When hockey returned to San Jose in mid-December, there was a curious vibe reverberating through the halls of HP Pavilion. It was as if nearly 13,000 souls, many clad in their best black and teal, had come to attend the homecoming of a cousin twice removed.

When this realization hit home, and fans knew that for all the pageantry they couldn’t will the San Jose Sharks out of a protracted lockout between the NHL’s owners and players and onto the ice, the buzz started to wear off.

You could now cut the anticipation with a knife, but a wooden spoon would probably do.

This is nothing against the San Francisco Bulls, an upstart minor-league hockey affiliate of the Sharks, who displayed all the heart and hustle fans expect from the most grizzled of professional American sports. But a 6-4 Bulls win over the Stockton Thunder served as a subtle reminder that this wasn’t the real thing. And there ain’t nothing like the real thing. Ask Manti Te’o.

Then winter really hit. The rain fell steady through December, as did the sales of businesses surrounding HP Pavilion. Managers for Amici’s Pizza and Britannia Arms, the closest restaurant and bar to the Shark Tank, respectively, were featured in depressing news features about the NHL lockout effectively causing a new economic downturn in Silicon Valley.

The city of San Jose estimates that it lost roughly $800,000 in revenue from parking, hotel stays and other sources, while the overall economic impact was much greater.

Then came Jan. 6, a day to rejoice. In the early hours of that Sunday morning, NHL owners and the players’ union reached a new collective bargaining agreement. Press releases started flying out that the season would start in less than two weeks. Television stations and newspapers sent out their reporters to put a happy face on the stories they’d filed just weeks earlier.

Hockey was coming out of hibernation, and the first home game is this Thursday, Jan. 24.

So, How Did You Spend Your Lockout?

Patrick Marleau has been with the San Jose Sharks for 15 seasons. Well, 14 is more accurate, considering the NHL owners locked out players for the entire 2004-05 schedule.

The team’s all-time leader in goals and points, Marleau is 33 years old, an elder statesman by professional sports standards. Unlike most other sports, though, the best hockey players tend to have unusually long careers. Maybe it’s the lack of wear and tear from skating, maybe hockey players are just tougher. Who knows?

But Marleau’s lockout offered the veteran a unique view of what life will be like when his career comes to an end. “It definitely lets you know if you’re ready to stop playing,” he says. “And I definitely wasn’t ready. I still love the game and want to keep playing.” If the first game of the season was any indicator, Marleau made an excellent decision. His two goals led the Sharks to a season-opening 4-1 win in Calgary.

The lockout did, however, allow Marleau to do some things many parents take for granted. “I was able to spend a lot of time with the family, drive the kids to school, from school. I took them to Disneyland. That was probably the biggest thing.”

Some of Marleau’s teammates chose a different path. With younger legs and too much time on their hands, center Logan Couture and right-winger Joe Pavelski both played overseas. Couture joined a club in Switzerland, playing in front of 8,000 nuts waving flags, singing chants and banging drums, in between solo vacations to Paris and Milan. Pavelski ended up in Minsk, the vibrant capital of Belarus.

“I figured there’d be a season,” Pavelski says. “I always felt that.” Maybe that’s why he didn’t bother to brush up on his Russian. “I know a couple words here and there,” Pavelski admits. “I’m not going to be repeating them.”

Sharks goalie Antti Niemi flew home to Finland to play 10 games for his original club, the Pelicans of the Finnish SM-liiga. He says he returned to San Jose in December, which stirs my memory. I tell him about the time I ran into him and Pavelski one night during the lockout at Rookies Sports Lodge.

He quickly says, yes, yes, but I’m not so sure he remembers. To be honest, I can’t remember what was said either, other than me telling Niemi I missed him and the Sharks. It wasn’t totally weird.

Meanwhile, coach Todd McLellan and his staff were forced to continue coming in to work every day, preparing for the unknown.

“When we weren’t at the rink, which was still a daily routine, I spent a lot time with my two boys and my wife,” McLellan says. “That was the only silver lining.”

The less-than-silver lining? Trying to answer questions from fans on the street when no one had a clue what was happening.

“I wish I ended up having a recording and a button I could just hit,” McLellan says. “A lot of them in the last month ended up asking, ‘We know you don’t know anything, but do you know when the lockout will end?’ To be honest, there were some frustrated people I talked to.

“We didn’t have to get to the lockout for me to understand the passion level,” the coach continues. “I didn’t even need to become the Sharks coach to understand the passion level—coming in here as a visiting team, feeling the energy, the Tank, the atmosphere that occurs in and around the Shark Tank. But after living around here and getting out in the community, it’s rampant. It’s a very passionate area.”

One of the unique aspects of this lockout, and potentially a bonus for the Sharks players and coaches, is that last year’s lackluster playoff finish and the uncertainty of this season has relieved some of the pressure that has been so high in recent years. No one has the Sharks as Stanley Cup favorites, but if anything is to be gleaned from other professional sports lockouts, teams with continuity and experienced leaders tend to benefit from shortened seasons.

“Nobody really knows how to prepare for this,” Niemi says. “People have been doing different stuff—especially if you played somewhere else. You got to have a good start. It’s going to be hard to come back if you start slow.”

For the Sharks, fans and local businesses, just the fact that the season is starting is reason enough to celebrate.