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  • Tennyson, Acolatse racing to crack San Jose roster Print
    Futures Watch
    Written by Dan Marrazza   
    Friday, 11 January 2013 02:34

    In the 1960s, the United States and Soviet Union engaged in a "Space Race," an unofficial competiton between the countries to get to space. Now, in 2013, Matt Tennyson and Sena Acolatse are in a race of their own to become the first alumnus of the Sharks' youth hockey program to crack the NHL team's roster.

    When the NHL and NHLPA agreed on a new CBA to end the 2012-13 NHL lockout, it was a giant blow in favor of the sport of hockey.

    Obviously, the agreement means that fans that have missed watching the sport will soon be able to watch hockey on a nightly basis again. And obviously, the agreement enabled the NHL to avoid canceling its entire season for the second time in eight years, which helps NHL teams avoid losing millions and millions of dollars.

    But although it wasn’t necessarily one of the issues that was bargained over, another major positive that comes from the lockout’s resolution is that it opened the door for the sport to continue to be grown throughout the United States. Or looking at it from another perspective, the NHL’s return keeps more people interested in their favorite teams and playing the game, which in itself is an integral reason that there are billions of dollars to argue over during labor negotiations, anyway.

    Getting away from the financial ramifications of the lockout’s resolution, the NHL’s return is a God-send for the NHL markets which require their local team’s presence to grow the sport in their areas.

    A great example of a region which has tremendously benefitted from its local NHL team’s grassroots attempts of growing the sport has been Northern California, where the San Jose Sharks make it a vital part of their business model to get hands-on in creating new hockey fans.

    What the Sharks do which is so cutting edge is operate their own chain of ice skating rinks.

    The facilities, each entitled “Sharks Ice,” are a major part of the hockey scene in Northern California, too. Because in an area where playing hockey isn’t as ingrained in the culture as it is in Minnesota, Michigan or Massachusetts, the reality is that if the Sharks didn’t get proactive in opening their own rinks, many locals would never get the chance to play the game.

    “The goal is to get as many people in skates as possible,” said Sharks Ice general manager Jon Gustafson, who’s an Ontario-born former goalie who made Northern California his permanent home after six seasons of professional hockey. “We’re not a traditional ice hockey environment, but we truly believe that if we get people to try the game, that they’ll be in love with the game. I believe that almost everybody who tries the game ends up loving it.

    “There are three facilities—in San Jose, Oakland and Fremont—totaling seven total sheets of ice,” added Gustafson. “In our San Jose facility, we have over 600 kids in our in-house group, 400 kids in our Jr. Sharks and a little more than 400 in our high school program.”

    Besides growing hockey by using a savvy business approach which includes utilizing several former NHL Sharks to run its youth hockey programs, what Sharks Ice is also starting to do is breed future Sharks.

    In fact, two current members of the Sharks’ AHL affiliate in Worcester, Massachusetts, defensemen Matt Tennyson and Sena Acolatse, have roots in Northern California and the Sharks’ youth hockey program.

    Tennyson, arguably the organization’s top defensive prospect, became the first former Jr. Shark to ever sign with San Jose last March, when he left Western Michigan University to sign as an undrafted free agent.

    “Part of the reason I left school early was to get the chance to play for the Sharks,” said Tennyson, who spent parts of his childhood in both Michigan and Wisconsin before moving to nearby Pleasanton, California at age 14. “It’s a class organization which knows how to treat its players. It would be incredible to play for the same team’s junior team, and then make it all the way to the NHL with the same team.”

    Unlike Tennyson, Acolatse, 22, was actually born in California and spent his early childhood years living in the shadow of one of the Sharks Ice facilities in Fremont. But although Acolatse later spent part of his childhood in Western Canada and only played at Sharks Ice at an age before he could technically be a Jr. Shark, his story is eerily similar to Matt Tennyson’s.

    After all, both Tennyson and Acolatse are puck-moving defensemen who are alumni of the Sharks’ youth hockey program, who both found their way into the Sharks organization despite going undrafted in the NHL.

    “You have to give credit to Timmy Burke, who does a great job as the Sharks’ Director of Scouting,” said one of Tennyson’s and Acolatse’s current coaches with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks, David Cunniff. “He has a great group of amateur and pro scouts who work their tails off. It’s a lonely job where they’re out on the road, driving place to place. They’re looking for players who are under the radar, and who are late bloomers. And they find them. You have to give them credit.”

    While Tennyson and Acolatse share an obvious bond, there is one area where they could soon be at odds. Because only one of them can ever become the “first” former member of the Sharks’ youth hockey program to ever play for the NHL Sharks.

    At the moment, Tennyson would probably be the odds-on favorite to reach the NHL first. He, as a 6-foot-2, 205-pound blueliner in the mold of former Shark Matt Carle, could actually receive an invite to San Jose’s upcoming training camp as soon as this coming weekend.

    “There’s a lot to like about Matty Tennyson,” said Cunniff. “He’s a great skater, both forward and backwards. He’s got a heck of a shot and plays with an edge. He has good hockey sense, and most importantly, he wants to get better.

    “If anything, I’m worried I might not have enough time with him in the AHL,” added Cunniff of Tennyson. “I don’t think it’s going to take a lot of time for him to figure everything out and get to the National Hockey League. We have to get him the information fast so when he gets called up, he can stay up and be prepared.”

    Acolatse, meanwhile, won’t receive an invitation to San Jose Sharks training camp, given that he’s currently sidelined with a broken jaw after being struck in the face by a wayward slap shot while playing for Worcester on December 29.

    Whenever Acolatse returns to the lineup, he should be right on Tennyson’s heels in the race to become the first former Sharks Ice youth hockey player to suit up with the San Jose Sharks.

    “Sena has a bomb of a shot,” said Cunniff of Acolatse, who is tied with Tennyson for the Worcester Sharks defenseman lead in scoring with 17 points this season. “The one thing is that he’s working on getting it off quicker. When he first turned pro, I think he felt like he needed to dust off the rafters with his wind-up and follow through. It’s gotten much shorter and he’s getting more pucks to the net.

    “But Sena has all the tools to be a really good hockey player,” added Cunniff.

    “It would be tremendous,” added Gutsfason, regarding the possibility of either Tennyson or Acolatse becoming a San Jose Sharks mainstay. “It validates what we’re doing here. It puts in kids’ minds that if you work hard and make the sacrifices, that you don’t have to live in Minnesota, Michigan or northern Ontario to be a good player. It shows them that California kids can be really good players.”

    While there is obviously much more work to be done before California is able to regularly develop as many pro hockey players as places like Minnesota, Michigan and northern Ontario, California clearly has the population to become a hockey power given that it has more residents than the entire country of Canada.

    But before Californians take over the NHL, the San Jose Sharks will probably settle for having one of their own dress in one game this season.

    Who wins the Tennyson/Acolatse race to the NHL remains to be seen.

    However, the one thing we know for certain is that the Californians are coming.



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    Last Updated on Friday, 11 January 2013 10:12