Touched by the spirit of the game

It was an hour before game time, but the doors to the San Jose Arena were still closed. About 500 people stood patiently in line, thinking to themselves, "Why, I can tell the grandkids I once stood outside waiting to see a Cleveland Barons-Edmonton Road Runners game."

And then their better selves interjected, "No, maybe that's not as good an idea as I think it is."

That's the good thing about better selves. They rarely steer you wrong.

The Sharks' management, like other NHL clubs, decided to see if the fuse boxes in their arenas still worked, so they plunked down about $100,000 to fly the Barons, their American Hockey League affiliate, and the Road Runners to Silicon Valley to entertain their legions of hockey-starved cash cows ... er, fans.

To further lure the suckers, er, customers, they comped tickets for all 11,500 season-ticket holders, and sold the remaining 6,000 or so at $5 a copy. Parking was free, which meant the organ-eye-zation was basically playing for the concessions.

This is the kind of largesse that gets people fired in less turbulent times. But with the owners and players continuing their We Hate You Marathon across the continent, you do the best you can when the Devil spits in the stewpot. The Sharks gambled they could get most of their $100K back in hot dogs, beer and keychains.

More remarkably, they gambled that they could pack their building simply by throwing the doors open. They were, in essence, holding a plebiscite on the concept of ice hockey, namely: "If we only put our hands in your pockets up to the first knuckle, will you come and watch a game with only a few players you've heard of? Please? Please? Pretty please?"

In fairness, the Sharks own and operate the Barons, so there wasn't a lot of interstate bickering involved. Moreover, the Barons had drawn fewer than 12,000 to their first three home games, and more than half of those in the opener. The last two crowds, of 2,582 against Milwaukee, and 2,239 against Hamilton, were more representative of how much northeastern Ohio would miss this game.

As for how much San Jose wanted this game, well, the arena was about a third full when the puck was dropped, which meant one of three things:

  • No season-ticket holders came and 1,000 of the paying customers ate their tickets;

  • All the people who bought their tickets threw them out their car windows and half the season-ticket holders used their freebies;

  • It was just Lord of the Flies festival seating, and the bookkeepers would sort out the carnage in the morning.

    Oh, there were the experimental AHL rules to keep the customers amused -- the double-thick lines, the goalie trapezoid behind each net, the no-touch icing, the liberalized offside rule.

    There was also The Local Angle, Edmonton defenseman Jason Platt, a San Francisco native getting to play in his third game all year.

    And the fans did the best they could -- they booed Cleveland's first power play, Edmonton's first goal, and the musical chairs promotion after the first period. They were largely stunned by the Dancing Snowflakes, ballet dancers on skates who spiced down (it wasn't spiced up, trust us) the second period intermission. And they got to watch a shutout by the redoubtable Tyler Moss in the Road Runners goal.

    Hey, the tickets were mostly free, so they were not committed.

    Ultimately, late arrivals swelled the crowd to about 40 percent of capacity (the Sharks generously announced an attendance of 11,784, and claimed to have made more than $20,000 from tickets alone for the Shark Foundation, where any proceeds are supposed to go), which meant that the Sharks probably made their nut; responsible for 10 bucks and change per head, each customer would have done that with a sausage and garlic fries, with a couple of singles to spare.

    The show, though, did not satisfactorily answer the question of whether San Jose misses hockey. After all, there are the 49ers (feh!), Raiders (bleargh!), Warriors (ickgkack!), San Jose State and Stanford football (sigh!) to worry about. The Faux Sharques didn't make much of a dent, either in the building or out, and they are not likely to draw as well the second time out, if there is one.

    The fans are all still waiting for the boys in the commissioner's office and the union hall to stop screwing around and act like they have something valuable, rather than what they have now -- a kidnapping victim without an address for the ransom note.

    That is, except for the young woman wearing the Barons sweater standing in line for some doughy comestible on the concourse. She seemed quite content ... at least until she was asked about her choice of accoutrement.

    "Look, I'm just in line for a soda, all right?" she said, and you knew right then and there that she had been touched by the spirit of the game.

    Or by the good people at PepsiCo. It's hard to be sure either way.

    Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com