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Friday, May 14, 2010
Updated: May 15, 1:41 PM ET
Bay Area success deserves recognition

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The Sharks are swimming with hockey royalty right now, a franchise barely two decades old left standing with Original Six franchises Chicago and Montreal, as well as the well-established hockey tradition in Philadelphia.

And yet, this San Jose franchise is long overdue in receiving the national attention it deserves. The Bay Area hockey club has filled the seats from Day 1 some 19 years ago, an achievement that doesn't get the kind of widespread mention of traditional hockey markets.

"The hockey fans here are well-educated; they know the game," said the longest-serving Sharks player, Patrick Marleau, Friday after practice. "They took the time to learn it, and once a hockey fan, always a hockey fan here in the Bay Area."

When you think of the NHL's trouble spots, mainly in warmer-climate areas, you think of Florida, Atlanta, Phoenix, Nashville and, more recently, Tampa Bay, but you have never heard San Jose mentioned in the same breath.

This has been a success story since San Jose's inaugural 1991-92 season, a love affair between a loyal fan base and the team in teal. Home games have been at more than 96 percent capacity in 17 of 18 seasons. This is what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman had in mind when he began his round of expansion, not what has transpired with the Panthers, Thrashers, Coyotes and Predators.

The proof that this is a solid NHL market lies with the on-ice playoff frustrations from the past half-decade. You want to test fan loyalty? Rip off 100-point regular seasons year after year and fail to get past the second round for five straight seasons. Last year must have felt like the ultimate dagger. The Sharks won the Presidents' Trophy after a monster regular season and lost to eighth-seed Anaheim, their underdog cousins from SoCal that had already won a Stanley Cup. Ouch.

Yet Sharks fans came back in droves again: All but one game this season sold out. The team had a 93 percent season-ticket renewal rate from last season despite the first-round exit, sitting at a 15,100 season-ticket base.

"To be honest, we expected a bit of a drop, maybe down to 89 percent renewal, what with the economy and everything else," said Malcolm M. Bordelon, executive vice president of business operations for Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Sharks. "But it was strong again."

Sharks fans might have been heartbroken, but they stayed firm in their belief. As they should.

GM Doug Wilson is one of the best in the game. His patient and strategic game plan for this roster surely had to pay off in some form one day. The Sharks mostly grow from within, and Wilson has been aggressive when he believed there was a piece worth adding, like Joe Thornton or Rob Blake or Dan Boyle. In all three cases, Wilson pursued those players for more than a year. He wouldn't take no for an answer.

When Dany Heatley asked for a trade last May, Wilson laid low in the weeds, waiting all summer long and into the first day of training camp before getting Ottawa to take what he wanted. The kicker, of course, was that the Sharks would only have to pay Heatley $4 million this season, thanks to the Senators picking up a $4 million bonus this past July 1. Bargain.

The team operated within a budget here in San Jose. This isn't a big-market team with big-market revenues. Never has been. They are sold out for every game, yes, but not at the ticket prices charged in Chicago and Montreal. Their average ticket price, $60 per regular-season game, ranks ninth in the NHL.

"But we are the tenth-largest city in the country," Bordelon said. "Most people are shocked by that; we just passed Detroit recently."

The growth in the sport at a grass-roots level has also been felt. The team's practice rink is located in a facility called Sharks Ice, a four-surface building Bordelon said is the largest west of the Mississippi. "And we have the largest number of registered USA Hockey adult players in the U.S. ," he added.

Just walking around town Friday, the buzz was palpable. From Sharks signs in store windows to people wearing teal hats and sweaters, this place is pumped.

"I kind of knew how good it was, but it has exceeded my expectations," said star defenseman Boyle, who came over from Tampa Bay in July 2008. "It's a great area, the fans are awesome and we're kind of a big deal [said with a Ron Burgundy laugh]. But people from San Francisco and the surrounding area, this is a really good hockey market."

Sharks coach Todd McLellan laughed Friday recalling what some people said when the team acquired Heatley.

"Some of the pundits out there said he could go to California and just hide," McLellan said. "That's not what it's like in San Jose by any means. You can't hide here in San Jose when you play for the Sharks. It's such a passionate hockey community. I don't know how I get that across to the rest of the hockey world, but I know you can't walk down the street, you can't go for dinner [without being recognized].

"I don't know how many times I've heard from people who say, 'I've been there since the Cow Palace days. We are original Sharks fans.' And they are as passionate as any fans in the league."

And this season, the Sharks have paid those fans back with a conference finals appearance, and maybe more.

Let's be honest: Many people around the hockey universe are cheering for the script that has Chicago ending a 49-year Cup drought against the 24-time Cup champion Canadiens. But there are also some in the industry who would quietly cheer for a Cup triumph in San Jose. People around the league know how well this franchise has been run, both in hockey operations and the marketing/business side.

On the hockey side, a Cup win would vindicate years of patient roster-building. It would compensate a franchise that didn't bottom out in the standings in order to draft its core players. There's something to be said for that.

And there's something to be said for this terrific hockey town in Northern California.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.