Defenseman Bill Houlder was one of many veterans who made an impact on the San Jose Sharks’ rebuild.
When he was appointed the team’s new general manager in March 1996, Dean Lombardi took over a struggling San Jose Sharks club who seemed more removed from their playoff successes in 1994 and 1995 than it looked.
Kevin Constantine had been relieved of his head coaching duties early in the 1995-96 season, but the team continued to struggle.
In the summer of 1997, Lombardi knew he needed some key veterans to balance his rebuild. Among those veterans was defenseman Bill Houlder.
A stay-at-home blueliner and a smart passer with a big shot, Houlder was one of a handful of veterans Lombardi would sign during his first few years with the Sharks.
Playing for Sutter
And that coach’s name was Darryl Sutter.
Having come off a successful tenure in Chicago where he led the Blackhawks to the Conference Final in 1995, Sutter joined a San Jose Sharks team that had a good balance of youth and veteran leadership. It was up to Sutter to steer the Sharks in the right direction, even if some disagreed with his philosophy.
Bill Houlder certainly remembered his time with Sutter and admits that he benefited from the experience.
“I enjoyed playing for Darryl,” Houlder said. “I was fortunate throughout my career to play for many different coaches who had many different styles. I usually found the issues were with coaches who tried to bridge different personalities, styles. There was no confusing Darryl’s style.”
Like some coaches, Sutter brought a certain intensity with him behind the bench. Some fed off it, some didn’t. For Houlder, it was his previous experiences of dealing with tougher coaches that helped him understand where Sutter was coming from. That, in turn, helped Houlder be at his best, making his two seasons in San Jose enjoyable ones.
“I believe, at times, Darryl has been criticized for his intensity and sometimes that intensity was misplaced,” the former defenseman added. “I had an intense coach in junior (Bert Templeton) and some other intense coaches as a professional. I learned early not to take all of my coaches’ actions or words too seriously and to filter out the information that was unimportant and use what was important.”
Overall, Houlder learned, among other things, how to hone a solid work ethic from Sutter — something he has taken with him as he prepared for his own coaching career.
“Darryl created an environment that you always had to be ready,” Houlder recalled. “When it was time to work, be ready to work; when it was time to prepare, be ready to prepare. Throughout my career, there were times when I wasn’t completely dialed in for whatever reason. Many things could contribute to this, but I learned that when I showed up to the rink, I needed to be ready to perform.”
The Youth-Veteran Balance
When he arrived in San Jose in 1997, Bill Houlder was joining a team with the aforementioned good balance of youth and leadership.
Jumping aboard a club whose roster had included veterans such as Tony Granato, Marty McSorley and recent Conn Smythe winner Mike Vernon, Houlder was another veteran brought in to help guide the San Jose Sharks’ youth movement, which included Jeff Friesen, Marco Sturm, and recent second-overall pick, Patrick Marleau.
“My teammates in San Jose for [those] two years were awesome,” Houlder fondly reflected. “It was a really strong character group that all were pulling in the same direction. It was an interesting mix of old and young. We had young guys like Marleau, Friesen and Sturm; leaders like [Murray] Craven, [John] MacLean, [Todd] Gill, Vernon, and [Kelly] Hrudey. The list goes on, but I really thought all of the guys pulled for each other and for the betterment of the team. It was a great dressing room to come into and a great environment to compete in.”
While he was too modest to include himself, Houlder went on to admit how crucial the veteran corps was for the Sharks during that pivotal period in the team’s rebuild.
“I thought the older players complemented and supported the younger players really well,” the 53-year-old pointed out. “The NHL season is long and has ups and downs to it. This tends to magnify for younger players as it is the first time, or first couple of times, they are going through it. I thought the older players were not threatened by the younger players and really helped them along.”
A Memorable Time in San Jose
Having played for the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1993-94, Houlder already had a taste of what California hockey was like. Still, the Thunder Bay, ON, native’s time in San Jose was a unique one.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my time in San Jose,” a matter-of-fact Houlder said. “I was fortunate to play in many different cities and they were really nice cities that I had good experiences in, but San Jose was my favourite stop in my career.”
Houlder’s fond memories of Northern California, though, were not limited to what happened on the ice.
“I lived in Los Gatos, close enough to walk downtown and enjoy all the local businesses,” he continued. “We had a great group of guys that gathered socially away from the rink and it was a really welcoming organization. Everything was done first-class and the organization made my family feel of utmost importance.”
As for the fans at San Jose Arena, it was like nothing else, and the former blueliner loved every minute of it.
“The fans were great and made for a real home ice advantage when we played at home,” Houlder beamed. “One of my fondest memories in hockey was when we were playing Dallas in the playoffs and we won in overtime (April 28, 1998). I remember the building erupting, and it was so loud, that I considered covering my ears. It was awesome.”
In his two seasons with the Sharks, Bill Houlder played in 158 games, scoring 16 goals — seven of them game-winners — and 48 assists.
They may have been one of seven teams he suited up for in the NHL but the San Jose Sharks nonetheless continue to hold a special place in the-now North Bay Battalion head coach’s heart.
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