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The San Jose Sharks have only been playing hockey for a little under 25 years, but in that brief time they have already managed to give their fans more than a century’s worth of painful playoff disappointment.

The Sharks have been among the most successful teams in the NHL since the turn of the century, yet year after year they have found unique ways to stumble when the stakes were highest. The Sharks have made the playoffs every year since 2004, appeared in three Western Conference Finals series, and logged an impressive slate of exciting playoff moments along the way.

The Sharks finally got past the vaunted Colorado Avalanche in 2004 to reach their first WCF. They turned away the Red Wings in multiple memorable series, overcame a 4-0 deficit on the road in LA to win the game and ultimately the series, and recorded their first ever playoff series sweep last season—disposing of the favored Vancouver Canucks in four games in the first round. Unfortunately, for each of these notable accomplishments, there was a complementary pitfall that saw the team fall short of their ultimate goal of a Stanley Cup.

Certainly no disappointment was more pronounced than 2014’s first-round collapse against the in-state rival LA Kings. The Sharks cemented their status as perennial playoff underperformers by becoming just the fourth team in NHL history to surrender a 3-0 lead in a 7-game series—losing the opening round series 4-3 despite enjoying home ice advantage. As the Sharks were etching this dubious distinction onto their dismal playoff resume, I experienced a significant milestone as a fan as well.

During my time following the Sharks, I have come to realize that the natural progression of being a Sharks fan mirrors the grieving process. Ultimately this seems wholly appropriate for a team that gives their fans nothing but grief once the regular season concludes. Players and coaches may come and go, but whether the team is guided by Ron Wilson’s “formula” or Todd McLellan’s “process” (pronounced PROH-cess, of course), the outcome never seems to change. Thus all Sharks fans eventually go through this five-stage metamorphosis,  provided they remain masochistic enough to stay around that long.

Stage 1: Denial

This is the stage in which the vast majority of Sharks fans find themselves. People are generally attracted to the team because of their impressive talent and regular season prowess, thus it is quite easy for new fans to brush off even several playoff stumbles as minor bumps in a road that must ultimately lead to a Stanley Cup title.

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These fans are characterized by their undying optimism, psyching themselves up into believing that every new season is “the year” that everything falls in line for the Sharks. The Sharks’ commitment to “reloading over rebuilding” feeds this type of mentality as it entrenches stars like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau as cornerstones of the franchise and makes fans believe that eventual success must come sooner or later. This attitude also erodes accountability as most of the fanbase is satisfied simply with competing and are all too willing to forgive big stars for annual underwhelming postseasons.

The even-keel franchise mentality exhibited by Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Todd McLellan, and Doug Wilson also does nothing to discourage such thinking. Gushing fans are all too ready to forgive and forget and believe the team leaders when they calmly claim (year in and year out) “We’ll get ’em next year.” This lack of accountability only serves to perpetuate the problem by preventing new blood and new fervor from joining the fold.

Stage 2: Anger

After a fan has sat through enough postseason disappointments, he or she may finally stop believing that winning is inevitable and recognize the need for change. However, this fan will be in for a rude awakening once he or she sees the infrastructure insulating the problematic parties from accountability.

This leads to the knee-jerk reaction of calling for complete turnover after every inevitable playoff exit. I myself went through this stage—calling for a complete roster turnover and dismissal of every coach, scout, trainer, announcer, and arena usher for several seasons while seething from yet another playoff ousting. In actuality, the Sharks do have some viable talent on the roster that isn’t doomed by the “power” of positive thinking and misplaced self-confidence, but such is a natural reaction once one realizes the Sharks’ approach cannot work. It is the first step toward becoming a true Sharks fan—leaving the hopelessly optimistic hordes behind and daring to hold the team accountable for their many shortcomings.

Stage 3: Bargaining

Stage 2 leads directly into Stage 3, once the realization sets in that major changes come at a cost. A team cannot hope to remain in such regular contention once they make a commitment to rebuild. Such a prospect does not bother the Stage 3 Sharks Fan, however. 

Once a fan reaches this point, they begin to think that even a decade out of the playoffs would be acceptable if the Sharks had a legitimate shot at winning thereafter. After all, what good is going to the playoffs every year if you’re ultimately just going to go home empty-handed?

Stage 4: Depression

Once a fan ponders the prospect of major change long enough, they come to the realization that a rebuild will never happen. The Sharks are plagued be a plethora of impediments preventing the possibility of major change.

Remember, the majority of the fanbase remains hopelessly committed to the team core and couldn’t bear the thought of bidding farewell to a Thornton or a Marleau—despite the fact that they are among the biggest the reasons the Sharks continue to come up short. Furthermore, the Sharks are owned by a largely-disinterested billionaire who cares more about continuing to make money than seeing the team succeed. Ownership will not be willing to accept the potential hit to ticket sales that will come with multiple years out of the playoffs should the Sharks commit to rebuilding the team, therefore there will never be major accountability for shortcomings as long as the team remains economically successful.

Changing the team’s mentality is the only way they can ever hope to get over the hump, but with the current circumstances that simply won’t happen. This realization hits hard, driving the odd fan who makes it this far in the progression to abandon hope that the Sharks can ever improve and simply lament their predicament.

Stage 5: Acceptance

One cannot grieve forever, nor can a Sharks fan mope forever. Eventually a fan will either give up completely and stop following their team, or swallow their pride and accept the team’s place in the league. Few fans ever reach this final stage in the process—I have rarely met another personally—but if one remains a Sharks fan long enough, this is the only place he or she will ultimately land.

ImageThese fans fully understand the complications discussed heretofore, and simply accept that it is nearly impossible that the Sharks will ever reach that ultimate goal. It takes a lot of fortitude to come to this conclusion and decide to continue following and supporting the team, but that’s what loyalty is all about. These fans hold open the possibility that things may eventually change, but they don’t continue to hold out childish hope that every year will be their year.

If the Sharks ever want to win the Stanley Cup, more people need to go through this progression and realize that the current approach is completely futile. The team needs more fire, more passion, and more desire. Believing blindly in a process doesn’t work if the process is broken. Until more people realize this, the Sharks will always be the team of next year.

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