One San Jose Shark fan removes her brassiere and flings it to the ice to celebrate hat tricks. Another sawed a gigantic dorsal fin out of a piece of plywood and bolted it to the roof of his Volkswagen bus, which he christened the Sharkmobile. Another lives in Napa, Calif., and flies his private plane 75 miles to games in San Jose. Still another—Mayor Susan Hammer, whose surname leaves her little choice but to root for the home team—stood before several thousand hockey fans at a recent rally and drilled them on the Chomp, mimicking with her arms the opening and closing of a set of jaws. It wasn't the leader of the free world discussing his underwear preferences, but it wasn't a moment brimming with dignity, either. "They all need a lobotomy," San Jose coach Kevin Constantine has said of his team's fans, "and I mean that in the nicest way."
If Shark fans seem a bit daft these days, it's because they're delirious with joy. Despite Sunday night's 8-3 home-ice loss in Game 4, which evened its second-round NHL playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs at two games apiece, San Jose still stood a good chance of advancing to the Western Conference finals. Nobody expected this third-year expansion team, loser of 129 games its first two seasons in the league, to advance past the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs, let alone engage the Leafs in a battle of attrition in the second.
Then again, nobody expected the Sharks to even make the playoffs this season. Loaded with castoffs, supposedly washed-up veterans and unproven youngsters, they were pulled together by Constantine, their rookie coach, and made into a team. Their defensive style may be boring to fans and their neutral-zone trap may be infuriating to opponents, but no one can quibble with the results.
This on-ice U-turn by the Sharks has highlighted a turnaround in the fortunes of San Jose. The Sharks' fantastic voyage through the postseason is only the latest coup for a city that for decades carried a sequoia-sized inferiority complex.
"This is the most excitement we've had around here since they lynched a couple of guys in St. James Park [in 1933]," observed Steve (the Beamer) Behm, morning drive-time host on KEZR. Behm was one of 3,000 fans who converged on the San Jose Arena, known locally as the Shark Tank, on May 4 to watch a telecast of a 5-1 loss to the Maple Leafs in the second game of the series.
Not far from the Beamer, Todd Johnson, a short man nursing a tall beer, talked about why he had been willing to regularly make the 100-mile round-trip drive from San Jose to the Cow Palace, just south of San Francisco, where the Sharks played in their first two seasons while awaiting the completion of the San Jose Arena. "Before the Sharks, you had to root for the 49ers or the Warriors or the Giants," said Johnson, a computer operator who so enjoyed watching hockey that he decided to learn how to play the game. "This is our team."
The hangings to which Behm referred occurred 35 years before Dionne Warwick posed her famous musical inquiry about the city that raised another question: Why would anyone want to know the way to San Jose? It was a boring backwater whose downtown would have been an apt target for Gertrude Stein's famous put-down: There was no there there. The Sharks' arena marketing director Elaine Sullivan-Digre needs just seven words to sum up San Jose's old image: "Rundown, some crime, nothing to do."
The comeback began in the mid-1980s when then mayor Tom McEnery spearheaded development of the downtown area, large portions of which consisted of razed buildings. McEnery's most lasting legacy is the $162 million Arena, into which the Sharks moved after their stint in the Cow Palace, an ancient venue that hosts an annual rodeo and retains a barnlike odor year-round.
"The best decision that's been made in this city in 20 years was to put the Arena within walking distance of downtown," says Hammer, who succeeded McEnery nearly four years ago. Before and after Arena events, thousands pour into restaurants and bars. Says Hammer, "The economic impact has been incredible."
The rebirth of San Jose (pop. 780,000) has come, to a degree, at the expense of San Francisco (pop. 720,000), in whose shadow it languished for so long. Last year San Jose lured a major men's tennis tournament from the City by the Bay. In April, Luciano Pavarotti played at the San Jose Arena, bypassing San Francisco, as will Barbra Streisand next month, when her world tour takes her to San Jose but not to its famous neighbor to the north. San Jose will host the NHL All-Star Game next year and the National Figure Skating Championships in 1996. Last week an exhibit of works on loan from New York City's Whitney Museum opened not in San Francisco but at the San Jose Museum of Art.