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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

The first season of the San Jose Sharks

The start of the 1991-92 season was 12 years after the NHL had last expanded. In 1979, the four remaining WHA teams (Hartford, Quebec, Winnipeg and Edmonton) were absorbed by the NHL. The addition of the San Jose Sharks brought the league to a total of 22 teams.

The Sharks were the third team in California (the second team, the California Golden Seals, were long gone) and signified the NHL's expansion into the Sun Belt of the United States. Many point to Wayne Gretzky's success in Los Angeles as paving the way for NHL expansion into the south, and there is definitely some truth to that; however, it was only logical for the NHL to try and expand its fan base into densely-populated and economical successful areas like San Jose.

The roots of the Sharks franchise traces back to the California/Oakland Seals. The Gund brothers were the owners of the Seals franchise, which moved to Cleveland and became the Barons for two seasons before merging with the Minnesota North Stars. Leading up to the early 90s, the Gund brothers were trying to move the North Stars back to the Bay Area in California. Eventually the Gunds struck a deal with the NHL whereby they would sell their share of the North Stars and then be granted an expansion franchise in San Jose. Oh yeah, they were also given the ability to take 24 players from the North Stars' roster, in the 1991 dispersal draft (I highly recommend reading up on this).

We will cover more about the Sharks inaugural NHL season in a future post, but for this time we will focus on eight cards that were released early in the 1991-92 Upper Deck set. These cards feature glamour shots of some of the Sharks' first players, scooped in the dispersal draft or acquired through other means. If you want to see tough guys like Neil Wilkinson or Bob McGill posing like Uncle Rico, than the this post is for you. Let's also appreciate the awesome teal and silver jerseys that were part of the inaugural season, and which consistently rank in the top jerseys of all-time.

Card # 55 – Neil Wilkinson

Defenceman Wilkinson was claimed by Sharks from the North Stars as part of the dispersal draft. He had played part of two seasons with the North Stars, and would go on to play two seasons with the Sharks, posting career best numbers in 1991-92 (4 goals, 19 points).

Wilkinson would be traded in the summer of 1993 to Chicago in order to complete an early trade that saw the Sharks acquire goalie Jimmy Waite. Big Daddy, as Wilkinson was nicknamed, would play one season in Chicago and parts of two seasons in Winnipeg before wrapping up a 10-year career in Pittsburgh, playing four seasons for the Pens. Retiring after the 1998-99 season, Wilkinson would play in 460 games, scoring 83 points and 813 penalty minutes.

YouTube clip: a staple of early 1990s tough guys, a fight where he gets dusted by Wendel Clark

Card # 56 – Tony Hrkac

The Sharks would acquire Hrkac prior to the start of the 1991-92 season via a trade from Quebec. He would play only 22 games for the Sharks, scoring two goals and 12 points, before being traded to Chicago for a draft pick.

Hrkac, who held (and still does) the record for most points in a single NCAA season with 116, would play in the IHL for 1992-93 season, leading the league in scoring (132 points in 80 games). In 1993-94 he would play part of the season in St. Louis, but until 1997-98, Hrkac would play in the AHL. Expansion in the late 1990s would allow him to find his way back to the NHL, signing with Dallas before the 1997-98 season. The start of 1998 would kick off a whirlwind of activity, where Hrkac would switch teams four times in a six-month period:

  1. January 1998 - claimed by Edmonton from Dallas;

  2. June 16, 1998 – traded to Pittsburgh by Edmonton;

  3. June 26, 1998 – claimed by Nashville in the expansion draft;

  4. July 9, 1998 – traded to Dallas by Nashville for future considerations.

Finding his way back to Texas would pay off, as Hrkac would end up winning a Stanley Cup in 1999 and playing another four seasons until 2002-03. In total he would play 12 seasons for nine different teams, appearing in over 750 games and scoring 371 points. Hrkac would come out of retirement briefly at the end of the late 2000s, playing a handful games in Milwaukee of the AHL. He is currently a pro scout with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

YouTube clip: a tribute video from his time in Milwaukee of the AHL.

Card # 57 – Brian Mullen

The veteran right winger was acquired from the NY Rangers in May 1991, traded one-for-one for former 50 goal scorer, Tim Kerr. That’s right, Tim Kerr was once a San Jose Shark. He never actually played for the Sharks, as he was selected by San Jose from Philadelphia in the expansion draft.

Having played nine seasons split between Winnipeg and New York, Mullen was a veteran on the Sharks initial squad in 1991-92, scoring 18 goals and 46 points, finishing second in team scoring to rookie Pat Falloon. That would be his only season in the Bay Area, as Mullen would be traded in the summer of 1992 to New York’s other team, the Islanders.

Mullen, the younger brother of Hall of Famer Joe Mullen, would see his career cut short after one season in Long Island, suffering a stroke during a training session in August 1993. Brian played in 832 NHL games, scoring 622 points. He also played in the 1989 All-Star Game and won NCAA title in 1980-81 with Wisconsin, so all-in-all, not a bad career.

Mullen continues a lifetime in hockey (he started as a Rangers stick boy), coaching youth hockey in New Jersey.

YouTube clip: scoring the overtime winner for the Jets in the 1985 Smythe Division semi-final against Calgary, capping a 4-1 comeback for Winnipeg.

Card # 58 – Jeff Hackett

The man who would end up with the unfortunate role of starting goalie on an expansion team, Hackett was claimed from the New York Islanders in the expansion draft. He had played 43 games in two partial seasons in New York, winning nine. In 1991-92 he would lead all Sharks goalies in games played (42), posting a 11-27-1 record. That’s not a bad record for an expansion team, but 1992-93 would prove much worse for Hackett, as he would play in 36 games posting a 2-30-1 record, losing the starter’s role to the mercurial Arturs Irbe.

A trade to Chicago in the summer of 1993 would lead Hackett to the most successful stretch of his career, playing parts of six seasons in the Windy City, winning 18 or more games four times. 1998 would bring a trade to Montreal as part of six-player swap; injuries would prevent Hackett from taking on the starter’s role, as he would play over 50 games only twice in five partial seasons with the Canadiens.

Jeff would play games for Boston and Philadelphia in the final two seasons of his career, retiring in 2004. All told, he played in 500 games over 15 seasons, posting a 166-244-56 recording with 2.90 GAA and .902 SVP. He did also win a Calder Cup and playoff MVP in 1989-90 with the Springfield Indians.

YouTube clip: while playing for the Habs, getting absolutely flattened by Steven Webb when wandering too far from his crease.

Card # 59 – Brian Hayward

The first of five goalies the Sharks claimed from the North Stars in the dispersal draft, Hayward had played eight seasons prior to 1991-92, split between Winnipeg and Montreal. Hayward had it pretty good in Montreal, winning three Jennings trophies while serving as backup to a young Patrick Roy. Hayward did have a pedigree of his own, having won 33 games as a starter with the Jets in 1984-85, finishing fifth in Vezina trophy voting. He was also a first team all-American at Cornell in 1981-82.

Brian would play in only seven games for the Sharks in 1991-92, suffering a back injury early in the season against Buffalo. He would fare slightly better in 1992-93, playing in 18 games before suffering an eventual career-ending back injury against Detroit in January 1993. His final record with the Sharks would be 3-18-1, but let’s choose to remember him for the truly epic mask he had while in San Jose.

After retirement, Hayward would move to another California expansion team, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, taking on the role of TV analyst, a job he still has today. He also appears on national games in Canada and the USA.

YouTube clip: a slightly awkward interview upon his signing with the Habs, explaining that he hopes to have better result playing for a team that plays defense

Card # 60 – Craig Coxe

The centre was in his second tour of duty with the Vancouver Canucks when he was claimed in the expansion draft. The seven-year veteran, who also played for Calgary and St. Louis, was a big draw to San Jose as he was born in Chula Vista, a suburb of San Diego, and one of the first California-born NHLers.

An enforcer by trade, Coxe’s best season statistically was 1987-88 with Vancouver and Calgary, recording seven goals, 22 points and 218 penalty minutes. The start of the next season would see Coxe send to St. Louis as part of the trade that landed the Flames Doug Gilmour.

With the Sharks, Coxe would play only 10 games, scoring 2 goals, including the first goal in franchise history, in a 4-3 loss to his former team, the Vancouver Canucks. His brief stop in San Jose would be the end of his NHL career, but Coxe would continue to play for another eight seasons in various minor leagues, including a stint as a player-assistant coach in the CHL. Coxe would retire after the 1999-2000 season, and become a head coach in the CHL. He currently coaches high school hockey in Cheboygan, Michigan.

YouTube clip: holding his own in a slug fest with the late Bob Probert.

Card # 61 – Rob Zettler

Claimed from the North Stars in the dispersal draft, the young defenceman had played parts of three seasons in Minnesota before becoming a San Jose Shark. Zettler would play two and half seasons in San Jose, totaling 196 games, one goal and 18 points. I bet your sensing a trend here in the type of players the Sharks were able to land in their dispersal/expansion draft. This also explains (along with the Senators/Lightning expansion draft) why rules were changed and how the Vegas Golden Knights were able to make a Stanley Cup Final in their first season.

Zettler would last longer than most Shark expansion picks, but in February 1994 would be traded to Philadelphia. Rob would split time with the Flyers and the Toronto Maple Leafs until he would be claimed in another expansion draft, this time in 1998 by the Nashville Predators. His stint there would last only two games, and he would split time between the minors and parts of three seasons in Washington before retiring in 2002.

Immediately upon retiring, Zettler would go back to San Jose as an assistant coach (2002-2008). He would continue as an assistant with the Maple Leafs (2008-2012), then a head coaching stint in Syracuse of the AHL (2012-16) before returning to San Jose as an assistant (2017-2019).

YouTube clip: getting rag-dolled in a fight with one-time teammate Eric Lindros after The Big E tries to take on the entire Sharks team.

Card # 62 – Bob McGill

Another tough guy defenceman, McGill was claimed from the Chicago Blackhawks in the expansion draft. McGill had already played a decade in the NHL, split between the Maple Leafs and Hawks, finishing fifth in the NHL in penalty minutes in 1984-85 (250).

McGill would play most of the 1991-92 season with San Jose, appearing in 62 games, scoring three goals, four points and 70 penalty minutes. He would be traded to Detroit in March of that season, going to the Red Wings in exchange for Johan Garpenlov.

Like Zettler, McGill would be again claimed in an expansion draft, this time in 1992 by the Tampa Bay Lightning; he would never suit up in Tampa Bay, as he would be claimed off waivers by his former team in Toronto before the start of the season. 1993-94 would be the last season of his NHL career, split between the New York Islanders and Hartford Whalers. He would attempt a brief comeback in 1995-96, playing eight games for Chicago in the old IHL.

In total McGill played 13 NHL seasons, logging 706 games, 72 points and 1766 penalty minutes. He was a long-time scout for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL (2008-2016) and is currently an analyst on the Leafs Nation Network cable TV channel.

YouTube clip: holding on for dear life in a fight with Montreal Canadiens tough guy Mario Roberge.

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