bounce, shift, pass and shot potentially game-altering.
For nearly 13 minutes, it went on like that. It felt like 13 hours. Until Joonas Donskoi, a relatively unknown rookie from Finland, took the puck around the net and just winged it past Penguins’ goaltender Matt Murray, delivering the greatest sports moment I’ve seen live to date:
It allowed me to write what I think was my best piece from this playoff run, a feature on the quiet, unassuming Donskoi who simply put his head down and worked his butt off to just make the team. His press conference was hilarious in that he could not have looked less excited to have scored the biggest goal in franchise history.
His mentality, though, is one that I greatly respect and wish more athletes followed: put the work in, get the results, and do it again without complaining. The Sharks, in this postseason, obviously found themselves a franchise goaltender in Martin Jones, but they also have a hell of a young talent in Donskoi.
That would be the zenith of the playoff run, though. They dropped Game 4 and fell behind 3-1 in the series, though they did win Game 5 to force a sixth game — and give me my full money’s worth, being able to attend three games in the Final.
The Sharks said all the right things the day before during practice, but to be honest, they never stood a chance to the Penguins. The Sharks once again played from behind all night in Game 6, with Jones making spectacular saves to keep it at a one-goal deficit.
The crowd really, really wanted a late game-tying goal.
But it wasn’t to be, as the Penguins scored on an empty net to win the Cup, giving me the bittersweet opportunity to file a championship-clinching recap.
It’s strange to be in a team’s locker room after they just lost the championship. As the Sharks tried to make sense of the fact that their season was over, I could hear the Penguins celebrating and rejoicing. That just had to be extra salt pouring into the wound.
So that brings me all the way back to leaving SAP Center for the final time this season, the “holy shit” moment that I finally had. I think I was just simply amazed. Amazed that after 25 years of the worst kind of torture a team could possibly give to a fanbase, the Sharks finally solved the puzzle and made a Stanley Cup Final — only to lose. They waited 25 years, finally got their chance, and lost. That’s what kills me, wondering if this was just another prolonged way to give the fanbase more suffering.
But mostly, I was amazed that I was there, not only to witness but to document their attempt at history. Three years ago, I covered my first game, a sparsely-attended, horribly-played high school football game. Never did I imagine that in three years’ time, I would be covering the biggest event in all of hockey, witnessing historic moments instead of watching on TV and telling stories about the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup instead of reading them. I thought about the wild two-and-a-half month span of the playoff run in which covering games went from “a great way to get out of the dorm on Thursday night” to an experience that will last a lifetime.
The only thing missing was a story about the Sharks fully exorcising their playoff demons and winning the whole damn thing for once — but, hey, we can always do this again next year with a different result … right?