When Sharks star Patrick Marleau arrived in 1997 as a 17-year-old rookie, it never dawned on him that San Jose still was relatively new to hockey.
"Maybe it was because the fans always were here and so supportive," Marleau recalled. "Everybody always seemed to like the sport."
Now, as girls' and women's players from around the country have descended this week upon the Bay Area for marquee tournaments, there's no denying what Marleau sensed way back then. Yes, the nickname of Hockeytown already is claimed by Detroit. But San Jose quietly has become a strong hockey town in its own right -- even with our flip-flops weather, swaying palm trees and lack of long history with the wintry game.
And it goes beyond the fact that the popular Sharks are riding a 128-game sellout streak as spectators have made HP Pavilion one of the NHL's loudest arenas. The Bay Area now is home to the country's largest number of adult-league players. Demand for ice time is so high throughout the region that there are plans to add two more rinks to the sprawling Sharks Ice complex in San Jose.
Those facilities help explain why this week about 2,200 players are in San Jose, Fremont and Oakland for the USA Hockey Girls' and Women's National Championships. The events, the biggest ever hosted by the Bay Area, are the latest examples of how the game has established a strong toehold in a sun-kissed locale that can seem so out of place with the icy sport.
"We really are a poster child for the nontraditional hockey market," said Jon Gustafson, general manager of Sharks Ice Properties, which manages three local recreational venues. "The city just fell in love with the Sharks, and the sport started to grow from there."
Hockey also has become an engine for the local economy. In addition to the "thwack" of slap shots, you might be hearing the sound of cash registers ringing. All those players and their families are filling up hotel rooms and restaurants.
But even those visiting for the first time are aware that the game has bloomed in the Bay Area.
"When you're in our world, you know where there's strong interest in hockey," said Glenn Patrick, coach of the Keweenaw Storm girls' team from the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan. "So people know all about San Jose and how it supports the sport."
Oh, and you better believe teams from northern climates -- where winter continues to drag on -- are happy to be playing in a place where you don't need a parka.
"It's not snowing and I'm kind of like, 'Wait a minute, it's not hockey weather!' " added Phoebe Manchester, coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite. "It's weird not needing a jacket and only wearing a T-shirt. People are lucky here where they can play hockey and then wear shorts."
That was the idea behind the NHL's if-you-freeze-it, they-will-come strategy of Sun Belt expansion that gave rise to the Sharks in 1991. Even though the Bay Area has transplants from traditional hockey country and previously had an NHL team (the Seals) from 1966 through 1976, the Sharks made a conscious effort the last two decades to build a base of new fans from the ground up, teaching them the game.
The recreational venues overseen by the Sharks serve as what Gustafson calls a "fan factory." The main center in San Jose, an 188,000-square-foot, city-owned facility featuring four rinks, is the largest west of the Mississippi River under one roof. The adult leagues -- which have almost 5,000 participants -- play games past midnight each night, which is why more rinks are on the drawing board.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Jr. Sharks youth system has grown to become one of the country's 10 largest. The program celebrated a milestone this week when 22-year-old defenseman Matt Tennyson, of Pleasanton, became the first local to skate for the Sharks.
"It wasn't until I retired and started spending time at the other side of the rink with my kids that I realized just how big the operation has become," said former Shark Curtis Brown, a Saskatchewan native who now is the Jr. Sharks director. "It's not only the Shark Tank where people are cheering. Holy moly, there are these huge grass-roots programs that are building interest."
There's enough interest that last fall a professional minor league team even was launched as the San Francisco Bulls began playing at the Cow Palace.
Hockey also is big business. This week's tournaments are resulting in more than 6,000 hotel room nights with the South Bay alone receiving an estimated $1.13 million in visitor spending, according to Team San Jose, which serves as the city's convention and visitors bureau.
Sharks Ice events, which will pump about $5.3 million into the local economy this fiscal year, often bring visitors to town on weekends and holidays -- dates when hotel rooms can go vacant in business-travel-oriented Silicon Valley.
"It's a huge bonus for us to tailor a sales pitch that says: '300 days of sunshine a year and you can come play hockey,' " said Meghan Horrigan, Team San Jose's director of communications. "That's a hard selling point to beat."
Earlier this week, teenagers from the powerhouse Shattuck St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota were lounging outside Sharks Ice, catching some rays before practice. So was coach Gordie Stafford.
"It's so important for hockey that we grow in these nontraditional markets," he said. "That's why it's great that California hockey is coming on. The Sharks have raised the profile of this area throughout the country."
It might even be time for someone to come up with a catchy nickname for San Jose.
"Everybody around the NHL knows this is a hockey town now," Marleau said. "Maybe we're almost-Hockeytown."
Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
USA Hockey Girls' And Women's National Championships
What: 72 of the best girls' teams from around the country as well as 30 women's squads are competing in their national tournaments. About 2,200 players are participating.
Where: Sharks Ice at San Jose, Sharks Ice at Fremont, Oakland Ice Center
When: Continuing through Sunday