In their first two years, the San Jose Sharks were the NHL’s laughingstock. That changed with Kevin Constantine.
When the 1992-93 NHL season came to an end, the San Jose Sharks didn’t have much to feel good about. While a loyal fanbase was established in the Bay Area, Northern California’s newest team had very little on-ice success, underlined by their 28-129-7 record. But, a change was coming in San Jose, spearheaded by a young, new head coach in Kevin Constantine.
Moving into their brand-new arena to begin the 1993-94 season, this was a golden opportunity for the hard-luck Sharks to begin a new chapter. That began with a change behind the bench as George Kingston, the franchise’s inaugural head coach, was relieved of his duties and replaced by Constantine.
At 35, Constantine was one of the youngest NHL head coaches ever, but in his short time as a professional bench boss, the native of International Falls, MN, garnered plenty of success.
Having coached the Sharks’ minor league affiliate, the IHL’s Kansas City Blades, Constantine led the club to the IHL Championship, winning the league’s Turner Cup in 1992.
Given his age and lack of experience, though, Constantine had his share of doubters and after an 0-8-1 start with the Sharks, it seemed that the naysayers were right. Sharks management, and Constantine himself, were patient and in the end, it was worth it.
In this installment of my “30 Sharks” series for San Jose Hockey Now, I speak with Kevin Constantine about his career behind the Sharks bench and how he helped put the once-hapless franchise on the hockey map.
Nowhere to Go But Up
While he was successful as a coach prior to 1993, Kevin Constantine was faced with a tough challenge with the San Jose Sharks: Turning a franchise with dismal results into one to be taken seriously.
For some, such a task would be unenviable, to say the least. Constantine, though, was up for the task. Nevertheless, I asked the former San Jose head coach what piqued the interest of the Sharks brass in hiring him.
“I don’t really know,” Constantine admitted with a chuckle. “They interviewed me and hired me and I don’t know if they gave me exactly what their expectations were. I just knew that the team had not done well and that there was a coaching change because of that, and I’m sure everybody was hungry for them to have a little better results than those first two years. So, I came in wanting to try and help.”
In his time down memory lane, Constantine went on to admit that he felt that he was in over his head. But he also had a naivete to pull off the job.
“I think that my naivete was beneficial,” he added. “What I mean by that is that I wasn’t a long-time NHL coach, I was never an NHL player — although I was drafted and had a trial in Montreal — but I didn’t bring a long coaching resume to the table, so I was pretty young in coaching. I was young as a person, too. For anyone to be in their early 30s was considered a puppy in the NHL coaching business.
“In junior hockey, I had won championships and in minor league hockey, won a Turner Cup in the old IHL. So, I had had success in coaching and I’m sure, looking back, that the success I had in coaching helped build a belief that you could do it.”
Blessing in Disguise
As far as Constantine was concerned, confidence was never a factor. In fact, the then-35-year-old was simply too busy with running his team to really take stock of his confidence level.
“Did I have confidence coming in? I suppose,” a modest Constantine said. “But, I don’t think I looked at it as a confident guy coming in. I was too busy coaching, too busy with the day-to-day grind of coaching to really think about that.”
Constantine’s confidence, however, must have been shaken by the San Jose Sharks’ 0-8-1 start under his watch. Or was it?
“The year before I came, I kind of stumbled as a coach for the first time ever,” Constantine recalled. “My head coaching experience up to that point, I had kind of won everywhere I had been. But, the year before I came to the Sharks, we had lost eight games in a row in Kansas City, and I think having gone through that eight-game losing streak, we were able to turn around a finish the season successfully.”
So while Constantine’s start in San Jose was eerily similar to his Kansas City pratfall, the Sharks kept believing in their new coach.
“That losing streak was a bit of a godsend for me because some people forget that even though we beat Detroit in the playoffs, the [Sharks] started 0-8-1 and in most 0-8-1 starts for coaches, you’re fired,” the former goalie noted. “I guess I was fortunate in that I was a brand-new hire. If that had been my third or fourth year, I probably wouldn’t have survived that 0-8-1 start.
“Going 0-8-1 made us both stick with what we were doing but [we also] changed some things that we were doing, too. So, we did both of those. We stuck to our core beliefs. We had come in and we told the team, my first speech with the team, we said, ‘We’re here to win a Stanley Cup. That’s why we’re together as a team.’
“The players that had been with the team the year before, they told me later when we knew each other better, they said that they were in the back laughing when I was talking because they were so bad the year before that someone saying ‘Stanley Cup’ to a team that had lost so many games, they’d think, ‘What’s this guy smoking?’
Believing a club can go from finishing in the NHL’s basement to suddenly contending for a Stanley Cup is certainly a good example, albeit radical, of changing a team’s culture.
While this was the case in San Jose, there was more to it than that for Constantine and company.
“We did try and change the culture to one where there was a belief that if you did certain things — certain basics: You worked hard, you did the fundamental things right, you played as a team, had a system — we did establish that and that helped the team latch onto something to win,” the former San Jose Sharks head coach shared. “But, also, we formed a group of five: [Sandis] Ozolinsh, Jeff Norton, Johan Garpenlov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov. We put a group of five together and they really wouldn’t do the system that we tried to put in place. The experienced Russians didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They wanted to play the way they had learned to play.”
While some coaches would be inclined to punish their players for deviating from the system, Constantine instead parked his ego at the door and gave his Russian veterans the freedom to play their own style.
“After going 0-8-1, we formed the group of five, and we kind of let them go,” Constantine said. “In fact, I said to one of my assistants to kind of monitor those guys. I wanted them to be plus players but I told [my assistant] that they weren’t going to listen to me anyhow, so you monitor them instead. And giving that group the freedom to play their own style, they became a pretty dynamic group of five, and part of the reason we were able to turn our season around was — I wouldn’t say me not coaching, but be willing to make such a big change. I never gave a group of players a chance to play the game the way they wanted to. I had success having players play the way I wanted to play, so that was a major coaching change at that point.
“Their success helped turn our season around and they were the most productive offensive group against Detroit and wound up scoring some big goals.”
Whether or not anyone agrees with his decision-making, Constantine’s call led the Sharks to unprecedented success down the road.
Irbe and Company
Entering the 1993-94 season, goaltending was another area that had its share of uncertainty in San Jose. For Constantine, he only had to go as far back as his previous stint in Kansas City.
An instrumental force in the Blades’ Turner Cup win 1992 was Latvian netminder Arturs Irbe (whom we will chat with later in this series).
While Irbe, who stood at 5-foot-8, was deemed undersized by skeptics, his head coach saw beyond his netminder’s stature. The new San Jose Sharks bench boss wanted Irbe as his starting goalie and there were no two ways about it.
“Arturs Irbe was a story unto himself,” emphasized Constantine. “As an athlete, he was phenomenal. Small but athletic and spectacular in his goaltending, and he was a character personality-wise. There are so many stories, behind-the-scenes stories of this unique personality.”
Irbe, however, was just one of many personalities that helped make the new-look Sharks an exciting team to watch.
“Igor Larionov, I was basically coaching someone my own age as we were only a couple years apart,” Constantine added. “The great Soviet teams, style and method, and his interpretation of what his hockey upbringing was like, the times we were able just to sit down and talk about that [created] lifetime memories for me.
“And I had [Sergei] Makarov, too, and they were polar opposites. Igor loved to sit down, talk, and debate and Makarov never said a word the whole time I was there.”
“We had Bob Errey, who won championships in Pittsburgh, and his willingness to share what he learned as a player there and then as a captain in San Jose, there were lots of stories and lessons that he brought to the team through his experiences winning Stanley Cups alongside Mario Lemieux.”
A Monumental Upset
While a 33-35-16 record is modest by most teams’ standards, it was a new high for the San Jose Sharks, who secured the eighth-and-final playoff spot in the Western Conference entering the 1994 postseason.
Of course, for skeptics, the Sharks should have just been thankful to be in the playoffs.
After all, their first-round opponents were the heavily-favored Detroit Red Wings, who finished 18 points and 13 wins ahead of their rivals from the Bay.
Constantine and his team, though, used their nothing-to-lose opportunity to gain some unexpected attention. The Sharks, after all, finished the regular season unbeaten in nine of their last 11 games.
“I think the playoffs were a continuation of the second half of our season where we had started to win a lot of games as a group, gaining confidence that our system was going to work, and being carried by great goaltending in Arturs Irbe, carried by the great offense by the group of five,” Constantine detailed. “Just a combination of all those things. We didn’t create a special gameplan for Detroit.”
Of course, while he admitted that it made no difference in the series, the San Jose bench boss shared an intriguing tale.
“I will tell you a funny story, though,” Constantine began. “One of our players had a girlfriend who worked at the hotel in San Jose. It was the same hotel that all the visiting teams stayed at. We played Detroit [in San Jose] with about a week or two left in the regular season and it was becoming apparent that we were meeting each other in the playoffs.
“One of the [Red Wings] coaches had brought the gameplan to the hotel and asked her to make him a couple of copies. So, she went to make the copies and noticed that it was their playoff gameplan against us, and she made one extra copy. So, the next day, the player walked into my office, threw it on my desk, and said, ‘Hey, you might want to read this over.’
“So, we had, in that series at least, notes of what their plan was against us, but I would say that it had zero impact because all of what you do in sports is taken from video anyhow and you get your gameplan off of that. There was no information there that was game or series-altering, but it does make for a great story.”
While the Sharks did oust the juggernaut Red Wings, they needed all seven games to do it. The winning goal, scored by Jamie Baker, was less about the Sharks’ skill and more about a poor puck-handling decision made by Detroit goalie, Chris Osgood.
“Detroit was the first-seeded team and we had gone from being the worst team in the league to barely making the playoffs,” Constantine reflected. “So, it was a huge upset and for those players to pull off that upset, [it] was considered maybe one of the 10 biggest upsets in NHL playoff history.
“On top of that, it wasn’t just Detroit. I’m a coach, so I see the game from a coaching standpoint and I was up against Scotty Bowman, the greatest hockey coach ever. So, that had its own personal feel to it, looking at it from a coaching perspective.”
While upsetting the Red Wings ranks high on his list, the 1993-94 season as a whole is a memory that Kevin Constantine, even all these years later, holds dear to his heart.
“The excitement of the Cinderella year [in 1993-94] and just being part of the start of hockey in San Jose where the team actually played in their own arena and being part of the community excitement of what was going on with the team,” beamed the former Canadiens draft pick. “To be part of that and to live through that with the team and the city was certainly special.
“And then, probably the other highlights would be coaching some incredible athletes that were part of those early teams. As a coach, you tell a lot of stories and I tell those stories now because there are lessons in them, and I hate mentioning names because every name you leave off, it’s like you didn’t care about them, but it’s hard not to. So, there are a lot of player memories, but the hockey memory is certainly beating Detroit in the playoffs. That’s one that I’ll certainly never forget.”
Constantine was fired by the San Jose Sharks during the 1995-96 season, but he’d continue his success behind the bench, making stops in Pittsburgh and New Jersey in the NHL, in the AHL with Houston, and even at the major junior level with the Everett Silvertips. Constantine would also take his career to Europe, coaching in Switzerland, and now in Poland. He even coached in Korea.
Wherever the Minnesota native went, though, he has always taken the lessons he learned in San Jose with him, making each of his teams and players better as a result.
So, what are the invaluable lessons he learned from his time in San Jose?
“Believing in what you’re doing even when you’re going through a losing streak,” Constantine stressed. “Us with 0-8-1 and having to survive that, and that takes confidence to believe in what you’re doing when you’re in a losing streak like that. So, that lesson was carried on.”
That wasn’t all, though.
“Be willing to make a change if there’s something that doesn’t seem to be working,” a matter-of-fact Constantine added. “Uniting the group of five and giving them the freedom to play the game slightly differently than the rest of the team was playing is a life coaching lesson that was helpful with a lot of other teams that I’ve coached.
“You learn that there are 20 different personalities in the locker room and they all play a little bit differently. You have to find a way to have a team plan and a team structure, but have enough liberty and flexibility within that team plan that everybody’s individual skill and strength can shine within that. So, that lesson, in part, was learned from the Larionov situation and I’ve been able to carry that throughout my coaching career.”
While every person in every capacity has helped the San Jose Sharks succeed, few have delivered with more resonance than Kevin Constantine.
An unproven NHL coach at the beginning, the few who even heard of him gave the then 35-year-old a fighting chance to succeed.
Now 62, Kevin Constantine is richer for the experience he had with the San Jose Sharks and will carry that experience with him until his coaching retirement, whenever — and if ever — that will be.
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