IT’S ABOUT TIME
Sharks finally reach Stanley Cup final after years of frustration
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Joe Thornton, carrying a tie in his right hand, was on his way to his press conference late Wednesday night when he made a sudden detour.
The Sharks star veered into the family waiting area, stepping past the ropes of a hallway at SAP Center to find his wife, Tabea Pfendsack. She’d been waiting a long time for this, too.
Amid the cheers of onlookers, Thornton hugged and kissed his wife to celebrate their first trip to the Stanley Cup final. It was romantic. It was cinematic. It was a relief. “I felt like puking all day,” Pfendsack admitted later. “The whole day, I couldn’t eat. And then, when we scored the fourth goal, I could finally relax for a few minutes... until I could not relax again.”
Sharks fans everywhere can relate. The team reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history, getting there only after 25 years of stomach-turning finishes.
Thornton and teammate Patrick Marleau served as the poster boys for that annual frustration — nausea, delivered — ad nauseum — so their 5-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals came with an air of the surreal.
This was Sisyphus getting the boulder up the hill. This was Wile E. Coyote catching The Road Runner.
So foreign was this new territory the Sharks can be forgiven for not knowing the drill. After Thornton hugged his wife, he made his way toward the interview room to face the press. He was still carrying his tie when a security guard stopped him cold.
“No, no, no,” the guard told him, catching Thornton just as he reached for the door. “Hitch is in there.”
Hitch is Ken Hitchcock, the Blues coach, who was wrapping up the toughest part of any playoff loss. He had to answer questions about what went wrong, why his team felt short, what kind of adjustments will be needed in the off-season... the stuff Thornton and Marleau are usually answering in late May.
Marleau had played 1,411 career games without reaching the final and Thornton 1,356. Only one other active player has has a longer wait — Shane Doan (1,466.)
Can you imagine what it’s like to play that long without reaching the destination?
“I can’t imagine,” said Peter DeBoer, in his first year as Sharks coach, “because all I’ve seen them is the year I’ve spent with them and how hard these guys work every day, how committed they are, how badly they want to win.
“So I can’t imagine the stuff written about them and said about them that they’ve had to deal with. It’s a great night for those guys.”
As Marleau and Thornton waited for Hitch to finish his consolation speech, they returned behind the ropes to mingle with family and friends. Marleau, true to his placid demeanour, hardly looked like a man celebrating the vindication from a conference final triumph. He looked as if he’d just clocked out from loading the last crate down at the docks.
“He’s a private person,” said his longtime friend Tony Mohagen, who flew out from Edmonton for the occasion. “He might not show his emotions in the media. That’s just how he is and how he’ll always be.
“But people who know him, the people that are closest to him, know exactly what this means. They know exactly how much he’s always wanted this.”
Mohagen, now a firefighter in Edmonton, first played with Marleau as 16-year- olds in the Midget AAA Hockey League in Saskatchewan. He’d made this trip once before, flying out after the Sharks led the Los Angeles Kings 3-1 in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
That time, his vacation was spent watching the worst collapse in Sharks history. This time, Mohagen got what he came for and has no plans on going back soon.
“I bought a one-way ticket,” he said, smiling wide.
Thornton and Marleau finally reached the interview room Wednesday night, joining the dais with captain Joe Pavelski. Considering the long journey to get here, and the criticism they took along the way, this could have been an I-toldyou-so moment. Instead, Thornton kept dishing out assists — repeatedly deflecting questions away from their personal breakthrough.
“It’s Chris Tierney’s strong goal, Joel Ward, Patty, “Pickles” (Marc-Edouard Vlacic) scoring goals,” he said. “Everybody makes big contributions. That’s why we’re here right now. It’s because everybody is making big contributions.”
Thornton (who never did put on that tie) and Marleau both rolled their eyes when a reporter addressed a question to the “two veterans.” They are 36 years old, still thriving in the NHL, not the AARP.
When another reporter noted Marleau has been playing long enough to have lots of gray in his playoff beard, the centre protested. “Speckled,” Marleau said, stroking his chin.
Then they tried to explain why, after so many heartbreaks, this time was different.
“With the new coaching staff we needed to realize how we needed to play to win,” Thornton said. “Once that clicked — and that probably clicked maybe early December — we just exploded. I think that’s really when we saw the depth of this team.
“Everybody plays a big part. Pete has really stressed that it’s going to take everybody to get where we need to go. I think we’ve all bought into that. We all come to the rink prepared, ready to work, then have some fun after.”
Marleau said: “I think there’s a big part just staying in the moment, knowing what we have, the opportunity we have right now. For me, that’s the biggest thing. You don’t make it this far all the time, obviously. Just trying to seize the moment.”
When the press conference broke up, the longtime tag-team partners made their way back toward the family area. Thornton hugged his parents, Wayne and Mary, who were conspicuous in their No. 19 Sharks jerseys.
Marleau hugged Thornton’s parents, too — the Sharks are one big family these days. And as everyone parted ways, Thornton took one last glance over his shoulder. “See you, Patty,” Thornton said. Yes, he will. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final is Monday.
The San Jose Sharks blew countless opportunities in years past before finally making it to the Stanley Cup final this season.
San Jose’s Patrick Marleau suffered seasons of heartbreak before the Sharks vanquished the Blues.