Sharks Ice, Jr. Sharks celebrate Gustafson-inspired growth spurt
For nearly 20 years, Jon Gustafson has had his finger on the pulse of hockey in Northern California.
As the vice-president of Sharks Sports and Entertainment – which includes the American Hockey League’s (AHL) San Jose Barracuda and three arenas (San Jose, Fremont and Oakland) and their programs under the umbrella of Sharks Ice – Gustafson has overseen the growth of the Jr. Sharks and Sharks Ice, helping the latter to become one of the busiest recreation facilities in the country.
“I’ve always been a people person, but I don’t know that I had the technical skills and background off the start,” said Gustafson of his introduction to facilities management in the late 1990s. “I was a former professional player, but here I had to get into the nuts and bolts of making ice and fixing Zambonis, which was something I had to learn quickly. But other than that, it was an easy transition because it was always a matter of figuring out how we could push programs and events to get folks involved, and once we were able to do that, people got hooked because the game resonates with so many different people.
“It’s an amazing game. Anyone can play it, and you can play it until you’re 70 or 80, no matter if you are male or female or if you’re good or not.”
Gustafson, born in Fort Frances, Ont., is a former goaltender whose playing career took him to Colorado College for four years before embarking on a five-year pro career that featured stops in four different minor leagues, including a cup of coffee in the AHL. But when Gustafson came on board with the Sharks organization in 1998, he drew not just from his pro days, but also from his childhood experiences at the rink, and right from the start wanted to bring to San Jose the community-centered, small-town Canadian approach to hockey and the atmosphere and sense of community that goes along with it.
“I draw back to when I grew up and how much hockey and the rink meant to the community, and how we could replicate that down here,” said Gustafson. “Growing up in an ice rink and recognizing what an ice rink does for a small Canadian community, it’s a place where everyone gathers and congregates. So many great community happenings occur at the rink, and my goal from the outset was trying to find a way to bring that here.
“Sure, we do it a little more unconventionally down here with some different programming, but what we’re trying to do is create a culture.”
To date, Gustafson’s strategy has gone according to plan. Currently, Sharks Ice is home to both the largest adult hockey league and the largest arena curling club in the United States, and with Sharks Ice San Jose hosting the 16U AAA and 18U AAA USA Hockey Youth Nationals from Mar. 31-Apr. 4 – the first time the event will be held west of the Rockies – Gustafson is proud of how much has been accomplished.
“First off, it shows the strength of California hockey, both north and south,” said Gustafson. “We’re fortunate because we have a great facility, and it’s very conducive to big events, but what it does is allow our kids the opportunity to play and to see what the very best talent in the country looks like. I hope people will come to watch because the hockey will be amazing as future NHLers and future Olympians are going to be here – this is the real deal. We’re excited to host, and we’re excited for our kids to have the opportunity to experience this.”
The effect of the development of the Jr. Sharks and Sharks Ice isn’t limited to rapid growth in minor and adult hockey. The impact has been felt all the way up to the NHL level, where in the 2012-13 season Matt Tennyson became the first Jr. Shark alumni to suit up for the big club, an achievement that was celebrated by many people who had dedicated countless hours to developing and advancing the organization.
“It was kind of surreal,” said Gustafson. “When you start out some days, you would kind of sit there and scratch your head and wonder if this was ever going to happen. There’s a number of kids that in some way, shape, or form that have gotten close or have played in the NHL, but having ‘Tenny’ as the first Jr. Shark is just something that’s really special. It doesn’t matter where you come from – if you put in the time and work hard good things happen, and it’s a good lesson for any kid.”
For Tennyson, who was born in Minnesota, but spent several formative years in the Jr. Sharks organization in his teens, the experience of playing minor hockey in San Jose is something that he feels had a strong influence in shaping his career.
“Coming from the Midwest, which is a fairly big hockey region, I didn’t know what to expect in California,” said Tennyson. “There are obviously NHL teams here, but I wasn’t sure how the youth hockey would translate over. Looking back, I don’t think I’d be at the level I’m at now if I hadn’t been able to play for the Jr. Sharks at that AAA level. It definitely improved my abilities, and I think it also helped me to open a few doors that maybe wouldn’t have been possible to open if I hadn’t spent time there.”
Adding to the outside knowledge and passion people like Gustafson and Tennyson have contributed to the program are a steady influx of former NHL Sharks entering into the Jr. Sharks coaching ranks in recent years, stabilizing an area that Gustafson says was one in need of continued depth. Now, former pros like Kyle McLaren, Mike Rathje, Curtis Brown and Evgeni Nabokov are among the organization’s stable of coaches that are shaping the next generation of Jr. Sharks, which this year had seven Tier I and four Tier II boys teams from 11U to 18U, as well as nine girls teams ranging from 8U to 19U.
“Over the years, being in a non-traditional hockey market, we’ve had some good coaches, but we didn’t have a real deep bench of coaches,” said Gustafson. “Just because you played in the NHL doesn’t necessarily make you a good coach, but we’ve been very fortunate with the guys that are here because they are outstanding human beings and wonderful coaches, and add to the great coaches we already have.”
Perhaps one of the best indicators of the success Sharks Ice has had in growing the game in the state was the arrival of the Barracuda prior to this season, something Gustafson freely admits wouldn’t have been possible if Sharks Ice and the Jr. Sharks hadn’t grown and become popular.
“The fact that the Barracuda are here can be explained in one word, and that’s development,” said Gustafson. “First and foremost, we’re developing our future talent for the NHL, but it’s also about developing and growing our fan base. Once someone goes to a hockey game, it’s not often that they don’t like it.”
So after two decades of trying to develop hockey in Northern California, is it at the level Gustafson thought it would be when he started?
“Yeah, I think so,” said Gustafson. “To see high school hockey going strong is super exciting, the talent level is strong, and I’m pleased with where the coaches are. We’re committed to growing the sport, and at this point, we’re just looking at different ways to continue that growth in what we’re doing.”
— John B. Spigott