30 Sharks: Kelly Kisio Remembers the Cow Palace’s Stairs
As a former captain, Kelly Kisio’s arrival to San Jose in 1991 marked an ideal addition for a brand-new Sharks team.
On the ice, that first season may not have been anything to write home about. Nevertheless, the brand-new San Jose Sharks gave the community something to celebrate. So, even though the new team finished their first season (1991-92) with a dismal 17-58-5 record, fans in Northern California were nonetheless in love with their new team, having been separated from the NHL since 1976 when the Oakland Seals left town.
As is the case with many teams, a good mixture of youth and veteran leadership was needed in San Jose to get the franchise off on the right foot. Among those veterans joining the expansion Sharks was former New York Rangers captain Kelly Kisio.
A nine-year veteran at that point, Kisio was 32 when the Sharks began play and, in spite of the club’s lackluster performance on the ice, provided a wealth of leadership and expertise to a group of players finding their way.
In a continuation of my “30 Sharks” series for San Jose Hockey Now, I speak with Kelly Kisio, who reflects on his time with the Sharks, which includes life at the old Cow Palace and playing for head coach George Kingston.
New Team, New Scenery
In his five seasons with the Rangers, Kelly Kisio spent over half of his tenure on Broadway wearing the C. After splitting the captaincy duties with Ron Greschner in 1987-88, Kisio was the sole captain for the Rangers until 1991.
Shortly after the 1990-91 season ended, though, so did Kisio’s time in New York as he was soon bound for San Jose.
At that time, the Rangers were a playoff and even a championship-contending team. For some, leaving a successful club to join an unproven expansion team would be considered a step down.
This was not the case, however, for Kelly Kisio, who was very fond of his time in the Bay Area.
“I thought it was a great experience,” Kisio beamed of his tenure in San Jose. “It was a great new chapter that a person can write.”
While he did go to San Jose, Kisio didn’t go directly from New York to the West Coast.
In an unusual deal between the NHL and the Gund family, the Minnesota North Stars (whom the Gund family owned) were affiliated with many of the new Sharks. Kelly Kisio was one of these players.
On May 30, 1991, Kisio was claimed by the North Stars from the Rangers in an expansion draft. Then, just a few days later, the veteran was traded to San Jose.
“I was actually picked up by Minnesota and traded to Sharks in that expansion, so I thought it was really neat to go to a new place and a new town, especially California where there wasn’t that much hockey at the time,” Kisio added. “So, it was a lot of fun and it was a great experience for myself and my family.”
Memories from Daly City
While they were San Jose’s new team, the Sharks actually played their first two seasons in nearby Daly City, home of the Cow Palace.
It may not have been the most hockey-friendly venue in the country, the Cow Palace nonetheless served as home for Northern California’s brand-new team. Yet, despite the circumstances, the old building continues to generate fond memories.
“Oh man,” Kisio laughed. “Well, I just remember the stairs going down — from the dressing room down to the main level to walk out to the ice. They were so steep and — I can’t remember how many there were but it was like two of three stories that we were above the main part of the rink there, so to walk down there was a bit of a dangerous episode or walk up when you’re tired.”
Perhaps this was why the Sharks had underperformed in their first two seasons. Then again, maybe not. Regardless, the workout the players received to and from the ice unquestionably took its toll.
“Crawling up those stairs sometimes was what I remember most about that rink,” Kisio recalled. “Plus, we only had, what, 7,000 people in the building, so it was an interesting situation that we played in for the first two years.”
Aside from being an assistant in Minnesota a few seasons earlier, George Kingston had no prior coaching experience at the NHL level entering the 1991-92 season. Still, the expansion Sharks selected the Beggar, Saskatchewan native as their first head coach regardless.
In his two seasons as the Sharks’ bench boss, Kingston went 28-129-7.
Of course, while that record may be a dismal one, no one could deny the genuine, empathetic human being that George Kingston was, including Kisio.
“First of all, George was a great person,” the former Shark noted. “He’s one of the finest people you ever want to meet. He and his wife, Wendy, were very special to us. They treated us like professionals and like friends. Great people and a great person.”
The former captain even compared him to his former Rangers coach.
“He is a very good coach and he was right along the lines of Roger Nielson,” Kisio added. “So even-keel all the time. He knew exactly where we were at with the franchise and the types of players he was getting. He did a lot of teaching and a lot of work with — we weren’t very good at times, obviously, which I’m sure was very tough on him because he was used to winning all the time. I really enjoyed playing for him and really enjoyed him as a person.”
It is worth noting that George Kingston’s coaching record in San Jose is not the least bit indicative of his life in hockey.
He had coached the University of Calgary men’s hockey team from 1969 to 1988, guiding the school to the prestigious Canada West championship six times.
In 2019, Kingston was recognized for his accomplishments as he was awarded the prestigious Order of Hockey in Canada.
Biggest Lessons from San Jose
Despite the club’s lack of on-ice success in that first season, the San Jose Sharks received no shortage of contributions from Kelly Kisio. In fact, the veteran achieved career-high marks with 52 assists and 78 points. He also tied his career-high in goals with 26.
While his offensive production decreased the next season, Kisio remained a contributing force nonetheless, scoring seven goals and 23 assists in 58 games in 1992-93.
For the native of Peace River, Alberta though, his memories went far beyond his contributions on the ice.
“Well, the most I took away was the lesson to keep playing hard because no one’s going to feel sorry for you, so play hard every night,” Kisio stressed. “We didn’t win very much but we enjoyed the people that we played with. The people around us, we made friends with people in San Jose that we’re still friends with now. We took it away as a new experience and a very good time with an organization that was just getting their feet wet in the NHL, and what I took away was the people in San Jose during those first couple of years. Like I said, we had a tough time at times and they kept cheering for us and it was a very fun experience.”
In 126 games with the Sharks, Kelly Kisio registered an impressive 115 points. In 1993, the veteran would move on to Calgary, playing for the Flames for two seasons before retiring.
An undrafted, undersized player at 5-foot-10, Kelly Kisio may not have been given the greatest of chances at excelling at the NHL level, let alone making it there, but he did.
Through perseverance and hard work, Kisio celebrated a 13-year NHL career — with the Detroit Red Wings, Rangers, Sharks, and Flames — scoring 658 points in 761 games overall.
It is his time in San Jose, however, that has helped Kelly Kisio stand out as an invaluable leader, a role he took into his post-playing career.
Following three years as a Flames scout, Kisio joined the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen in 1998, serving as the club’s general manager for 14 years before becoming the club’s President of Hockey Operations in 2013.
Kisio, however, has since returned to the NHL, where he has been a pro scout for the Vegas Golden Knights since 2016.
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