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One game, Two opinions

By Jon Swenson

The sometimes humorous, sometimes vacuous Ray Ratto of the SF Chronicle ripped the Sharks yesterday in a feature column for ESPN. His experience at the 2-0 Cleveland loss to Edmonton at the HP Pavilion could not have been more different than my own. Sharkspage blogs, you decide.

It was an hour before game time, but the doors to the San Jose Arena were still closed. About 500 people stood patiently in line, thinking to themselves, "Why, I can tell the grandkids I once stood outside waiting to see a Cleveland Barons-Edmonton Road Runners game."

The fans I spoke with outside the arena before the doors opened were excited. A few talked about Christian Ehrhoff and Marcel Goc playing with Team Germany in the World Cup, others were just happy to watch any kind of hockey in San Jose this winter. Many wanted to see some of the people they normally run into at the games and have not seen for awhile.

Myself, I wanted to see the two Sharks goaltending prospects who play for Cleveland [Dimitri Patzold, Nolan Schaefer], and compare them to the trio I saw at the NHL rookie tournament in Anaheim [Patrick Ehelechner, Jason Churchill, Thomas Greiss].

No one I spoke with was embarrassed to watch the Cleveland Barons play in San Jose, except apparently Ray Ratto.

The Sharks' management, like other NHL clubs, decided to see if the fuse boxes in their arenas still worked, so they plunked down about $100,000 to fly the Barons, their American Hockey League affiliate, and the Road Runners to Silicon Valley to entertain their legions of hockey-starved cash cows ... er, fans. To further lure the suckers, er, customers, they comped tickets for all 11,500 season-ticket holders, and sold the remaining 6,000 or so at $5 a copy. Parking was free, which meant the organ-eye-zation was basically playing for the concessions.

You try to make sense of this mess. The Sharks paid $100,000 to set up the arena, and flew in 2 minor league AHL teams during the NHL lockout. A lockout that has dried up most of the revenue for the team. But the Sharks are luring "suckers" to the HP Pavilion with 6,000 $5 seats, 11,500 free seats, and free parking?

A sucker pays full price to watch the 49ers or the Raiders battle for last place this year, not $5 to watch the AHL Cleveland Barons.

This is the kind of largesse that gets people fired in less turbulent times. But with the owners and players continuing their We Hate You Marathon across the continent, you do the best you can when the Devil spits in the stewpot. The Sharks gambled they could get most of their $100K back in hot dogs, beer and keychains.

Spending $100,000 to hold a single AHL game in San Jose, during a year where there may be zero NHL games, is far from largesse. It is simply acknowledging the problems the league is facing, and trying to do something positive for the local fans. I think I am on solid footing when I say that the management did not set up this game to reap concessions profits.

More remarkably, they gambled that they could pack their building simply by throwing the doors open. They were, in essence, holding a plebiscite on the concept of ice hockey, namely: "If we only put our hands in your pockets up to the first knuckle, will you come and watch a game with only a few players you've heard of? Please? Please? Pretty please?"

I am always a fan of a large vocabulary, but I think it is remarkable Ray can work plebiscite into this disaster of a paragraph. Can we vote on this column ESPN? This plebe gives it the Marcus Aurelius thumbs down.

In fairness, the Sharks own and operate the Barons, so there wasn't a lot of interstate bickering involved. Moreover, the Barons had drawn fewer than 12,000 to their first three home games, and more than half of those in the opener. The last two crowds, of 2,582 against Milwaukee, and 2,239 against Hamilton, were more representative of how much northeastern Ohio would miss this game.

It seems like he will not be satiated until there is a zero attendance figure for both teams.

As for how much San Jose wanted this game, well, the arena was about a third full when the puck was dropped, which meant one of three things: No season-ticket holders came and 1,000 of the paying customers ate their tickets; All the people who bought their tickets threw them out their car windows and half the season-ticket holders used their freebies; It was just Lord of the Flies festival seating, and the bookkeepers would sort out the carnage in the morning.

It is a pretty safe assumption that when you automatically comp 11,500 tickets to season ticket holders, a number of them are not going to be able to attend the game. That being said, the attendance was respectable for a Tuesday night.

But I have to ask, how can the bookkeepers sort out the carnage when two paragraphs earlier they were luring the "sucker" "cash cow" fans into the arena? Make some sense.

There was also The Local Angle, Edmonton defenseman Jason Platt, a San Francisco native getting to play in his third game all year.

A few fans have emailed asking for a photo of Jason Platt [#28] from the game. This is the best one posted from the photo gallery, I will see if there is another. Someone send me a note if he would be interested in an email interview for this website.

And the fans did the best they could -- they booed Cleveland's first power play, Edmonton's first goal, and the musical chairs promotion after the first period. They were largely stunned by the Dancing Snowflakes, ballet dancers on skates who spiced down (it wasn't spiced up, trust us) the second period intermission. And they got to watch a shutout by the redoubtable Tyler Moss in the Road Runners goal.

HP Pavilion in San Jose

If there were any boos on the first Barons power play, they were scattered at best. The only boos I noticed were when Cleveland could not capitalize on a 5 minute major power play, and in the waning minutes of the third period. But maybe sitting in the front row up against the glass, I was too far away from the fans to hear them.

And the "redoubtable" Tyler Moss made a few impressive saves. It is not his job to stand on his head like Dominik Hasek. His job is to stop pucks, and correct me if I am wrong, he did earn a shutout.

Tyler handed me a puck through the glass during the second period. I almost took a woman out trying to underhand it to young fan in a Sharks jersey. It bounced off her chair and she ended up with a souvenir from the game. Is Ray Ratto upset Tyler Moss played well, or that he is not Evgeni Nabokov?

Or is Ratto upset the Raiders and 49ers are vying for last and next to last in the NFL? Or could it be that both the A's and the Giants missed the baseball postseason? Could Ray be angry that the Golden State Warriors started 0-3?

If simply following a front runner is the problem Ray, come down from your lofty perch and watch the San Jose State hockey team start the 2004-05 season 10-1.

Ultimately, late arrivals swelled the crowd to about 40 percent of capacity (the Sharks generously announced an attendance of 11,784, and claimed to have made more than $20,000 from tickets alone for the Shark Foundation, where any proceeds are supposed to go), which meant that the Sharks probably made their nut; responsible for 10 bucks and change per head, each customer would have done that with a sausage and garlic fries, with a couple of singles to spare.

Ah, back to the concessions conspiracy theory. This actually made me laugh the first time I read this.

I talked with a member of the Sharks org prior to the game. I let him know I wanted to promote the sport in California on this website, and develop more content about the team. He spoke about how difficult this time was for the team and the fans.

The show, though, did not satisfactorily answer the question of whether San Jose misses hockey. After all, there are the 49ers (feh!), Raiders (bleargh!), Warriors (ickgkack!), San Jose State and Stanford football (sigh!) to worry about. The Faux Sharques didn't make much of a dent, either in the building or out, and they are not likely to draw as well the second time out, if there is one.

I spoke to 4 season ticket holders during the first intermission and asked them if they missed hockey. Their response was that they have been season ticket holders since day 1. The lower bowl seats they were sitting in at the HP Pavilion were in much the same position as those they sat in at the Cow Palace in SF. They talked about going to watch Oakland Seals games, and buying 8 season tickets up front to the Pacific Coast Hockey League team in San Francisco [Shamrocks?], before the team went bankrupt. If I had to condense that response, I would say that they miss hockey.

The "Faux Sharques" in Cleveland also were responsible for developing Miikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Miroslav Zalesak, Niko Dimitrakos, Marcel Goc, Rob Davison, and Jonathan Cheechoo. And those are just the "Faux Sharques" pictured in this photo gallery.

But I do have to agree with Ray on one thing, I know that is shocking. Another Cleveland Barons game in San Jose might not be the best idea. It might be better to have the Fresno Falcons of the ECHL play a game at the HP Pavilion. While Cleveland is the Sharks affiliate in the AAA of hockey leagues [the AHL], Fresno is the Sharks affiliate in the AA [ECHL].

Fresno had a rough start to the season, but they have picked up two wins, a shootout loss, and a tight 2-1 loss [against Scott Gomez and the Alaska Aces] in 4 of their last 5 games. Forward Michael Kiesman [6-3, 203] is a fan favorite in Fresno. He put up 30+ points last year, and over 120 penalty minutes. Shaun Sutter, son of Blackhawks coach Brian Sutter, has a goal and 3 assists on the season. Sharks prospect Glenn Olsen [6-4, 225] was recently assigned to the Fresno Falcons. He is being groomed as a future enforcer for either Cleveland or San Jose.

Ray Ratto may be right that another Cleveland Barons game in San Jose will not draw well, but another effort showcasing the Fresno Falcons would be worth it. Although Fresno is having trouble scoring this season, they will drop the gloves and give the fans something to cheer about. And unlike Cleveland, fans only have to drive 2+ hours south to catch one of their home games.

The fans are all still waiting for the boys in the commissioner's office and the union hall to stop screwing around and act like they have something valuable, rather than what they have now -- a kidnapping victim without an address for the ransom note. That is, except for the young woman wearing the Barons sweater standing in line for some doughy comestible on the concourse. She seemed quite content ... at least until she was asked about her choice of accoutrement.

Uh oh. I sense another facet of the concessions conspiracy is about to reveal itself.

"Look, I'm just in line for a soda, all right?" she said, and you knew right then and there that she had been touched by the spirit of the game. Or by the good people at PepsiCo. It's hard to be sure either way.

Stiffing the owners by not buying garlic fries, how could she? I think I have been touched by the spirit of a negative, pre-written column. Ray probably attended the game just to fill in the details.

Thanks for slamming the Sharks, Shark fans, the Cleveland Barons and their fans, and the management in San Jose on probably the most popular hockey website in the USA.

13 years ago I remember a few Canadian fans at the Cow Palace making joke after joke about having hockey in Northern California. I am glad to see Ray Ratto is carrying on the tradition.

Nice work.


[Update] According to the official Sharks website, fans donated 5,977 pounds of food and $1,500 Tuesday night to the Second Harvest food bank.