They sold out the dowdy Cow Palace and became a marketing phenomenon in their first season, but San Jose’s affection for the Sharks began to fade when they regressed from 17 victories to 11 last season.
Their move to the new $162.5-million San Jose Arena would have boosted their attendance this season no matter how they played, but Coach Kevin Constantine made it clear he had high expectations.
“Kevin said right from the start, ‘we’re not rebuilding or trying to be respectable, we’re trying to make the playoffs,’ ” right wing Rob Gaudreau said. “We’re right there. Considering we started 0-8-1, it’s pretty good.”
Since then, the Sharks have gone 10-5-3 and jumped into contention for their first playoff berth. With 24 points--as many as they earned all last season--they rank eighth in the Western Conference.
Constantine’s emphasis on defense and his unshakable faith during the team’s dismal start have made postseason play a realistic goal.
“Anytime you lose, your confidence is tested, especially when you start the season like we did, and this being a franchise that hasn’t really done anything,” said Constantine, who replaced George Kingston in June. “Everybody questions things as far as coaching and the players (are concerned). Nonetheless, during that 0-8-1 stretch, I saw signs we were doing things better than in the past. Our goals-against was down, our shots-against was down and we were in every game until the buzzer.”
They often win at the buzzer because of the superb goaltending of Latvian-born Arturs Irbe, whose 2.54 goals-against average and .907 save percentage are among the NHL’s best.
“He’s been fabulous, and in this league you’re not going to get anywhere without a great goalie,” Constantine said. “You look at even the great offensive teams--the Edmonton Oilers in their Stanley Cup years and the Pittsburgh Penguins--and you’re still going to find a (Grant) Fuhr or a (Tom) Barrasso back there.”
ROLLING IN DOUGH
Last season a San Jose pizza chain advertised, “Sharks score three and the pizza is free.” A safe bet, given the team’s average of 2.59 goals a game.
Apparently fearing a run on pepperoni this season, the pizza maker changed the slogan to, “With four in the net, pizza you get.” Four in the net? Not much of a threat, since the Sharks are averaging only 2.48 goals.
A LITTLE TRAVELING MUSIC, PLEASE
The Quebec Nordiques, unhappy with the cramped Colisee, reportedly have an agreement with the NHL, allowing them to move after this season. They are looking at Atlanta, Houston and Phoenix.
The operators of Edmonton’s Northlands Coliseum arena got a court injunction to prevent owner Peter Pocklington from taking additional steps to move the Oilers to Minneapolis, leaving that club’s future address uncertain. And the Winnipeg Jets are restless, even though they have persuaded the city and the province of Manitoba to pay the first $1.5 million of their estimated $6-million loss until a decision is reached on a new arena.
The NHL’s Canadian roots are being trampled by a lust for franchises in U.S. Sunbelt cities with big television markets. Exposing the game to more Americans is great, but not at the expense of tradition. By NHL standards, the NFL would have left Green Bay a long time ago, but the NFL respects its history. Edmonton is on a competitive and box-office downturn, but so were the Islanders a few seasons ago and no one suggested they abandon Long Island.
THE HULL TRUTH
Kudos to Brett Hull for ignoring the NHL’s asinine attempt to keep players from criticizing the officials during the strike by referees and linesmen. That’s not an endorsement of anarchy, but it would be absurd to punish players for stating the obvious--that many subs are indecisive and incompetent.
Hull recorded a hat trick of sorts last week, blasting the subs, the video goal judge and his own coach in successive games. It’s a measure of his value to the Blues that he wasn’t sanctioned for calling St. Louis Coach Bob Berry’s system a “prevent defense” that endorses going into a defensive shell with a lead.
“I don’t try to muzzle him at all. What he says is from the heart,” Berry said. “What concerns me more is how well he plays, and he’s playing extremely well right now.”
Hull has 14 goals and 32 points in 20 games.
The longer the on-ice officials are off the job, the greedier they seem.
After lengthy talks last week had produced agreements on salary, insurance and severance pay, progress halted when officials demanded that their raises be made retroactive to the start of the season. That contradicts an agreement they signed months ago to the effect that any raises would be retroactive only if there was no work stoppage. They have also tried to reopen talks on their postseason playoff pool and pension increases.
A federal mediator has volunteered to help settle this mess, and that seems a sensible solution. A meeting is scheduled today at an undisclosed location.
LIGHTNING STRIKING AGAIN
In noting Tampa Bay’s struggles to score, TV analyst Bobby Taylor declared, “A laugher for the Tampa Bay Lightning is a two-goal victory.”
Added Coach Terry Crisp, “Yeah, and one of those goals is an empty-netter.”
The Lightning doesn’t have much offense, but it will have a 21,000-seat arena in downtown Tampa for 1995-96, according to plans announced last week.
The headsets linking substitute officials with supervisors will be used by rookie officials when the regulars return. . . . Here’s an idea for next season: implement the two-referee system, which has been tried in minor league and exhibition games. As seen over the weekend in the Great Western Freeze-out, it kept the game clean and orderly.
Ted Green’s dismissal as coach of the Oilers was the first firing of an Edmonton coach since 1980-81. It wasn’t Green’s fault Pocklington ordered General Manager Glen Sather to get rid of the high-paid talent. . . . Crisp may be the next coach out the door. . . . The Flyers’ Garry Galley has tied the Rangers’ Brian Leetch for the scoring lead among defensemen, at 30 points each. . . . The Red Wings’ three-game winning streak has them above .500 (11-10-2) for the first time this season.