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A look back at the Sharks’ former captains

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Wearing the “C” for the Sharks hasn’t been easy.

Captains Getty Images/Fear the Fin illustration by JD Young

After free agency saw Joe Pavelski moving on to the Dallas Stars, the San Jose Sharks are once again in search of someone to wear the “C” and represent the team. It’s the first time team teal has been without a captain since 2015, when Pavelski (somewhat controversially) took the helm as the ninth captain in the team’s history.

It’s been four years since the Sharks have looked for a new locker room leader. Here’s a look back at the players who have led the team over the years.

Doug Wilson (1991-1993)

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that before Wilson was the man shaping the Sharks from upstairs, he was down on the ice operating as the team’s first captain.

Wilson was a seasoned veteran when he joined the Sharks, having played 14 years with the storied Chicago Blackhawks franchise. He was a Norris Trophy winning defenseman and even to this day, he still holds the title of the highest scoring defenseman in Blackhawks history with 779 points.

Wilson retired after the 1992-93 season with the Sharks, but brought instant accountability and credibility to the new expansion team.

Bob Errey (1993-1995)

Errey took the reins in the Sharks’ locker room the following season. The long time NHL journeyman brought an edge and toughness to San Jose. He registered 126 penalty minutes in 64 games during his first season with the Sharks.

The two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins also captained San Jose to its first ever Stanley Cup Playoffs appearance and its first ever series win. The 4-3 series win over the Detroit Red Wings is a victory that remains to this day one of the greatest playoff wins in Sharks’ history.

Jeff Odgers (1995-1996)

When Errey was traded to the Detroit Red Wings partway through the 1994-95 season, Odgers was handed the “C.” An Original Shark, Odgers went undrafted and was signed by the Sharks in time for the team’s inaugural season in 1991.

A tough guy on the ice, Odgers dropped the gloves his very first game in a teal sweater.

“I knew that if I played a tough game — and not too many guys did — that it would only help in their decision of whether or not to keep me. So I erred on the side of scrapping more,” Odgers once told the Huffington Post.

Odgers captained the team through the 1995-96 season, but did not re-sign with the Sharks in the summer of ’96. Thus, the short Odgers Era came to an end.

Todd Gill (1996-1998)

In the summer of ’96, the Sharks traded then-player, now-broadcaster, Jamie Baker and a fifth round pick to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Todd Gill. The veteran defenseman came in to help guide the young talent within the Sharks’ locker room, including Mike Rathje, Marcus Ragnarsson and second overall pick Patrick Marleau, who had his rookie season in 1997-98.

“He was one of those guys who had been in the Toronto cauldron for 12 years and he was just a likeable guy,” Sharks radio play-by-play announcer Dan Rusanowsky told NHL.com. “He knew all about the pressures of being a professional player and he could share that with the guys.”

It was a brief stint as the Sharks’ captain. Gill was traded to the St. Louis Blues in 1998, making way for arguably the most beloved captain in Sharks’ history.

Owen Nolan (1998-2003)

The number one pick in the 1990 NHL Draft, Owen Nolan played his first five seasons in the league with the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche. At the start of the 1995-96 season, he was traded to the Sharks in exchange for Sandis Ozolinsh.

Nolan quickly became the face of the franchise, representing the Sharks at the NHL All-Star game during his first season in teal. But it was his second appearance in the 1996-97 All-Star game that truly cemented his legacy. During the third period, in front of a home crowd at the Shark Tank, Nolan called his shot.

Three seasons later in 1999-00, Nolan had his best season with San Jose, scoring 84 points (44 goals, 40 assists).

Just before the 2003 trade deadline, Nolan was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes and Toronto’s first-round pick in the 2003 draft (the Sharks traded up with the Boston Bruins in that draft to take Steve Bernier with the pick).

During Nolan’s time wearing the “C,” the Sharks went to the playoffs in four out of five seasons, but never managed to make it out of the semifinals.

Still, Nolan was willing to lay it all on the line for his team each and every night, even if it meant taking on all five guys on the other side of the ice. In the 1998 playoff series against the Dallas Stars, Nolan ran Ed Belfour and cemented his status as a Sharks’ legend.

For many Sharks fans, when Nolan left the Sharks’ locker room, the team lost a little bit of its heart.

Mike Ricci (10 games), Vincent Damphousse (20 games), Alyn McCauley (10 games) (Rotating Captains 2003-2004)

With Nolan gone at the trade deadline, the Sharks found themselves looking for a captain once again. What followed was a series of rotating captains, as San Jose recovered from the loss of leadership in the locker room.

Mike Ricci joined the Sharks in 1997 and was known as a hard-nosed, defensive forward willing to park himself in the crease in the offensive zone and fight for the rebounds. Ricci’s willingness to lay it on the line for his team was essential in the team’s 2004 run to the Western Conference Final.

Ricci was well respected around the league and was once recognized for having one of the best hockey smiles in the NHL.

Another fan favorite, Vincent Damphousse was traded to the Sharks in the 1997-98 season. A veteran forward, Damphousse scored 289 points in a Sharks’ uniform. His career was cut short by the 2004-05 lockout and Damphousse retired from the NHL when the league returned to play in 2005-06.

Obtained in the Nolan trade with the Maple Leafs, McCauley was a strong two-way forward that had a career year in his first season with the Sharks. During the 2003-04 season, McCauley scored 47 points and reached the 20 goal mark for the first time in his career. The season also earned him a Selke nomination, though he ultimately lost out to Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings.

In the middle of the season, the “C” rotated to young Marleau and it simply didn’t rotate to anyone else.

Patrick Marleau (2004-2009)

It seemed a given when Marleau donned the “C” in the middle of the 2003-04 season. The number two overall pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, Marleau was already a skilled young forward.

By the start of the 2003 season, Marleau had scored 125 goals with the Sharks and registered 270 points. He was well on his way to being the franchise leader in a number of scoring categories and it only made sense to hand the captaincy to the new face of the franchise.

The 2004-05 season was a lockout but when the Sharks returned to the ice, Marleau was there with the “C” on his chest for good. The Sharks made the playoffs all four seasons that Marleau was captain and won the Pacific Division twice (2007-08, 2008-09).

But the true trouble came in 2008-09, when the Sharks also won the President’s Trophy for the best record in the league with 117 points. It seemed like this would finally be the year the team broke through and made it to the Western Conference Final, and maybe even the Stanley Cup, but an early first round exit at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks had fans and the front office calling for a change.

With the Sharks showing plenty of promise at the start of the playoffs and no finish in the biggest games, pundits began to say Marleau was incapable of leading a team when it counted. A stigma began to follow Marleau that he could not perform in big game situations, despite proof to the contrary like this hat trick in the 2006 playoffs against the Nashville Predators.

In the summer of 2009, Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan sat down with Marleau and stripped him of the captaincy. In the weeks that followed, there were plenty of rumors that Marleau was on his way to another team, but none of them came to fruition (If you want a walk down memory lane, take a look at this Fear the Fin article that looks at the Marleau trade that almost happened).

Ever the gentleman, Marleau did not express his frustration over losing the captaincy when he returned to the Sharks’ locker room at the start of the next season. Instead, he readied himself for another playoff push, one in which he scored 83 points (44 goals, 39 assists) in 82 regular season games and added on another 13 points (8 goals, 5 assists) in 14 playoff games.

Of the eight playoffs goals, this overtime beauty against the Detroit Red Wings is one to remember:

Rob Blake (2009-2010)

Meanwhile, the Sharks were in need of a leader who would not be questioned about his skill or his ability to perform in big game situations. They got both in Rob Blake.

In what would turn out to be the final season of his storied career, Blake took over as captain of the Sharks. His presence on the Sharks blue line helped shape a young Marc-Edouard Vlasic into an elite defenseman.

It also took San Jose to a place it had never been before: the Western Conference Final. The Sharks were ultimately swept by the Chicago Blackhawks, but Blake brought a stability that was desperately needed in a Sharks’ locker room that was looking for answers.

Sadly, after one year as captain, Blake retired.

Joe Thornton (2010-2014)

Blake’s departure smoothed the transition for Joe Thornton to don the “C.”

But Thornton’s years as captain were no less disappointing than Marleau’s. Despite trying to move the Sharks to their first Stanley Cup Final, Thornton could not lead the team back to the Western Conference Final.

After four seasons of playoff appearances and four seasons of playoff disappointments, Thornton lost his letter, though in a less hospitable fashion than Marleau.

Months after the occurrence, Thornton told Sportsnet.ca he found out he was losing the “C” through a text message from one of the Sharks’ beat writers. The beat writer texted for a comment about the loss of the captaincy and Thornton said, “Oh, I did?”

The lack of communication between then Head Coach McLellan and Thornton revealed just how bad the discord was between the Sharks’ locker room and the team’s management. The trouble showed in the season that followed.

Most fans know that taking away Thornton’s letter was more about saving the jobs of McLellan and Wilson than it was about issues within the Sharks’ locker room. The battles between the players and management disrupted the product on the ice.

Things came to a head in the spring of 2015, when Thornton famously said, “I think Doug [Wilson] just needs to shut his mouth.”

The Sharks missed the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and McLellan lost his job.

Joe Pavelski (2014-2019)

Amid all the turmoil, another Joe stepped out from the shadows. As my colleague Lakshya Jain so eloquently points out, the emergence of “Little Joe” kind of crept up on us. In 2010 he made another transition, this time from “Little Joe” to the “Big Pavelski,” a nickname coined because of his ability to play in big game situations.

So when Thornton was stripped of the captaincy, the Sharks turned to Pavelski, a big game player who was willing to put his heart and his body on the line for his team.

In the first year of his tenure, Pavelski was very careful to take over the leadership role without stepping on the toes of the captains that came before him (i.e. Marleau and Thornton). Pavelski always credited the leadership abilities of both within the locker room and despite missing the playoffs in his first season as captain, the players stoop behind him.

The next season, with a new man behind the bench in Pete DeBoer, the Sharks thrived. The team finished the regular season in third place in the Pacific Division, but the team went into the playoffs on fire. They beat the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Final and won the Campbell Bowl for the very first time. San Jose lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the step forward gave Sharks fans hope.

During that Cup run, Pavelski posted 23 points (14 goals, 9 assists) in 24 games, giving fans and analysts alike the performance people expect from team captains.

The Sharks did not make it to the Western Conference Final the next two years, but no one called into question Pavelski’s heart. It shone through in the first game of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Pavelski scored a goal off of his face during Game 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.

But perhaps the biggest testament to Pavelski’s leadership abilities was in Game 7 against the Golden Knights. When Pavelski suffered a horrific injury with less than 11 minutes left in the game, the Sharks roared back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Golden Knights 5-4 in overtime.

The Sharks never made it out of the Western Conference Final and fans knew with the Sharks in a salary cap crunch, the team would not be the same in the fall. General Manager Wilson was forced to decide if he should sign offensive minded defenseman Erik Karlsson to a long-term deal or if he should give Pavelski the money he deserved for the years he played in San Jose. Wilson could not do both and when he signed Karlsson at the end of June, fans knew he had made his choice.

On July 1, the first day of NHL free agency, Pavelski signed a three-year deal with the Dallas Stars ending his tenure as the captain of the San Jose Sharks.

Pavelski’s great career in teal was thanks in large part to the captains that came before him, something he made reference to in a farewell letter he posted on the Kompany 39 website:

“To be successful in the NHL, you cannot do it alone, and I was lucky enough to be around such an amazing group of people that pushed each other to be better every single day. Being able to learn from and compete with captains like Patrick Marleau, Rob Blake and Joe Thornton was invaluable and has made me a better person. Playing in San Jose, you’re surrounded by such a team-oriented group, and it made our time in San Jose truly unforgettable.”