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Hockey Heaven : Now if Sharks Could Only Find Way to San Jose

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Being an expansion team is never easy. It requires the use of guile and charm as substitutes for talent in the battle for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the citizenry.

It can be done. It has been done. But never quite the way the San Jose Sharks are doing it.

A key to success for any team, expansion or otherwise, is its ability to do well at home.

Not the Sharks. They haven’t even been there yet. The San Jose Sharks have never played a game in San Jose. Nor will they until the fall of 1993, at the earliest.

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Until their $152-million arena is ready, the Sharks are playing about 40 miles up U.S. 101 in the ancient but well preserved Cow Palace.

This is the building’s 50th year of operation. Named for its traditional role as the host site of the Grand National Livestock Exposition, Horse Show and Rodeo, the Cow Palace has also been used for everything from the Republican national conventions of 1956 and 1964 to concerts with everybody from the Beatles to Frank Sinatra to Liberace.

The NBA’s Warriors have played some games there.

And so have several hockey teams, beginning with the San Francisco Seals of the Western Hockey League in 1961 and including the expansion California Seals of the NHL who played some games in the Cow Palace in the late ‘60s.

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So, it seemed a natural spot for the Sharks during the two-year waiting period for their permanent home.

What might not seem so natural is the support received by this club, a member of a league generally acknowledged as fourth in the pecking order among the major professional sports.

The three others are liberally represented in the Bay Area with two major league baseball teams and an NFL and NBA club.

Yet fans, many of whom don’t know a puck from a pancake, are flocking to the Cow Palace and the team’s merchandise has soared to the top among NHL clubs, exceeding even the lucrative products of the Kings.

“We knew we would do well in Northern California,” said Shark Vice President Matt Levine. “What we did not envision was doing so well nationwide. Most retailers are showing a softness this Christmas season that is not healthy. But we are bucking the trend and exploding.”

Limited by a Cow Palace seating capacity of 10,888, the team has had to cut off season tickets at 8,600. But, including tonight’s game against the Kings, the Sharks have sold out all 10 of their home games despite getting off to the expected stumbling start with a 3-17-1 record.

And, according to Levine, the team will sell out at least 25 of its 40 home games.

Even more impressive in terms of their future, the Sharks are filling those seats with bodies from San Jose and surrounding Santa Clara County. Forty percent of the Cow Palace crowds come from Santa Clara County, with only 10% from San Francisco and 11% from Oakland.

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That helps explain the impressive merchandise sales as well. Santa Clara County, center of the rich Silicon Valley, has the second-largest per capita income in the country. The average income per household is $55,000.

Since the late ‘70s, San Jose has been the fastest-growing city in the country. At 780,000, it is the third-largest city in California, behind only Los Angeles and San Diego. It is also the 11th-largest in the nation.

But, it has been starving for an identity.

“People are so excited now,” said Steve Tedesco, president of the San Jose Chamber of Commerce. “They say it’s so much fun to watch the sports news and see San Jose mentioned with all the other cities.”

It is because of the population growth, the mushrooming wealth of the area, the huge number of transplanted Easterners and Canadians and the general feeling that it’s about time to stand up and be noticed that this team is expected to succeed where its hockey predecessors in the area failed.

But this whole venture almost failed before it began. The NHL had been looking to the Bay Area for expansion. So too, however, had the Gund brothers, George and Gordon, the unhappy owners of the Minnesota North Stars.

But if the Gunds pulled off the move, the NHL would lose on two counts:

--No $50-million expansion fee.

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--No presence in Minnesota, a hockey hotbed at the amateur level.

Finally, a compromise was worked out that enabled the Gunds to sell the North Stars for $38 million and get the expansion rights to San Jose.

Part of the wheeling and dealing involved a complicated dispersal draft that enabled the Sharks to draft a segment of the Minnesota roster.

Negotiations over the particulars became so bitter that the North Stars demanded that Shark scouts pay their way into North Star games.

The North Stars wanted to change the ground rules of the draft.

Finally, a compromise was worked out that allowed Minnesota to keep some of its younger players

Thus the Sharks were born. Even the process drew huge attention.

A contest to pick the name of the club drew 5,700 entries with 2,300 names suggested. A student in Vancouver, who calls himself “the Nickname Mastermind,” sent in 300 possibilities.

He didn’t win.

Neither did the Screaming Squids, the Cansecos, the Nation’s Habit (kind of a poor man’s version of America’s Team), the Great Quakes, the Megabytes, the Chips, the BARTS, the Puckeroos, the Silicons, or, that old standby, The Yodeling Yams.

Said one San Jose official, “Why don’t we just get it over with and call them the San Jose Nerds?”

Sharks was finally picked because, among other things, the area has seven species of shark, including the Great White.

And when it came time to name the new arena, someone suggested the San Jose Inferiority Complex.

Once upon a time, that might have fit.

But no more.


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