If you want to see Silicon Valley take a break from business, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place than the hockey rink: Sharks Ice, to be specific. The San Jose Sharks run the biggest amateur hockey league west of the Mississippi, with more than 3,000 players and more than 160 teams in Oakland, Fremont and, of course, San Jose.
On a recent Saturday night in San Jose, the Southsiders took to the ice to play the Senior Sharks. Referee Aaron Godwin offered up some basic context. These two teams are in a category called Quadruple C. "It’s a little bit more intermediate level," Godwin says. "We’ve got levels all the way up to Single A, which is like the elite college players, former pro guys, stuff like that. All the way down to Five E, which is just beginners."
Godwin is a part-time referee. He’s a college student at Cal State Stanislaus, out in Turlock. "So I come out here on the weekends, do a lot of kids-through-college games. Adults as well."
I ask him for his assessment of the Southsiders. "Well, the score is still 0-0," he laughs. "So, we’ll see at the end of the game."
Some of the players here were wearing skates before they were out of diapers, but not Damon Doe. He started when he was 28.
"I always wanted to play as a kid when I watched the 1988 Olympic hockey team."
That's when he started to play with friends. "That’s how I learned." Sharks Ice also offers classes for those who want to learn, but may not have experienced ice hockey players in their social circle.
Doe plays on three teams: the Southsiders (CCCC level), Bandits2 (CC level) and Originals (DDDD level). When you see how hard these guys play, it’s hard to imagine how this 47-year-old finance executive from Sunnyvale does it. But hockey players work in short shifts, switching in and out of the game as they tire.
"We play about a minute per shift," Doe says, gasping for breath between phrases, "because that’s about all you can last, you know, go full speed."
Professional ice hockey players switch out even more frequently, he says. "We play too long for our own good. And there’s a direct relationship between age and how long you can be out there. Ha! The first shift I ever played, I almost threw up."
Most of these guys have known each other for more than a decade. They’ve been to each other’s BBQs and weddings. Most work in Silicon Valley, at Apple, Applied Materials, Ariba. One guy works at PG&E. Another at Pfizer. Another is a nursing student at West Valley College.
Not that any of that really matters. Gabriel De La Rosa is a project manager for an engineering firm -- when he’s not focused on being team captain of the Southsiders. "Nobody cares what people do as their professions. So everybody just gets to put that away for about two hours. Just come out and play. You could be yelling at a CEO. You don’t know. It doesn’t matter."
He’s 36 years old. So I ask him what part of the body goes first on a hockey player. "Pride!" he says, laughing.
After that, the consensus is … backs. Why backs? Bryan Gesicki, a 39-year-old from San Jose, blames married life. "Add a little home cooking and you get a little bit heavier." Others say it’s the beer and chicken wings the guys consume after games that pack on the pounds.
It probably doesn't help that the games are scheduled late. This match started at 9:45 p.m. Demand for the ice is high at Sharks Ice -- the official practice facility for the San Jose Sharks -- despite the fact that there are four rinks.
It’s fair to say the players who started as kids are the better skaters. But that doesn’t matter either. To a man, the Southsiders are here to have a good time with each other -- although it doesn't hurt that the team won this particular game, 4-0.
Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.