On October 2nd 1999, a young 19 year-old defenseman named Brad Stuart played his first career NHL hockey game.
My younger brother Brad, 10 years old at the time, attended the game with our Dad.
At 17:17 of the first period, Stuart scored his first career NHL goal, depositing a pass from Jeff Friesen behind Grant Fuhr. It was Fuhr’s first game as a Calgary Flame, in what would prove to be his 20th and final season in the NHL.
10 seconds after Stuart’s goal, the Sharks home broadcast cut to the crowd, and for just a moment, it centered on an applauding man and his young son.
That the images of my Dad and brother were sent over the airwaves to thousands of Bay Area homes remained a mystery to us all until a couple of years ago. Through sleepy eyes at an embarrassing hour of the night, I was watching an NHL Network special on the best rookies of the 1999 season. When suddenly, Dad and Brad appeared on the screen, held there in time by a camera and a relatively inconsequential moment in hockey history.
I am incredibly blessed to have grown up with two loving parents, and to have a younger brother and a younger sister that I count among my best friends in the world. And besides church, sports have probably been the thing the five of us have shared together the most.
I imagine this shared love of sports is something that helps explain my near obsession with the Sharks, who grew up as a franchise around the same time I was being brought up as a person. I was born in 1986, which meant I was just old enough to get caught up in the excitement of the new professional hockey team coming to town in 1991.
One Sunday during the Sharks’ first season, before the San Jose Arena was even completed, my Dad pulled me out of Sunday School five minutes early so that we could get to the Cow Palace in San Francisco for my first ever hockey game. On the way, he said, “Son, sports were always a really special thing for your Gramps and I. I hope someday, if you’re able to, you’ll do this for your kids too.”
I still remember the first hockey video game that included San Jose as a playable team. I remember seeing the logo appear in the menu and feeling a strong attachment to it – an attachment which compelled me to play as the worst squad in the game every time I loaded it up. Because the Sharks weren’t a 71 loss embarrassment to me; they were my Dad’s team, and my team. More and more as the years progressed, they would become the thing we cheered for together when he came home from work, and the thing we talked about on car rides and over cheeseburgers.
Though I have a vague recollection of that first Cow Palace game, I can’t actually remember who the Sharks played or if they won. Rather, the first hockey moment that forever lodged itself in my memory occurred during Game 7 of the 1994 Western Conference Quarterfinals between the Sharks and Red Wings.
I was allowed to stay up late that night to watch the game, which was enough of a reason in itself for an eight year-old to be having a good night.
And then, it happened.
I sat with my parents in their room and watched as Jamie Baker scored what may still be the biggest goal in Sharks history, putting the Sharks up for good and sending the #1 seeded Wings home for the summer.
With images spinning in my head of men celebrating like boys on an ice rink covered with discarded equipment, I walked down the hall and climbed into bed, and I sat staring at the dark ceiling for hours with a smile locked on my face.
Jamie Baker scores (arguably) the biggest goal in Sharks history:
I wouldn’t have to wait long for another memory that would stick with me, as the very next round of the playoffs saw San Jose take a 3-2 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Much of my extended family assembled around our family room in excitement, and we let out a collective gasp as Johan Garpanlov’s potential series-winning shot rang off the crossbar in overtime.
Toronto would go on to win game 6, and then game 7 as well, putting an end to San Jose’s Cinderella story.
My Gramps, a baseball man first and foremost but a lover of all sports, was there to watch game 6 with us. After the game, we walked down to the park together, talking about how close The Sharks were to moving on and reassuring each other that they could get it done in game 7. He explained to me what the announcers meant when they talked about forechecking, and we laughed and ran around and he reminded me that hockey is just a game and not something to let ruin your day.
He would pass away suddenly and far too young about two years later, which proved to be our family’s first real encounter with death.
My Dad encouraged me to hold on to a few snapshots of my Gramps so that I could always remember the things I appreciated most. After thinking for a bit, I decided to hang on to the Disneyland trips we’d taken together, the time he sent me a letter describing a triple he saw me hit in little league as a “thing of beauty”, and that walk to the park we took in 1994 between games 6 and 7.
One summer while we were still quite young, our parents bought Brad and I roller blades and hockey equipment, including a full set of goalie gear. We spent hours upon hours taking turns as Owen Nolan and Arturs Irbe on the driveway, attempting diving poke-checks and learning how to lift the orange plastic ball up under the PVC-piped crossbar to send the water bottle flying.
Eventually our friends would start to join in and we moved the game to the street. Countless introductions were made and friendships forged out under the sun, and naturally we’ve seen a few arguments, broken bones and 4-minute high sticking penalties over the years as well.
Now, some 15 years later, I still have an email list of a couple dozen guys who will drive out to a public roller rink once a week over the summer and play some of the ugliest, sloppiest hockey the world has ever seen. Inconsequential as our little pick-up games are, I can vividly remember specific plays, goals and saves from over the years, along with the faces of people I love reacting to them.
Growing up playing hockey (well, sort of at least) had a significant impact on my appreciation of the game as a fan, and the two have always fed on each other. Watching hockey makes me want to play, and playing hockey makes me want to watch.
And as far as watching goes, there’s just nothing like being inside the San Jose Arena, now known as HP Pavilion. So many of my favorite hockey moments have come while inside that building.
The first time my brother and I were allowed to go to a game on our own, my Mom dropped us off on Santa Clara St. with money for nachos and the tickets. We sat in the 11th row behind the net, right over the Zamboni tunnel, and spent the night laughing and cheering and feeling more grown up than we really were.
I was in the building again with my Dad when Owen Nolan called his shot in the All-Star game, pointing to the corner and then snapping a wrister over Hasek’s glove for the Hat Trick. We actually noticed Messier talking to Nolan before the faceoff , just moments before one of the greatest players in NHL history “accidentally overskated” the puck and left my favorite Shark with a clear path to the net. I watched the hats raining down onto the ice, practically deafened by the roar of the crowd and swimming in the All-Star jersey my Dad bought me.
“An early birthday present,” he explained with a smile, “that will hopefully be the one piece of clothing you’ll still be able to fit into by this time next year.”
I sat next to a mentor and friend of the family named Will as the Sharks eliminated Phoenix from the playoffs in 2002. At the time, my parents were (justifiably) furious with me for having tried to cheat on a test in Spanish class. Will knew about it, but didn’t let on. Instead, he allowed the game to be a temporary escape from the guilt and the shame, and talked to me like I was someone he was proud of and believed in.
I was there just a few years ago in the upper deck with the father of some students I worked with, and between periods we talked about life and struggles and he tried to describe to me what it’s like to have kids. Then, we watched newcomer Brian Campbell electrify the building by scoring a goal on Montreal’s Carey Price right after pulling off a ridiculous spin-o-rama move that left him with a clear path to the net. At that moment, I was sure Campbell was the future of the Sharks, and that any contract he wanted would be worth it if he could be convinced to stay in town.
Sometimes, it’s a good thing that I’m not in charge.
Over the years, my mom and sister have grown in their love of hockey as well. In fact, on the first day of 2008, it was my mom who suggested we watch the first Winter Classic together as a family. We were spending the week after Christmas vacationing together in a cabin a few hours drive from home, and we watched with warm drinks and blankets as Sidney Crosby slid his shootout attempt through Ryan Miller’s pads for the win.
And last spring, when we were down in LA for a weekend of watching my sister play softball*, Mom came out with Kelly and I to the first scummy sports bar we could find that had the Sharks on. It was the playoffs, and we weren’t to be denied, even if it meant apologizing to our waitress for wanting to watch the team that had just sent the Kings packing.
Before the night was over, birthday-boy Benn Ferriero would score his first career playoff goal, an overtime winner against Detroit in game 1 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals.
The shot deflected off the leg of 31 year-old Red Wing defender Brad Stuart.
These are some of the stories I’ve tried to tell over the years when befuddled Northern Californians ask me to explain how hockey has so exceeded my interest in any other sport or hobby.
Certainly, I have fallen in love with the game itself. It’s fast, explosive, dangerous, exhilarating, and unpredictable. The action is constant, and I’d put the drama of penalty shots, 5 on 3 power plays and playoff overtimes up against any other sport in the world.
But I’ve also fallen in love with the way that it is like life, and the ways that it has intersected with my own. It’s a game that requires immense sacrifice and commitment, teamwork and character. To show up and play with heart takes everything you have, and even still there’s no guarantee that your best will be good enough to meet the challenges in front of you.
But mostly, I love hockey because you are never more than an instant away from the next moment you and a friend will never forget. A hockey game is always pregnant with the potential to unite those watching in celebration or heartbreak, and has the power to forever link a stadium full of people or a living room full of friends to a moment in time.
So here’s to a new season, our annual reminder that although life keeps spinning forward, we’re also given many chances to start again. May this year be full of moments left like monuments along the road, and faces frozen in time reminding you to give yourself away to the people who matter most.
Brad Stuart’s first career NHL goal:
*Author’s Note: My sister plays for Loyola Marymount University, where in her junior season last year she set school and conference records for HR’s and RBI in a season, and ended up tied for 13th in the nation with 18 long balls. Not that I’m bragging.
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Topics: Benn Ferriero, Brad Stuart, Brian Campbell, Detroit Red Wings, Dominik Hasek, Family, Fan, Grant Fuhr, Growing Up, Hockey, HP Pavilion, Jamie Baker, Joy, LA Kings, Love, Owen Nolan, Phoenix Coyotes, Roller Hockey, Ryan Miller, San Jose Arena, Sharks, Sidney Crosby, Winter Classic