On the afternoon of February 26, 2018, I got three phone calls.
The first was from Jason Botterill, the GM of the Buffalo Sabres. He told me he was trading me. I was going to be a San Jose Shark. The second was from my agent. He confirmed that I was, indeed, going to be a San Jose Shark.
And then the third call was from Joe Thornton.
“You’re going to be a Shaaaaaaaark!”
Have you ever heard Jumbo excited? It was glorious. He told me he had been working with Doug Wilson, the Sharks GM, to try and get me out to San Jose. To hear that Jumbo had actually gone to the GM and advocated trading for me … I couldn’t pack my bags fast enough.
On my way to the airport that night the texts and calls kept rolling in. Pavs, Cooch and Burnzie all hit me up to tell me about the city and the Sharks. They each mentioned different things. A lot of what they said was about the team, Coach DeBoer and the organization from top to bottom. But, I think it was Burnzie who told me about the fans.
“It’s the best hockey town you’ll play in.”
I mean, I wasn’t going to tell him I thought he was lying, but … San Jose? Really? I grew up in Vancouver and played in Winnipeg and Buffalo, so I thought Burnzie was just feeding me some hype.
But, man, the strangest thing happened after I got to San Jose.
A few days after I arrived and had played a few games, I went for a walk with Timo Meier down Santana Row — a great street outside downtown. And I must have been stopped 40 times by Sharks fans. No joke. Timo said he had never seen anything like that. So many of them told me what the Sharks meant to them — how hard it was to lose in the Cup finals in 2016, and how desperately they wanted me to help them get back there.
I sort of thought I’d get to San Jose, walk down the streets in shorts every day and nobody would recognize me … but this city isn’t just a Sharks town — it’s a hockey town with a bunch of hockey nuts. Burnzie was right. And the best part about that day with Timo was getting back to my apartment, sitting on the couch and realizing that people wanted me there.
I’ve thought about that day quite a few times since the season ended. It was one of the first things that came to mind when I stepped off the ice after our Game 6 loss to Vegas. You know, it’s funny, I never thought if that was going to be the last time I wore a Sharks jersey. But I knew, I just knew, that I didn’t want it to be. That series meant so much to me. Game 1 was terrible. We got behind the eight ball right away and I let things spiral out of control. It was so painful watching Game 2 from the stands. Honestly, no joke, watching that game after being suspended was the most nervous I’ve ever been for a hockey game. I went for dinner that night before puck drop with Joel Ward. He could see how nervous I was. That game felt like it lasted a thousand hours.
When Cooch scored that double overtime goal, I was jacked.
Maybe I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: That’s when I knew I wanted to be a Shark until I retire.
Maybe I didn’t know it then, but I know it now: That’s when I knew I wanted to be a Shark until I retire.
So when I played golf with Doug Wilson, a few weeks later — he didn’t have to sell me on anything, I knew already. It was an opportunity to get to know each other, and for me to see that Doug is a good golfer.
A few more weekends passed, and I had just got out of Lion King in London with my girlfriend when my agent called me to let me know we had reached an agreement for me to be a Shark for the next seven years.
I got that thing signed ASAP.
Man, I am just so damn excited to be a part of this community — to feel like someone is putting their faith in me. That feeling, for me, is the most valuable commodity in the world. Because for a long time, I knew what it felt like to not be wanted.
I want to explain some things about my time in Atlanta and Winnipeg.
I loved Atlanta. I felt I had a special connection with those fans. I was a black athlete, playing in a city with a large black population, in a sport with not many black players. I felt a responsibility to that city and especially to the young, minority girls and boys who came to our games. That’s why when the team left for Winnipeg it was so hard to accept. It had nothing to do with where we were going — it just felt like I had failed somehow, even though there was nothing I really could have done.
You have to understand, as a restricted free agent in the NHL, you don’t have a lot of control over your future. I didn’t get to choose where I was drafted in 2009, then the team that drafted me got moved to a different country in 2011, then you’re essentially expected to commit your future to them or deal with the consequences of being an RFA who wants to move, which can jeopardize your career even more.
In Winnipeg, though, I found everything I really wanted in an NHL city. The crowd is one of the best in the league, the city is great and the people were incredibly welcoming. So when I signed my six-year deal right before the lockout in 2012, I did so with the intention of being a Jet for life.
I wish things had gone differently in Winnipeg, because I was excited to go to a market that was so passionate about hockey. But it became clear, pretty quickly, that it wasn’t the right fit. It was a combination of things. First, it was frustrating not to have success on the ice. I had been in the NHL for five years and never experienced a winning season. I play to win. That, for me, is the best thing about hockey. So after every season in Winnipeg, I requested a trade. And each summer, nothing happened. But no matter the situation off the ice, my play and effort never changed. So I played my ass off for the Jets, because that was all there was to do.
Then, around 2013, there was the stuff about my social media. I think this should be addressed because in regards to social media and showing personality, I feel as a League and as players we need to take a more active approach in embracing what makes everyone unique.
Why does hockey culture shun people for embracing the entertainment side of the game? I think it’s an ingrained idea that players who show personality — who show some flair — are somehow selfish or a distraction to their team. I’m not playing the victim card here — I know the repercussions of posting a photo with a stack of money in your hand. But look at the NBA. Look at how that league promotes its players and their individuality. It’s not considered selfish, and it’s not frowned upon.
I see it like this: Being myself and trying to have some fun with it is good for the organization, which is good for the league, which is good for the game. The leagues that encourage self-promotion, identity and originality … well, to be honest, they make a lot more money than the NHL does. And in doing so, they can grow their game more. Because isn’t that what we’re trying to do here? I want more young boys and girls to experience where hockey can take them. We can do that, all while accepting the uniqueness of our players.
So when I got labelled as “spoiled,” or “rich kid” for portraying myself as I did, it didn’t make sense to me.
Isn’t that what we’re trying to do here? I want more young boys and girls to experience where hockey can take them. We can do that, all while accepting the uniqueness of our players.
My family lived in southeast Vancouver, and I shared a room with my two sisters. My side was blue, theirs was pink. We weren’t rich. We were a team. My sisters and I were very lucky to have the parents we had growing up.
From the age of three, to the time I got to the NHL, I skated almost every day. My dad and I would train every day since I was 10 at 6 AM and spend two hours there before school, and we’d do drill after drill after drill until I was the best I could be.
I earned my NHL money after 18 years of sacrifice by my parents, my sisters and myself. And if I wanted to put some of it on my back to do a pushup and have a little fun, so what? Those photos, and that side of me, is just a small part of who I am. But there just isn’t a league-wide push to show off who we really are — so fans get these snapshot ideas, compounded by a negative hockey culture. It’s not good for anyone.
On the ice, I gave everything I had for the Jets. All I ever wanted was to be part of a winner.
The trade to Buffalo was an opportunity to start fresh. I was only there for three years, but I really did enjoy my time as a Sabre. It was disappointing we couldn’t get the on-ice results to match the support we had from the fans. There are a lot of good people in that organization. From Jason down to the training staff, they want to right the ship. Leaving a place that wasn’t having success was difficult, because I wanted to be part of the fix. They have a great young leader in Jack Eichel, but the team was in a rebuild mode. I’m nine years into my career and I wanted to give myself the best opportunity to win, and I think San Jose gives me that opportunity.
I felt like I had been waiting to play for a club like the Sharks my whole life.
I hadn’t been on a winning team until Jumbo gave me the call to come to California. The entire organization — from top to bottom — is the best I’ve ever been a part of. And to step into the Sharks’ locker room and see the sort of culture they’ve built here … it’s impressive, man. I haven’t seen camaraderie like this since I played for Vancouver in juniors.
Just ask Martin Jones — we were on the same team when we were 14. We used to beat up on teams 25– or 30–0. It’s sort of cool to see Jonesy in the crease behind me again, and it’s great to play in the NHL with someone you grew up playing with.
Jonesy’s been here for a few years, and I can see what the playoff runs mean to him and the rest of the leaders in the room. I know some people thought the Sharks Cup window was closing, but when you have talent like we do, you can’t help but be excited about this. And I’m not just happy to be a part of it — I want to get us over the hill.
I’m not taking anything for granted. It has been a long road to San Jose for me, and I’ve learned so much. All those things I just told you, they’re a part of me that I carry every day, and a big reason why this chance in San Jose means everything to me.
I’m thankful for my time in Atlanta and Buffalo, and even though it wasn’t easy in Winnipeg, there’s a special place in my heart for that city and those people. I’m glad to see them doing well.
But the Sharks and these fans have put their faith in me now — and that’s all I’ve ever wanted. It’s a great feeling when you know you’re wanted, and it makes you play that much harder for the organization and for the fans. It’s why I love the game.
And it’s why I feel so at home here in San Jose.
Originally published at www.theplayerstribune.com.