I have just finished the very therapeutic ritual of shaving off my beard after the Sharks final game in the playoffs. Every year it ends with the same result: the Sharks waiting for the other team to finish celebrating as they awkwardly stand around, waiting to start the handshake line.
In the moment, you think that they just did one thing different, they would be the ones who hoisted the cup. If someone’s pass was just a little to the left, that would have made the difference. The what-could-have-been is enough to drive any fan insane. Why would anyone do this to themselves? Playoff hockey has been described as many things, but this is the only way to truly describe it:
why watch overtime playoff hockey when you can simply snort cocaine and ride a motorcycle out of a helicopter— Jon Bois (@jon_bois) April 17, 2014
As players finish scurrying through the handshake line, they head into the locker room and another season has slipped away.
I went to my first Sharks game soon after the lockout. I had grown up a Philadelphia Flyers fan, but fell out of it after I had moved to the West Coast. My friend and I went to a Sharks game on a whim and I was hooked. Coincidentally, they were playing the Flyers and won 5-4. I started attending games as often as I could afford and make time to go. My best friend and I eventually bought Black Armor jerseys (I got Marleau, he got Thornton). I will never forget the moment when the usher brought us our jerseys in the second period and I put it on for the first time. I was a fan for life from that moment on.
In 2008, the Sharks had made the playoffs and were playing the Calgary Flames in the first round. My best friend got us tickets to Game 7 for my birthday. This was my first playoff game and I wasn’t ready for the difference playoffs makes. Everything was overwhelming. The noise in the tank is something I will never forget. I was crying watching the hype video, overcome with joy, anxiety and excitement. A young Joe Pavelski stole my heart as he scored his third goal of the series and the Sharks were able to move on.
Again, that season eventually ended with the Sharks losing to the Dallas Stars in 4OT. This was just the appetizer for bitter playoff loses for me.
Watching Game 7 of the first round series against the Vegas Golden Knights was something I will never forget. My kids were asleep, my wife was at work. I was by myself while the Sharks were down 3-0 with time slipping away in the third period. I thought this was going to be another wasted season for a team that was very talented but couldn’t just put it together. When Pavelski hit the ice and was carried off by his teammates, I thought this would be the last time I ever see my second favorite Shark in teal. This was the worst possible ending: no cup, my favorite player hurt and Vegas probably making another cup run.
Then Logan Couture scored.
And then Tomas Hertl scored.
And Couture scored again.
And finally, Kevin Labanc scored.
I was crying, and shaking, and unable to control myself. I was alone and trying to process a million things all at once. This had never been done before. I was starting to believe that maybe this was the finally the year. Maybe, we could be the team of destiny. When Goodrow finished off Vegas in overtime, I was shaking, covered in sweat, and firmly believing this was our year. Nothing could stop us.
Rivals grow from playoff series, and when teams from the same division play each other year after year, nothing but hatred grows from it. Especially when they are able to get over the hump and do what you cannot: win it all.
In 2013, I attended Game 2 of the second round match up between the Sharks and the Kings in LA. You could see spatters of teal in a sea of black. The Sharks held a lead for most of the game until a controversial Vlasic delay of game started a 5-on-3 penalty kill that saw the Sharks give up two late goals.
Leaving the game felt like the 1979 cult classic The Warriors, trying to safely get to the car while other fans yelled, threatened and heckled me. This was playoff hockey in enemy territory, keeping your head down and just trying to make it to the car so you can take a deep breathe and try to comprehend what had happened over the previous three hours. A speak of teal lost in a sea of black, struggling to get to a safe haven. The Sharks eventually lost the series in seven games and I thought it couldn’t get any worse.
The next playoffs was something I will never forget, for the rest of my life. The Sharks jumped out to a 3-0 lead over the hated Kings. This was the year they were going to get over the hump and beat their rival. This was the year. Game 4 was going to be the end of the Kings’ reign and the start of the Sharks.
Then they lost.
And then they were shutout.
Then they were dominated.
And finally, they completed the collapse.
It was the lowest I had ever felt as a fan. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I keep coming back to heartbreak? To compound issues, the Kings went go on to hoist the cup. I wanted to walk straight into the ocean and never be seen again.
The second round series against the Colorado Avalanche was the typical young team gunning for the veterans. The Sharks were the better team, with more depth, more experience, more of everything. If they could just stop the Nathan MacKinnon line, this would be a short series. Erik Karlsson was looking better, giving Brent Burns more room to work. The Sharks could finish this off in five or six games, and get some rest after the Vegas series. That was the plan.
But the Sharks always have to make things difficult and as the series progressed, the intensity and speed of the Avalanche was devastating. Next year, the Sharks aren’t going to be able to beat this team; their young stars are too fast, too skilled and too good. This added to the urgency of the Sharks’ postseason. Other teams are getting good and the Sharks’ core is getting older. Watching the Kings and Anaheim Ducks this year showed how quickly a team can get old. The difference between the Sharks and their California rivals, though? They got old after getting a cup. The Sharks haven’t gotten there yet.
This had to be the year.
In 2016, my first child was 2 1⁄2 when the playoffs started. My father in-law had started following the Sharks after seeing my excitement. I was starting to spread the my love of the Sharks to my family.
That spring, the Sharks started out the postseason against the Kings. They moved through the Kings quickly, knocking off their rival and completing the first task of the unwritten rules of winning a championship: beating a hated rival. This was going to be the year for Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. After all the years of playoff disappointment, this was their time.
The next round against the Predators, I was lucky enough to attend Game 7 with my father-in-law. Seeing Marleau finish off the Predators and the following reaction from Pekka Rinne just affirmed my belief that this was finally our time.
During the Western Conference Final against the St. Louis Blues, it just seemed a matter of time for the Sharks. My child would run around yelling “Joe Pavelski” anytime the Sharks scored. This seemed like destiny for the Sharks and my child would not have to grow up with a lifetime of disappointment. When the Sharks dispatched the Blues in six games, I sat on my couch and cried. All of the years of heartache were coming to an end. This was finally it. No more Shorks, no more chokers, all the sins of the past resolved.
Two weeks later, the Sharks were out-skated and I was in my bathroom, shaving off my playoff beard. It was somehow worse getting this close and having nothing to show for it. I was proud of the team as every fan was, but it was tough to shake the feeling of what could have been.
Going into this Western Conference Final against the same St. Louis Blues, I had the same feeling I did in 2016. The Sharks were the team of destiny. They had beaten a hated rival in the first round to make up for sins of the past. They had Joe Thornton making a final run. Everything seemed lined up, but that is not how this story ended for the Sharks. It was the same story that they’ve had since 1991. Another year of waiting for the opposing team to finish their celebration to start the handshake line. Another year of quietly slipping into the locker room and thinking of all the ways it could have been different.
Why do we do this to ourselves as fans? Why the heartache? There is only one team every year that gets the cup. One fan base that feels on top of the world, the rest waiting for their turn to come.
It has to happen one year, right? Just look within the Bay Area. The San Francisco Giants went over 50 years before they grabbed a title. The Warriors were among the dregs of the NBA until Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green turned the team into dynasty. The Philadelphia Eagles waited over 50 years for their taste of the championship.
The reason these fans keep coming back is that hope. One day the calls will go their way, and a role player will step up, the puck will bounce the right way and another team will be waiting for the Sharks to finish their celebration. Lord Stanley’s Cup will be transported onto the ice and this time, the Sharks will be the ones waiting for it.
The chance for that moment is why I keep coming back.