So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Owen Nolan officially announced his retirement Tuesday despite the fact that he hasn’t played in the NHL since the 2009-2010 season. Although the Irishman known as Buster played for 6 teams in his 18 year career he played far more games in San Jose than he did in any of his other stops (568 of his 1200 NHL games). When he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the deadline in 2003 for Alyn McCauley, Brad Boyes, and a 2003 1st round pick (Steve Bernier after a subsequent trade with Boston) he was the Sharks Captain and all time leader in goals (206) and points (451).
The life of a “power forward” in the NHL is a tough one and the players who can play that role at a high level over an extended period of time are few and far between. During the press conference announcing Nolan’s retirement Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson likened the role to that of an NFL running back: lots of punishment dished out and lots of punishment absorbed. It’s a demanding role as players are expected to skate, to score, to fight, and to change the momentum of a game with physical play. The only players of Nolan’s generation to do it as well and as long as Buster did it are Brendan Shanahan and Jarome Iginla, two surefire Hall of Famers.
Unfortunately Buster is unlikely to join them there, but that shouldn’t take anything away from his impressive career totals. 422 goals. 463 assists. 885 points. 1793 penalty minutes. 65 playoff games. 21 playoff goals. 19 playoff assists. 40 playoff points. 66 playoff penalty minutes. All this while being one of the most dynamic, ferocious, and feared players during the majority of his 18 NHL seasons and 1200 NHL games.
I’ve been very fortunate to attend a lot of hockey games in my life. The most talented player I’ve seen in person was Mario Lemieux who had maybe the best set of hands to ever play the game. I was “fortunate” to see him, along with probably the best team I’ve ever seen, dismantle the expansion Sharks at the Cow Palace (seriously, check out this roster: 6 are already in the Hall of Fame and 2 more are likely to join them). During a trip to Denver in 1998 I got to experience the height of the Avs-Red Wings rivalry, and despite the fact that Patrick Roy shutout the Wings in that game Sergei Fedorov was the best player on the ice for either team. I’ve never seen a more dynamic or exciting player in person than Fedorov, whose speed throughout the 90′s was unparalleled. I’ve seen Roy, Brodeur, and Belfour (more on him in a moment). Bourque, Lidstrom, and Niedermayer. All great players. All Hall of Famers.
The point isn’t to brag about what I’ve seen it’s to provide perspective on what I’m about to say: Owen Nolan is my favorite player of all time (that’s why I picked a quote from one of my favorite books for the title of this post). He might not be the best player I’ve seen, had the best career, or won the most rings, but he is my favorite. And it’s not close.
The Sharks upset the Red Wings in the 1994 playoffs, maybe the biggest upset in NHL history, but even after besting the Flames the following year the Red Wings crushed them in the second round. There was no progression because they couldn’t convince upper echelon players to sign with them as free agents, the few elite talents they drafted or acquired washed out in San Jose, and the established players they could get their hands on were well past their primes. And then 9 games into the 95-96 season the Sharks traded Sandis Ozolinsh to the Colorado Avalanche for Owen Nolan. Finally the Sharks had a star player with his best years ahead of him. A leader with the willingness to drop the gloves and the talent to score goals.
By the 97-98 season the Sharks were back in the playoffs as the 8 seed, losing to the Stars in the first round. The next year they were the 7 seed, losing to the Avs in the first round. Always slightly overmatched when facing the big boys of the Western Conference, namely Detroit, Colorado, and Dallas, the Sharks were often able to go toe-to-toe with those teams because they clawed and fought and turned hockey into this game of inches. They refused to back down or be intimidated, they made opponents pay a physical toll for beating them, and they earned respect. In the 2000 playoffs they were again the 8 seed, but they were able to topple the top seeded St. Louis Blues in 7 games. In that series Nolan was the best player on the ice for either team, finishing with 6 goals, 2 assists, and 8 points while averaging 22:30 of ice time and scoring one of the more memorable series winning goals in NHL history.
If you’re a Sharks fan and you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance your list of least favorite hockey players includes Ed Belfour and Chris Pronger, so these 2 clips will likely warm your heart and heal your spirit. This, in a nutshell, is how I will always remember Buster:
And of course, who could forget this little gem?
Hockey fans outside of San Jose will likely remember Owen Nolan most for calling his shot for the hat trick in the 1997 All-Star Game in front of his hometown fans, and for the above mentioned fluky game 7 series winning goal. What I’ll always remember him for are the wars against Dallas in the regular season and playoffs when stuff like this happened. And this. And this. And this. For the way he almost singlehandedly took down the top seeded Blues in 2000. For the way he made Sharks hockey must-see TV. For the way he changed the perception of San Jose from hockey wasteland to hockey destination.
I bought an Owen Nolan Sharks sweater in 1999, complete with the captain’s C, and I’ve worn it to every Sharks game I’ve attended in person since (even Joe Thornton’s first return to Boston after being traded). I’ve been known to break it out for big games when I’m watching at home or when the playoff mojo needs to be changed because things aren’t going well. And I’ll continue wearing it until the damn thing wears out or another Sharks player takes over the title as my favorite player of all time. Be warned though, current and future Sharks players: Owen Nolan won’t give it up without a fight.
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