Without further ado, the list:
6. Patrick Marleau
5. Arturs Irbe
4. Vincent Damphousse
3. Ed Belfour
2. Joe Thornton
1. Owen Nolan
I know at least one of those names is going to jump out at any Sharks fan who was around in the mid-90s, so see my reasoning after the jump!
(6.) Patrick Marleau
Patrick Marleau is now the Sharks' all-time leader in games played, goals, assists, and points (though Joe Thornton is rapidly catching up in the latter two categories), and despite having his captaincy stripped from him and being relegated to second fiddle status (or maybe even third, with the addition of Heatley), the longest-tenured Shark continues to be one of the most important figures in franchise history. If he retires a Shark, and all indications are that he will, his slot on this list will be further solidified. Nevertheless, because Marleau hasn't yet played a key role in anything pivotal, like the five names to follow, I felt compelled to leave him off the main list.
5. Arturs Irbe
After the 1995-96 season, Irbe was mauled by his pet dog and he injured his hand, so his tenure in San Jose came to an end. A few years later, he resurfaced in Carolina, where he was "Like Wall" once again in helping Carolina reach the Stanley Cup finals; as a Sharks fan, I couldn't help but cheer for the Canes that year. I still have a lithograph of Irbe hanging on my wall back in California, and it's not going anywhere. Irbe may not have had the longest or the most distinguished tenure as a Shark, but he helped the franchise take that first big step at a time where nobody was expecting much from them.
4. Vincent Damphousse
Damphousse came in and immediately made an impact with the Sharks, tallying 13 points in 12 regular season games and 5 points in 6 playoff games. The following year, he posted an impressive 70 points, playing on a line with Jeff Friesen and Owen Nolan (the Marleau-Thornton-Heatley of that era for San Jose). With him at pivot, Owen Nolan scored 44 goals and 84 points, and Friesen posted a respectable 26-35-61 season as well. The Sharks went to the second round of the playoffs that year, upsetting the top-seeded St. Louis Blues after allegedly purposely losing the last game of the year to draw St. Louis instead of Dallas (that series was also notable because it started San Jose's hate affair with one Chris Pronger). Damphousse's impact was humongous, and though his production dwindled as age and team turnover took its toll, he ended up playing 385 games as a Shark, posting a respectable 289 points. He even went out with a bang - his clutch play and 14 points in 15 playoff games in 2003-04 helped propel the Sharks to their first ever Western Conference Finals, and the lockout meant that he retired before he ever played a game in Colorado maroon. Though he technically retired an Avalanche and will likely always be remembered as a Canadien, he was definitely one of the most important Sharks ever to don the teal.
3. Ed Belfour
Sharks fans were excited, and understandably so - Belfour had expressed a willingness to stay in San Jose when the trade went down, and so he was fully embraced by the fanbase even as he posted horrendous numbers - a 3.41 GAA and an .884 save percentage, culminating in a 3-9-0 record over 13 games. But nobody cared. Everyone knew how good Ed Belfour was, and everyone knew his sloppy play down the stretch (to be fair, he was also coming off injury, if memory serves) was not indicative of his skill level. This was the turning point, or so we thought - we'd have a franchise goaltender to pair with our budding star forward Owen Nolan. The Sharks were a franchise on the rise.
And then, on July 2, 1997, he signed with the Dallas Stars, instantly making himself the most hated man in San Jose Sharks history (which, to be fair, was not a high bar - only Theoren Fleury was even in the same ballpark at that point, and even then only because he was a Shark killer who just happened to be a pest).
So now we know that Ed Belfour will always be persona non grata with any Sharks fan. Why is he on the list? Simple - it gave the fans a player to hate (Belfour), a team to hate (the Stars), and a very good reason to hate both of them. It didn't help that Ed Belfour was phenomenal in Dallas the following year, posting a 37-12-10 record with a 1.88 (!) GAA and a .916 save percentage, while the Sharks made do with two sub-.900 goaltenders on the downsides of their careers in Mike Vernon and Kelly Hrudey. And when the Sharks met the Stars in round 1 of the 1997-98 playoffs, everything came together - Ed Belfour's betrayal was complete. Losing that series 4-2 made the taste even more bitter, and the rivalry was officially on.
To this day, I look back on Sharks-Stars games in that era with fond memories. This clip of Game 3 in the 97-98 playoffs perfectly captures the atmosphere - the "Belll-fourrr" serenade followed by the "Belfour sucks" chant, the liberties both teams took with each other, everything. Not only did the Sharks hate Ed Belfour, they found their first big rival in the Stars - a rivalry that persists to this day. The moment Ed Belfour betrayed San Jose was the moment that the Sharks franchise and fanbase found their identity. And that is why Ed Belfour is the third most important Shark in the history of the franchise.
2. Joe Thornton
The Sharks were in the midst of an embarrassing 10-game losing streak when the trade was made; Evgeni Nabokov looked terrible, the team looked lost, and the San Jose faithful were quickly getting impatient. When a no-name goaltender like Nolan Schaefer is nicknamed "The Savior" by the fans, even jokingly, you know it's bad. But the addition of Joe Thornton turned everything around, immediately. Thornton turned Jonathan Cheechoo from a 28-goal man in 03-04 to a 56-goal Rocket Richard winner, and even dragged along Nils Ekman for the ride (he cashed in that summer with Pittsburgh to the tune of $2 million/year and was never heard from again). Say what you will about his perceived playoff failings, but his impact on the franchise continues to be undeniable. His play, and perhaps just as importantly the status that followed him, singlehandedly boosted the Sharks into perennial contender status in the eyes of the general league fanbase. Though his numbers have been slipping as of late and his playoff performance has continued to be questioned (fairly or unfairly), he continue to be one of the best setup men in the NHL and one of the key members of the Sharks' attack. December 1, 2005 will forever be a date to remember in Sharks history, and Jumbo Joe will forever be the first consensus superstar player to pull on a San Jose Sharks sweater.
1. Owen Nolan
|Nobody cared that this resulted in a penalty.|
I also credit Owen Nolan with singlehandedly ruining Roman Turek's NHL career: observe.
Owen Nolan's trade to Toronto in 2003 was, in my opinion, one of the saddest days to be a Shark fan in the history of the franchise. Fan favorites had been traded before (Jeff Friesen most recently at the time), but nothing compared to the loss of the captain. I remember knowing it was coming, and still feeling like I had been punched in the gut when I read about it in the Merc. To this day, Buster resides in San Jose, and it's no coincidence that every time he's up for free agency, a portion of Sharks fans lobby hard for the Sharks to pick him up, myself among them. With all due respect to Blake, Marleau, and the rest of the former captains, Owen Nolan is still the first name I think of when the Sharks' captaincy is brought up, and I don't see that changing any time soon.
Until next time!