SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Patrick Marleau grew up playing pond hockey on a farm in Aneroid, Saskatchewan. He and his brother would brave the cold and snow, and they’d try to keep pucks from falling through a hole in the ice. There was a hole in the ice so their cows could drink.
He was drafted second overall by the Sharks in 1997. He has played in San Jose ever since, 17 seasons now. The past few years, he has watched several other NHL teams host outdoor games. Last year, he even saw the Los Angeles Kings host the Anaheim Ducks at Dodger Stadium.
“I was wondering if we’d ever get a chance to do it,” he said.
Now here he was Friday afternoon practicing at Levi’s Stadium, the home of the San Francisco 49ers. At one point, someone fired a puck over the glass, and it splashed in a water feature between the rink and the stands. There wasn’t a cow in sight, but there was a fake shark fin.
The Sharks will host the Kings on Saturday night before a sellout crowd of more than 69,000, the largest in franchise history. Only two Sharks have played in an NHL outdoor game before, so they used words like “shock” and “awe” and “excited.” This is their turn. This is their time.
But they can enjoy it only so much.
They have lost to the Kings in the playoffs the last two years -- blowing a 3-0 lead in the first round last season and watching Los Angeles go on to win the Stanley Cup. They had a tumultuous offseason. They saw attendance slip at the SAP Center.
They have won only three of their last 10 games, and they’re clinging to the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. They have 68 points, two more than the Kings, but the Kings have three games in hand.
This will be the 15th modern NHL outdoor game. It might be the most meaningful.
“We need to win,” said center Logan Couture. “We know where we are in the standings. We know where they are in the standings. I think it’s more than just a hockey game. It’s a massive hockey game for our team when it comes to making a push towards the playoffs.”
The Sharks do have something to celebrate. They joined the NHL in 1991-92 and spent two seasons at the Cow Palace in Daly City, just outside San Francisco. They moved into the Shark Tank in San Jose and became a model for franchises in non-traditional markets, with good teams and loud crowds. They are riding a 10-season playoff streak, the second-longest in the NHL and the third-longest in North American professional sports.
They are part of the growth of hockey in California. Their own Matt Nieto, a Long Beach native, is one of 11 players born in California to skate in at least one NHL game this season. The state will support a five-team division in the American Hockey League next season.
Yet, the Sharks have never made the Stanley Cup Final, let alone won a championship. The Ducks have won the Cup and the Kings twice. They have earned a reputation for not living up to the hype. They were one of the best teams in the league last season, and when they lost to the Kings again — the way they did — it was devastating.
General manager Doug Wilson kept his job. So did coach Todd McLellan. But there was tension between them, between them and the players, and maybe between some players. Wilson revealed players had told him in exit interviews they felt more like co-workers than teammates. He used the word “rebuild,” saying he was committed to going younger.
Though he insisted he wasn’t, Wilson seemed to be trying to get Marleau and Joe Thornton to waive the no-trade clauses in the three-year contract extensions they had just signed a few months before. Thornton was stripped of the captaincy.
The players took a bonding trip to Lake Tahoe before training camp and seemed to rally around Thornton. They started 4-0-1, then lost four straight. They won three of four, then lost three of four. The ups and downs continued.
“Our year started after we lost Game 7,” McLellan said. “It didn’t just start in Game 1. It started with a number of decisions we made as an organization. It started with getting younger and incorporating younger players into the lineup. And right now I think we’re trying to define and clarify expectations. We can’t give ourselves permission to be average. We’re better than average, and we’ve got to play that way.”
The Sharks are still averaging 17,391 – 99 percent of capacity at the SAP Center. But a 205-game sellout streak ended Oct. 25 against the Buffalo Sabres, and half of their 30 home games haven’t sold out this season. Little more than a week ago, with Alex Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in town, the Sharks announced a crowd of 16,956, their smallest since February 2006. A fair amount of tickets that have been sold have gone unused at times, too.
“You notice it when you see a bunch of empty seats or they announce the attendance and they say something other than 17,592, whatever it is,” said Couture, who just missed the official capacity of 17,562. “Obviously the way the last couple years have ended probably hurt, and this year’s probably hurt as well. We want them to come back. We’re going to play as hard as we can for them to come back. When they come to the games, they’re still very supportive. It’s a great fan base. It’s awesome out here.”
It should be awesome out here Saturday night. A full stadium. A big game. Bitter rivals. It will be a spectacle with something at stake.
“Obviously we’ve come out on the wrong end the last couple years,” Couture said. “We don’t like them. They don’t like us. They’ve beaten us. Makes it worse for us, I’d say. They’ve won a couple Cups. We haven’t. We want to beat them every time we play them.”