The answer: In a crawl space under a bomb shelter beneath the cellar of the NHL's Pacific Division.
The question: Where would the Sharks be this year without Owen Nolan?
As it is, San Jose will spend the rest of the season in familiar fashion: biting its nails, nervously monitoring out-of-town scores and sweating every point as it struggles to squeeze into the final Western Conference playoff spot. That the Sharks are even on the postseason bubble is a testament to Nolan's newfound ability to carry a team.
Power forwards such as Nolan have soft hands around the net and deliver hard checks all over the ice. While not among the best known brothers in this fraternity, which boasts stars such as Eric Lindros of the Flyers and Keith Tkachuk of the Coyotes, the 6'1", 210-pound Nolan is the power forward having the best season. After scoring a total of 33 goals in his previous two campaigns, the 28-year-old Nolan, a right wing, had 40 through Sunday, second in the league to Panther Pavel Bure's 46, and 78 points, third in the league.
It's not unusual to see the Belfast-born Nolan get his Irish up on the ice. "He's got a crazy edge," says linemate Vincent Damphousse, "a look in his eyes that puts fear in the other players. When the defensemen know he's coming up on them, they tend to give up the puck a little quicker. There's more room when Owen is on the ice."
In a somewhat silly and subjective attempt to quantify toughness, the NHL now keeps a statistic called "hits," which tracks the number of bodychecks by each player. No other player in the top five in scoring was within 90 of Nolan's 192 hits through Sunday. On consecutive nights in late January he fought the Canucks' 6'3", 225-pound Todd Bertuzzi to a draw and won a decision over Islanders enforcer Gino Odjick. Nolan picked both fights, though he had no gripe with either guy. "Our team, me included, was in a funk," he says. "I figured I'd try to spark some excitement."
He spoke while squinting through a swollen and sutured left eyelid that had been sliced two nights earlier by a Red Wing's inadvertent high stick. Nolan's goal in that game was his 40th, making him the first Shark ever to reach that milestone. More important, it earned San Jose, which was in eighth place in the Western Conference at week's end, a 1-1 tie at a time when it needs every point it can get. After bolting to the best start in franchise history (8-1-0-0), the Sharks have looked more like their old selves, having failed to win back-to-back games since early December. "I always thought he was a very good player, but I didn't know he could play to this level," says San Jose winger Tony Granato. "He's been our best player almost every game. It seems that Owen's been part of every important goal we've scored."
Why should Granato or anyone else be surprised by Nolan's play? He had a total of 78 goals in his first two full NHL seasons. The question isn't Where did this guy come from? Rather, it should be Where has he been?
Selected by the Nordiques with the first pick of the 1990 draft, Nolan started his NHL career strongly, but in October 1995 he was traded to San Jose for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. By then the Nordiques had become the Avalanche, which was on the cusp of the Stanley Cup. The Sharks were one of the worst teams in the league. "Let's face it," says San Jose general manager Dean Lombardi. "When he got here, we weren't good."
The brooding Nolan didn't need much of a reason to go into a funk. Trading places with Ozolinsh and then watching his Colorado buddies win the Cup discouraged him. He had a decent season in 1996-97, but in '97-98 and '98-99 combined, he scored nine fewer goals than he had in his first full NHL season (42). "They were ugly times," says Nolan. "We were a defensive team, we never had a lot of offensive players, and when I did get opportunities, I didn't take advantage of them."