The best thing, and really the only meaningful thing about sports—other than helping kids avoid becoming obese—is the manner in which games brings people together for a common goal. Whether it’s a group of teammates or fans, sports forge a hope amongst strangers through competition.
In rare instances, teams and the people who come together around them develop an identity. The Chicago Cubs and their fans, for better or worse, are considered lovable losers. The Los Angeles Lakers and their fans often come out on top, which is why the basketball world rejoices when the Lakers fall on their face. In football, the Detroit Lions, my team, has been the definition of a city down on its luck. (And I blame my father for making me a fan of the bums.)
The San Jose Sharks and their fans also have an identity, going from new kids on the block two decades ago to anxious also-rans, making it just a bit farther in the playoffs each season before the trap door gives way. It’s getting to be a bit old. And Wednesday’s abysmal 7-3 defeat in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals at Vancouver felt a bit like salt in the wound.
San Jose needs the Sharks to win a Stanley Cup and give this city of sprawl a reason to come together in celebration.
It won’t change the fact that San Jose’s budget crisis is as dire as it’s ever been and people’s livelihoods are at stake. But a Stanley Cup would be a reprieve and rallying point for a city that often comes across as a cloud of communities (we see you Campbell, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Cupertino, etc.). Ask anyone in San Francisco if the Giants’ World Series was meaningless to the morale of the city you’ll have your answer.
There is a bit of incongruity in the identity a Sharks title run would install in San Jose, using predominantly a group of Canadians to climb to the mountain top. It’s not that Sharks fans aren’t critical when things go to hell in a hand basket (aka Satan’s man purse), but hockey isn’t rooted in our DNA like our neighbors to the north. Hockey is not that big a part of this city. Yet.
Just like the English have nothing to look forward to other than football (soccer) and once-in-a-generation weddings, Canadians have hockey and hunting (oh, and northern lights). In California, we have plenty of sporting and entertainment options.
This isn’t to say Sharks fans don’t desperately want their team to win. The team is San Jose’s main rallying point—unless you count kavetching about City Hall—but Sharks fans have been more of a happy-go-lucky, “damn, another hockey season down the drain … oh look, it’s summer” kind of crowd.
This couldn’t be more evident judging from the Vancouver media’s reaction following a 3-2 Canucks victory over San Jose in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. The Sharks blew another lead in what has been topsy-turvy playoff run, but all eyes of Canucks fans were glaring at a first-period goal given away by Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo. Even in victory, you would think the guy lost Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals and set off a rerun of the Vancouver riots.
Known for having hands like hoofs when it comes to taking care of the puck, Luongo gave away an easy early goal to Joe Thornton while trying to clear his end. If he had actually been aiming a pass for Thornton’s stick, it would’ve been a sweet assist. Instead, Vancouver went down 1-0. Luongo got little credit for playing strong the rest of the game.
The Sharks’ own goaltender, Antti Niemi, has his own problems when it comes to handling the puck. But fans generally forgive him because he gives San Jose the best chance to win, having led Chicago to a Stanley Cup last season. And that’s the point. San Jose wants and needs a winner. How long should a million people go without a champion?
It’s worth mentioning that the Sharks were expected to drop the first two games of this series and still have two games at home—6pm Friday, noon Sunday—to atone for any shortfalls on the road. A victory in Vancouver would have been gravy, while two losses shouldn’t be seen as grave.
All of this level-headed perspective, of course, will go out the window when the puck drops Friday night at HP Pavilion. Game 3 is a must-win. San Jose is only eight wins away from sports immortality, but the first one is all that matters at this point.