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Matt Levine wanted to make the San Jose Sharks' jersey launch more than just a typical PR event.
San Jose's executive vice president of business operations wanted it to have global appeal. He wanted multiple news cameras filming it. He wanted it to replay on sports highlight shows all across North America.
In order to achieve this goal, Levine decided to pick up the phone and call Colleen Howe, wife of hockey great Gordie Howe and also his business manager.
“I said, ‘It would mean a great deal for us if the Babe Ruth of hockey could be part of this and help establish us in the constellation of the NHL,'” Levine recalled. “She talked to him and came back and she said, ‘When is it?’”
Howe died Friday at the age of 88, but left a lasting legacy in San Jose with this one big appearance for the team.
This all occurred in February 1991. The Sharks already had a great deal of momentum in the Bay Area. Their ‘name the team’ contest had been publicized in newspapers all over the world along with national and cable networks.
The next step was to make their jersey ceremony reveal pop and Levine thought bringing Howe to San Jose, all expenses paid by the Sharks, would give the team the type of buzz it craved.
“I said (to Colleen) ‘We’ll pay for your airfare. We’ll meet you at the airport. We’ll put you up. We’d like you to attend a dinner and if possible we would like Gordie to make a couple of media appearances,” Levine said. “She went back to him and said, ‘OK, we’re in! Send us the tickets!’”
The Sharks put the Howes up at the Hotel De Anza, just a few blocks from the new arena.
When he arrived he went to a local television affiliate where the local anchor tried to get a rise out of Howe by asking him about hockey fights.
Ever the ambassador of the game Howe, who was known as one of the league’s best pugilists as well as one of its top goal scorers, made sure to point out how hockey involved skill and grace along with a physical nature.
“Gordie raised his eyebrow and didn’t say anything and then went on to say in a very peaceful gentlemanly way, ‘You know we have a fair amount of contact in the sport and it’s a way of letting energy go. It still doesn’t keep it from being a beautiful sport and accounts for a very little portion for what overall is a fantastic game. And it’s a good reason for me to keep my elbows sharp,’” Levine said.
The main event happened the next day at Vallco Ice Rink. The Sharks put up bleachers on the ice and invited all people who submitted ‘Sharks’ as part of the team naming competition. About 300 of them showed up. Levine said there were 11 cameras there – all the local stations, major news networks along with cable giants ESPN, CNN and USA Network.
“We preceded it with an on-ice choreographed appearance of fans wearing different merchandise with the new logo and then it was followed by Gordie and (owner) George (Gund III) skating onto the ice in the new jerseys,” Levine said. “We always appreciated he thought it important enough to attend and it sort of developed a connection between us and the world of hockey and the fact that even though we were the young squirts on the block we had an appreciation for hockey’s history.”
Throughout the entire visit to the Bay Area, Howe often went above-and-beyond to converse with fans and push the game. He had no connection to the area as an NHL player, but he wanted to grow hockey and saw a big opportunity.
“We never paid him any fees, which is really an important part of that. It’s a courteous gesture to pick up his expenses. In these days of commercialism and even when you see people doing things in concerts for charity, they’re being paid,” Levine said. “Gordie did not receive a fee for attending, which was special.”
In today’s day-and-age, maybe it wouldn’t matter that 11 cameras made it to San Jose that day. All you need is a phone, an internet video channel and a social media account to make something go viral. But in those times it was a big deal and Levine believes the Sharks jersey launch wouldn’t have merited such a buzz without Howe.
Their idea to bring him in and Howe's willingess was one of the many reasons why the Sharks jersey was the league's most popular early in San Jose's history.
“We would have had all the local stations. We might have had ESPN and CNN because they were following our story right from the start,” Levine said. “I don’t think we would have gotten the national networks.”
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