Any good rebuilding plan comes with veteran leadership and Doug Bodger fit that bill for the San Jose Sharks.
In a season that saw the club part ways with playoff hero head coach Kevin Constantine, the 1995-96 San Jose Sharks struggled mightily. After two straight seasons of completing opening-round post-season upsets, the Sharks regressed that year, finishing with an underwhelming 20-55-7 record. However, that campaign did see the Sharks acquire a key veteran in Doug Bodger.
“Snowstorms to Sunshine”
In November 1995, the Buffalo Sabres traded the defenseman Bodger to the San Jose Sharks. It was a rare three-way deal: Sharks GM Dean Lombardi sent the franchise’s first draft pick Pat Falloon to Philadelphia for a 1996 first-round pick, a 1996 fourth-round pick, and prospect Martin Spanhel. San Jose then re-routed that entire package and prospect Vaclav Varada for Bodger.
The veteran blueliner admitted that, after parts of eight seasons with the Sabres, leaving Buffalo was difficult.
“Well, there were mixed emotions there, of course,” Bodger said of the trade. “I spent quite a few years in Buffalo and had some pretty good playoff runs with some great teams and some great players.”
Still, Bodger, who was 29 at the time, knew that the Sabres were embarking on a new direction — one that the Chemanius, B.C., native wouldn’t be a part of.
“I knew it was kind of time that they were going to make some changes, so I had a feeling that I was going to be moved,” Bodger remembered. “I was pretty happy to be heading back to the West Coast where I’m from, and the weather was a lot nicer. I went from snowstorms to sunshine, so my family was quite happy.”
An Immediate Struggle
When Bodger made his San Jose Sharks debut on Nov 17, 1995, his new team was 1-13-4.
Joining such a situation is never fun, and Bodger was no exception to this.
“It was tough,” the former blueliner said. “I know when I came there, we were, like, [1-13] and needing 14 games to get to .500. It was going to be an uphill struggle and Kevin Constantine was the coach there and just got let go as I got there — two, three games in, maybe — and switched over to Jim Wiley.”
While a coaching change can pay immediate dividends for struggling teams, this was not the case for Jim Wiley.
Wiley went 17-37-3 upon taking over, and the Sharks went a woeful 20-55-17 in 1995-96. To make matters worse, Wiley’s replacement, Al Sims, fared no better.
In 1996-97, the Sharks went 27-47-8 under Sims, leading to that coach’s dismissal at season’s end.
I asked Bodger why he felt things didn’t work out for Wiley or Sims in San Jose.
“Well, it was a tough spot for Jim to go into,” said the blueliner. “The team started in a big hole [of 3-18-4] so it was going to take a lot to get back to .500. It was also Jim’s first NHL job, so although he was a former player, he had no NHL [coaching] experience.
“With Al, we had made some changes, got some veteran guys, but we just couldn’t put the wins together.”
On-ice performance aside, the Sharks needed a veteran presence to help their younger core of players. This is where Bodger helped the most.
“There were a lot of young guys there that needed a lot of help,” Bodger remembered. “It seemed like the leadership needed wasn’t really there and I was pretty happy to come in and help out some young guys. Marcus Ragnarsson was a good player there, Michal Sykora was another defenseman there, Mike Rathje was an up-and-coming guy and someone [the Sharks] were really high on. So, I got to play with Mike quite a bit, helped him along a bit, and gave him some confidence.”
While some veterans, like Bodger, fit in with the Sharks, however, other veterans seemed to be out of place with the club. One such example was Vezina winner, Eddie Belfour.
Acquired from Chicago in a deal that saw Ulf Dahlen, Chris Terreri, and the aforementioned Sykora head to the Windy City in Jan. 1997, San Jose hoped Belfour would solve their problems in net for a long time to come.
Belfour’s combination of injuries and a less-than-ideal attitude, however, quickly dashed those hopes.
“Ed did not play many games there,” Bodger noted. “He came in and was having back issues. I really think he did not want to be there.”
Belfour appeared in just 13 games in teal before signing with the Dallas Stars in the offseason as a free agent.
A Reliable Mentor and Teammate
Bodger would ultimately help the Sharks return to the playoffs in 1998, but perhaps not in the way he expected. He was dealt to New Jersey, along with Dody Wood, for John MacLean and Ken Sutton. Nevertheless, the former Kamloops Junior Oiler thoroughly enjoyed his time with San Jose, feeling an enormous amount of pride in his contributions.
“I just did what I did and that was being a good teammate and a good guy, to encourage these guys to get some confidence,” a modest Bodger noted. “They didn’t realize they had a lot of confidence, so I was trying to change their mindset mostly on the game, to go out there, have some fun and win some games.
“I played with some pretty good players: Owen Nolan, Ray Sheppard, Ray Whitney, Todd Gill. Jeff Odgers was a roommate, but ‘Bodger’ and ‘Odgers’ was a little bit confusing. Kelly Hrudey came [to San Jose] and we got to be really good friends and still talk today.
“I love Los Gatos. It’s one of my favorite spots.”
“I wish I could have stayed there.”
While he did admit things could have been better in regards to the team’s on-ice performance, Doug Bodger loved his time with the San Jose Sharks.
“What I take out of [my time in San Jose] was that I wish we were better and that I was younger,” the 54-year-old admitted. “I wish I could have stayed there but I really enjoyed my time there. It’s a great town and [was] becoming a great hockey town. I remember playing at the old Cow Palace when they first came into the league and to see that franchise just turn around, it’s awesome. It’s a great place and I loved playing there.”
In 166 games in teal, Bodger scored nine goals and 40 assists, but more importantly, his veteran presence came at a crucial time for the rebuilding Sharks.
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