Joining the club for its inception and later returning as a coach, few have a deeper experience with the San Jose Sharks than Rob Zettler.
A stay-at-home defenseman with an added spark of intensity to his game, Rob Zettler added a refreshing sense of variety to the expansion San Jose Sharks. Having come off his first full NHL season with the Minnesota North Stars in 1990-91, Zettler was ready for his career to take off in his new home with his new team. Yet, while the Sharks may not have performed well on the ice in their early years, the former blueliner nonetheless enjoyed his time with the NHL’s newest team.
Joining a Brand-New Team
Due to an ownership issue that saw the Gund family (who owned the North Stars) try and relocate the team to San Jose, then-NHL president John Ziegler vetoed the move. Instead, a new franchise was granted in San Jose (to the Gunds) with quite a few new Sharks coming from Minnesota, including goaltender Brian Hayward.
Another of the former North Stars to head west was defenseman Rob Zettler.
At 6-foot-3, Zettler brought size to a position that wasn’t as known for towering bodies as it is today. Despite his size, though, the native of Sept-Iles, Quebec, was not yet an NHL regular. That changed in 1991, when the San Jose Sharks acquired Zettler.
I asked the former defenseman how he felt about going to San Jose.
“It was kind of two-fold, I thought,” Zettler said. “I really enjoyed it. It was the first NHL team I was really a regular on. I had come from the Minnesota North Stars, I was playing a little bit in and out of the lineup, and then I had this opportunity to join the Sharks and kind of be a regular. I was a young guy living in California, so I really enjoyed it. The first year was fun. It was kind of like a honeymoon year. I mean, we only won 17 or 18 games but still fun nonetheless, competitive and a good bunch of guys.”
Unfortunately, while that first season was fun, the second year saw a decline in morale after higher expectations but similar on-ice results.
“The next year came around and we won maybe half of those  games and it was just a really hard year,” remembered the former Soo Greyhound. “We thought we were going to get better, going to grow and continue to get better and we actually went the other way. So, it wasn’t a great year. It was frustrating because we went through a lot of players and everything.”
Nevertheless, Zettler had nothing but good things to say about his time on the West Coast.
“At the end of the day, [the opportunity in San Jose] really helped establish myself into becoming an everyday player.”
Returning as a Coach
Much like his arrival to San Jose 11 years earlier, Rob Zettler was entering a new situation in 2002.
Shortly after he retired as a player, Zettler received a call from the San Jose Sharks to join their coaching staff. The former defenseman took me through this time, transitioning from a player to a coach in a limited timeframe.
“It was an interesting time because I had just finished playing,” Zettler began. “I had played my last year in the NHL in 2002 and then I moved back to San Jose — I had married a girl from there — so, it was kind of home for us. We owned a home there. Wherever we went for hockey, we’d always come back there in the summertime. Then, I was just doing some radio and doing some work with the [Sharks] Alumni when they fired their whole coaching staff and asked me to come on board as a coach.”
After a changing of the guard that saw head coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi on their way out during the 2002-03 season, replacements Ron Wilson and Doug Wilson (as head coach and GM, respectively) got right to work. That included giving Zettler the offer, which was quickly accepted.
“Really, the stars kind of aligned — right place, right time — and I really enjoyed it,” the now 52-year-old reflected. “That first year was hard, just trying to figure out coaching and cut my teeth that way. We still worked with a lot of quality people. Now, we ended up making a lot of trades that year. We got a lot younger and the following year — so basically, my first full year (2003-04) — we went all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals, which was a surprise. I think we surprised everybody. But, we ended up having a really good team: We made the playoffs every year, we were competitive, so it was really fun. The difference was that we were just a more competitive team.”
While the shift from player to coach is not an uncommon one in professional hockey, Rob Zettler didn’t know if he was the right fit behind the bench right away. However, reflecting on his past coaches, especially in San Jose, the former defenseman took the time to analyze a potential opportunity in coaching, admitting that there were quite a few coaches who helped make his decision an easy one.
“I would say that there is a piece of everybody that helped me,” Zettler noted. “If I go in order, George [Kingston], just from the human side of it, was just a wonderful man. He treated everybody with respect. Expected a lot but treated everybody with respect.
“Kevin [Constantine], ultra-organized down to where he wanted everyone on the ice,” Zettler continued. “Just really organized in his structure and his systems. I took a piece of that. It was really interesting. I really enjoyed playing for Kevin.”
Of course, as great as his coaches were from a player’s perspective, Zettler was quick to point out that a great deal of appreciation is owed to the man who gave him his first coaching opportunity,
“Then, I go down to guys I worked with as a coach: Ron Wilson, he gave me my first opportunity to be a coach, so I owe him a lot. But, he was another guy who was very organized.
“He could watch from the bench and tell you everything that happened in a play from memory without having to go back and look at video. He was really impressive. He could turn a difficult message or a complicated situation into an easy one for players to understand, so that was a big-time skill.
“Then, I worked with Pete DeBoer, as well. I was really impressed with Pete because he was very — whatever he thought was the right way to do things, he didn’t deviate from that. He just thought, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it and we’re going to try to do it better than anyone else.’ So, that was kind of his mindset, and he kind of stuck to his guns that way, so it was good. I learned a lot from Pete.”
From someone who served as both a player and a coach, being asked to pinpoint their favourite memories with a franchise can be a challenging task. For Rob Zettler, though, he knew what his answer was, even if there were plenty to choose from.
“Favourite memories with the Sharks, I would say that first year was a lot of fun,” beamed the player-turned-coach. “We got a lot of attention. We were an expansion team and the first one that had come into the league in a while, so we were getting a lot of attention.
“We were living in California, which was really fun, near San Francisco, so really fun for a young guy like myself. The jersey and the colors were getting a lot of attention, too. That year was really eye-opening and just a lot of firsts. To be part of an organization that had the opportunity to have all those firsts and allowed me the opportunity to have all those firsts, which was kind of cool. Then, in coaching there. You know, [the Sharks] gave me my first opportunity in coaching, so I owed that organization a lot. They gave me a lot of great experiences and my family.”
While he did thoroughly enjoy his time in San Jose, Zettler was traded to Philadelphia in February 1994, just a few months before the Sharks made their first-ever trip to the playoffs. Zettler would make stops in Toronto, Nashville, and Washington before hanging up his skates in 2002.
Joining Ron Wilson’s coaching staff in San Jose, Zettler would remain with the club until 2008 before joining Wilson in Toronto on the Maple Leafs coaching staff for a few years. Zettler would return to San Jose for a couple of years from 2017 to 2019 and also cut his teeth as a head coach with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch where he worked with current NHL head coach Jon Cooper. In fact, Zettler has reunited with Cooper as an assistant with the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, where he is currently enjoying his first season with the club.
In his three playing seasons with the San Jose Sharks, Zettler suited up for 196 games. During that time, he scored a goal and 18 assists to go along with 314 penalty minutes, which was indicative of the former blueliner’s knack for dropping the gloves.
From his years of service to the franchise and to the city and the different roles he has played over the course of those periods, it’s really no wonder why Rob Zettler and his family hold San Jose and the Sharks so close to their hearts.
He may be coaching on the other side of the United States but there will always be a piece — a large piece — of Rob Zettler that will make him a lifelong Shark.
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