To many longtime hockey fans, Commissioner Gary Bettman seems more interested in destroying the game they love than protecting it.
In his 20-year tenure, the NHL has witnessed three work stoppages; an expansion into the Deep South to the neglect of northern markets; and a television contract with a network that tried to promote the sport with ridiculous, gimmicky, video game-style graphics (see: Fox’s glow puck).
Bettman can’t even take credit for the NHL’s most successful expansion into a nontraditional market: the Sharks.
After months of anticipation, Bay Area hockey fans will finally get to bang on the glass at an NHL game when the puck drops on the Sharks’ home opener at HP Pavilion tonight.
As usual, teal-clad fans will pack the barn to the brim, creating a raucous atmosphere as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Logan Couture get set to make another run at Lord Stanley’s Cup.
How did San Jose become such a hotbed for NHL hockey?
It started with George and Gordon Gund’s visionary instincts to locate a franchise in the South Bay during the John Ziegler era 23 years ago.
This was an absolutely brilliant move. Up north, the Sharks would be at the bottom of the bill behind the 49ers, Giants, Raiders, A’s, Warriors and even Cal.
At the time, the South Bay was virgin soil for professional sports. The population was growing, the tech industry was starting to take off and no one had planted a flag in the untapped market.
Now, San Jose is the largest city in the Bay Area. Apple, Google and Facebook are taking over the world and the Silicon Valley is spilling over with transient 30-somethings looking for places to dump their disposable incomes.
Despite all of this, the Sharks are still the only big-league ticket in town.
Others are catching on, though. The 49ers are moving to Santa Clara after the 2013 NFL season and the A’s are determined to build a ballpark in San Jose. But at this point, the Sharks aren’t going to be pushed off the puck, regardless of who comes next.
After 19 seasons at the Shark Tank, the brand is entrenched. Sharks fans know the difference between interference and goaltender interference, when to dump and chase and when to carry the puck over, and they don’t show up just to see a fight. Heck, if you hang around the rink long enough, you might even catch a few “eh’s” and “aboot’s.”
Hockey also tends to be more of a suburban sport, which makes the South Bay a good fit for an NHL franchise.
It costs a lot of money to play hockey; you can easily drop $400 or $500 on equipment, so the game isn’t completely accessible to every segment of the population. By locating in San Jose, the NHL assured that it would be appealing to a population that can support the game on a grass-roots level, too.
After a 113-day lockout, some are questioning whether these “nontraditional” fans will return to the rink with the same enthusiasm. The answer is, yes, they love hockey, regardless of how many obstacles Bettman may throw in their direction.
Paul Gackle is a regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner and also writes at www.gacklereport.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.