Thirteen to one. At first glance it looked like the score of a Canadian Football League game—seeing as how in Canadian football you can score a single point by kicking the ball into the end zone, eh? But this was a hockey score, and a gruesome one for the San Jose Sharks.
After taking a 1-0 lead over the Calgary Flames on Feb. 10, the Sharks lapsed briefly, yielding 13 goals. Among the eight Flames who each finished with at least two points were winger Theoren Fleury, who was plus nine, and Jeff Reese, whose three assists set an NHL record for points by a goaltender in a single game. For the Sharks the loss was the worst in the two-year history of the franchise.
While the Sharks can't find a way to stop the opposition, they are finding new and painful ways to make the record book. The Calgary defeat was number 16 in San Jose's league-record-tying 17-game losing streak, a streak that spanned seven weeks and two presidential administrations, a streak not to be confused with the nine- and 13-game losing streaks the Sharks had endured earlier in the season, or the six-game streak in which they were mired as of Sunday. "The scary part," says San Jose co-general manager Dean Lombardi, "is that last year we lost 58 games, but we were competitive in those losses. This season we're out of games early."
The Sharks, who were 8-55-2 at week's end, have indeed regressed. If they are not the worst team in NHL history—the 1974-75 expansion Washington Capitals, the only other team to lose 17 in a row, finished with 21 points, while Sad Jose, as the Sharks are known around the league, is on a pace to get 23—the Sharks are the sorriest second-year team in league annals. What we are seeing is less sophomore jinx than Biblical plague.
Why the slide? For starters, the Sharks lack talent and depth. Before this season, management released many of the veterans who'd helped the team win a surprising 17 games in its first season. Time to start developing the young talent, went management's thinking. But some of that talent—notably Pat Falloon, the Sharks' only sharpshooter, and Sandis Ozolinsh, a promising rookie defenseman—has been injured most of the second half of the season. What's more, some of that young talent is less talented than San Jose scouts had hoped. Says coach George Kingston, "We discovered that just because you're young doesn't mean you're going to get better."
It did not help that last June, team president Art Savage fired general manager Jack Ferreira, an astute hockey man who commanded respect around the NHL. Rather than replace Ferreira, Savage instructed that the duties of general manager be shared by Kingston, then assistant general manager Lombardi and director of player personnel Chuck Grillo, who have become known as both the Three-headed Shark and the Kingston Trio. Many NHL observers have their doubts, to say the least, about this unorthodox troika.
Says Phil Esposito, general manager of the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning, whose 19 wins through Sunday have thrown the dreadfulness of the Sharks into even sharper focus, "If I want to talk about a deal [with San Jose], I don't know who to call."
The team, though, is still enjoying a honeymoon in northern California. All but six of this season's home games at the ancient, malodorous 11,089-seat Cow Palace have been sellouts. And Shark merchandise of snappy gray, black and blue—oh, sorry, that's Pacific teal—is walking off the shelves at stores, and not just in the Bay Area. As of last June, national sales of Shark gear totaled about $150 million, an unprecedented figure for an NHL franchise. This is not happenstance.
After a franchise was awarded to San Jose, team marketing people spent 13 months on consumer research before choosing San Jose's name, colors and logos. Why a shark? "A shark immediately summons an image of aggression, speed and strength," says San Jose vice-president Matt Levine, inadvertently listing qualities that the current Sharks lack.
Levine went to Neiman-Marcus, Bloomingdale's, L.L. Bean, Starter and other companies and asked, "What shades of blue sell best?" Teal, he heard over and over. Studies showed that by itself, teal appealed to women; when it was combined with black, men went for it too. After the logo was finally completed, it was introduced at a press conference conducted on the ice in San Jose. "ESPN and CNN picked it up," says Levine. "It became a national story."