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Monday, May 10, 2004
Fans flex their hockey brains

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- In San Jose, the people who follow hockey don't follow the labor talks. Not important, not imminent, and besides, who wants to confront this cruel practical joke while the caterers are still at their phones?

This is the best season in Sharks history. They are, after only 12 false starts, and some of those never-started-at-alls, finally getting the respect from their Canadian superiors they always ached for.

They want Don Cherry in town, and don't care which members of the State Department he insults.

They spent more than a decade learning not to be hockey dilettantes, to be more than the easily-amused rubes they were the first time the Sharks made the playoffs a decade ago. And now you want to tell them that they'd better enjoy this while they've got it because tomorrow, the world goes dark?

Yeah, right. In your hat, Elrod. They'll deal with that when they deal with it.

Understand here, we are not talking about a southern riding of metropolitan Toronto. San Jose is still a part of NFL America, and Tim Rattay blowing out a groin muscle four months before the 49ers' season begins is still way bigger news than the Sharks in the Western Conference final.

They still know only a bit about the players on the opposing teams (and almost nothing about Steve Montador until the moment he scored the winning goal in Game 1 on Sunday), and the intricacies of where to put the puck right before a line change may escape them, but as American fans go, their knowledge is middle of the pack, maybe slightly above.

Sharks fans used to be noted for their slavish loyalty, their willingness to cheer anything in teal that skated in a circle and answered to the name "Arturs Irbe." They were as discriminating as Fido at dinner, so they never booed, and their players appreciated them for that.

But a funny thing happened last year. They went to pot. After a five-year run of playoff appearances, they went all gray and lifeless. The successful coach, Darryl Sutter, was fired by ownership know-it-alls who apparently had been spoiling for just such an opportunity, and at season's end, their own favorite goat of scaping, general manager Dean Lombardi, got it too.

Suddenly, the Sharks were like every other NHL franchise -- capable of hosing the audience at a moment's notice.

And the fans said, "Hey, you know what? I don't have to watch this if I don't want to." They became discerning fans, ones that returned the relationship between customer and entrepreneur to its rightful place. They wanted more for their $8.50 beer than $8.50 beer.

And now they have it, a team that skates fast and hard and wins and is thisclose to the Stanley Cup final.

Plus, there is some self-satisfaction involved in having to beat a Canadian team to do it, because, and let's be honest here, Canadian fans know more. The Sharks' clientele wants to win, and to impress the people who put The Hockey News on top of the family Bible. They want the respect of people just like them, only way more into it.

So when the Sharks faced Calgary on Sunday, they warmly applauded the Canadian national anthem. They roared at Cherry's Flames hard hat and a coat he had stolen off a bagpiper at the Policeman's Benevolent Association Stop-And-Frisk Dinner Dance. They reveled in their team's uber-legitimacy.

They'd finally made it, and they wanted to show they could hang with the big boys north of the border, let alone Hockeytown, Beantown, The Big Apple and Nashville.

Well, OK. We're kidding about Nashville. And, given the state of the Rangers, the Apple, too.

So as they prep for Game 2 on Tuesday night, they will be also be prepping for their latest advancement in hockey self-esteem. Their boys are playing for big stakes here, and they are long past primers on icing, two-line passes and the neutral-ice trap.

But they're not there yet. They just now figured out who Steve Montador is, but they are still miles from Chuck Kobasew, Marcus Nilson, Toni Lydman or Mike Commodore.

They figure they still have time to bone up on the rest of them, though, certainly in time for Game 5 next Monday. They're not Stephen Hawking, but they can be taught.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.