Seven Years In The Penalty Box

I prepared my cup of instant coffee. It was a Cadillac, with two scoops of freeze-dried nonpremium O’Keefe Arabica,  one packet of sugar-free hot chocolate mix, two Splendas, an Atomic Fireball, and piping hot water from the community percolator. I stirred the fireball around until it had diminished, taking a small sip here and there to ensure that there was enough of its cinnamon flavor. It was perfect.

The other men were outside marching, a mandatory part of the county jail’s Regimented Corrections Program (RCP). I was no longer marching because I’d been in so long that I’d graduated to a trustee position. This was a good thing. I would not miss any of the San Jose Sharks’ radio broadcasts.

I sat on my lower bunk, put on my over-the-head, canteen-purchased AM/FM headphones, and tuned into the familiar voice of Dan Rusanowsky. The pre-game show had already started. Mid-way through the game, Rusanowsky started talking about future Sharks legend Joe Thornton. The Sharks had acquired him. We had lost nine games in a row and this might change things. It was November 30th, 2005.

Being a hockey fan while incarcerated can be difficult. The easiest I ever had it was during may stay at the minimum security camp, in RCP, where the correctional staff had inadvertently housed me while I faced my life sentence. The barracks were out in the open and the Sharks games were on an FM station.

I was eventually moved from minimum security to lockdown, where my hockey fandom was first challenged. Lots of concrete and lots of steel have a way of blocking out radio signals, even of the FM variety. Those of us in lockdown had solutions for this, however.

A radio’s reception is only as good as its antenna, so we had to find ways of improving our antennas. This can only be done with metal, a commodity not readily available in the county jail. Many in the free world might never take the time to look at the inside of a potato chip bag, but those of us on the inside don’t let anything slip through our hands without first knowing what it is made of and what it might be used for. Potato chip bags, with their foil linings, are essentially thin pieces of sheet metal. When rolled into cones and slipped over the stumpy antenna on our headphones, we could improve our FM reception.

Yes, we looked stupid. A bunch of heavily tattooed men wearing nursing gowns, walking around with conically shaped Doritos bags attached to our heads, completely immersed in whatever station we had chosen. And for a few nights a week, I chose Sharks radio.

We would play pinochle together. Four of us. Each with chip bags on our heads, each with our own Cadillac coffees, each listening to our own station. I always felt fortunate when somebody at the card table was also listening to the Sharks game, that way we could make knowing glances towards each other whenever something notable happened.

Like the time Scott Hannan’s stick broke during the epic 5-on-3 against the Edmonton Oilers. And how Mark Smith’s stick broke soon thereafter. And how the entire card game came to a halt for the second half of that penalty kill, when it seemed the zone wouldn’t be cleared anytime soon. When the 5-on-3 had been killed, we cheered to ourselves and continued to play, only to be disappointed moments later by an Oilers goal. That was May 8th, 2006.

I was eventually sent to prison where the Sharks would become representative of my connection to home. Wherever I went, I decorated my cell with Sharks paraphernalia. Regular season schedules hung on the wall, complete with my rudimentary calculations of winning percentages, goals for and against, and projected point totals for the season. Eventually, when I had access to a computer, I used box scores in the Mercury News to create a database of all Sharks player stats, also with assist and goal totals and projections. Fenwick was not yet a thing.

Prison presented fresh obstacles for my fandom. Gone were the days of the FM broadcast. Gone was the ability to go outside whenever I needed to. The AM station that carried Sharks games while I was at Folsom State Prison was barely audible during the day. For some reason, the signal traveled better at night, which meant I often only caught the second half of road games in Eastern time zones.

The cellblock presented its own set of challenges. Sometimes the signal would be there, sometimes not. Fortunately, metal was more prevalent in prison. I stripped an extension cord down to its stranded copper wire and transformed my cell into an antenna. I lined the ceiling with small strands of wire, secured with masking tape, and painted over it for secrecy. I then wound the end of the wire around my antenna in order to boost the signal. Sometimes, I had to toss a ball of wire down the tier in front of my cell in order to get a boost. And, sometimes, the signal just wasn’t there at all.  When this happened, I resorted to television, where another sports cast might run a score ticker at the bottom of the screen. If all else failed, I just watched the 11 o’clock news that night. That’s how I found out the Sharks had been knocked out of the playoffs by the Dallas Stars, in quadruple overtime. That was May 4th, 2008.

The signal in the prison yard wasn’t much better than inside the cellblock. I would often have to wrap myself around one of the light poles in order to listen to the game. Sometimes, the homeboys would walk by and look at me funny, wondering if I was a J-cat. That I’d lost my mind. Nope, I hadn’t lost my mind. I was just a Sharks fan. Rain or shine, yellow slicker or shirtless, I could be found near a light pole during a Sharks game.

Everywhere I went, the story was always the same. No signal. No Sharks on television. Struggling to find isolated places on the yard where signal congealed. Trying out different models of radios. Making new improvements to the antenna. Always the same.

Eventually, I was sent to a fire camp in Los Angeles County. I wouldn’t hear the voice of Dan Rosanowsky for the remainder of my prison term. I anxiously awaited the days when the Sharks would play the Kings or the Ducks, whose radio broadcasts were available. The commercial washer and dryer at camp emitted so much electromagnetic radiation that I couldn’t listen to the games when the laundry was going. So I paid the laundry guy five Top Ramen noodles to shut down laundry on nights when the Sharks played the Kings or Ducks.

For many years, I had constructed a game with nothing but cues from the man calling it and the sounds that bled into the mic. The ping of iron. The scrape of skates. The rattling of the boards. The rising intensity in the announcer’s voice as play drew towards the net. The sound of a crowd cheering or lamenting as a puck crossed the goal line, a sound barely audible just a fraction of a second before the voice proclaimed it. Seeing hockey again on television would be exciting, yet require less of my imagination.

Amongst the many luxuries of fire camp was DirectTV. I would actually be able to watch some Sharks games. Unfortunately, the guys in fire camp were not hockey fans. And, being in Southern California, they certainly weren’t Sharks fans. This meant the bulk of my games would be a rebroadcast.  Never mind that I already knew the final score. Sharks hockey was Sharks hockey.

My only shot at watching a live game would be during the playoffs. Prison political rules dictate that playoff sporting events take priority when scheduling television viewing. If it wasn’t the playoffs, I would never be able to pry the other prisoners’ eyes away from Sons Of Anarchy or Breaking Bad. When I scheduled game 3 of the Stanley Cup Quarterfinals against the Los Angeles Kings, they were skeptical. There was a discussion about whether hockey constituted a “sport” in the prison sense of the word. For most people in prison, “sport” meant football, baseball, or basketball. But they relented, perhaps because I had some pull, perhaps because I was convincing, but in all likelihood because no regularly-scheduled, popular show was airing that night.

I watched the game in a room full of Southsiders, who considered the San Jose Sharks emblematic of their rival gang, the Norteños. I mean, some of these guys had gutted-shark tattoos as representation of their hatred for the Nortes. The Sureños had a vested interest in watching the Sharks suffer at the hands of the Kings.

The Kings took a commanding lead early in the game. Every time the Kings scored a goal, the guys around me became more and more jovial, taunting me, telling me that nothing from Northern California would ever amount to anything. You know, the usual gang-infused sports rivalry.

But the Sharks scored. And they scored again. With each Sharks goal, the room emptied out just a little bit. By the time the Sharks won in overtime with a goal from Devin Setoguchi, the television room was completely empty. I gloated to myself and kicked a chair. The greatest comeback in Sharks playoff history. I walked up to one of the dorms, where one of the Southsiders was laying on his rack.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Sharks won”, I said, and smiled at him. “You owe me a sopa. Pay up, fool”. That was April 19th, 2011.

After seven years in the penalty box, I walked away from prison wearing an authentic, Black Armor #29 Ryane Clowe Sharks jersey, purchased by my close friend Darren and fully personalized by the members of the team. I had a Sharks game to attend, versus the Blackhawks. The excitement was real. The energy was electric. It was everything that I had faithfully recreated in my imagination during my years away. The Sharks won. That was February 11th, 2012.

No longer in prison, the internet opened up new possibilities for fandom. I could watch clips from old Sharks games. YouTube allowed me to see, with my eyes, the 5-on-3 against Edmonton for the first time. I admit it was a strange experience, watching games I remembered through nothing but the voice of Dan Rosanowsky and my own imagination. My fabrications had been fairly accurate, though key details were often missing or different.

For example, I had always visualized the Sharks offensive zone to the right. It didn’t matter whether it actually was or not and, for the sake of mentally constructing the game, it never made sense to switch it up between periods. And the Sharks always wore teal, regardless of whether the game was home or away. Again, this was for convenience in imagination.

On the run to the Staley Cup Final,  the Sharks played the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the playoffs. I went to game 3 and sat in the alumni box with a number of former Sharks players. During intermission, I told my Sharks-related prison stories to Scott Hannan and Mark Smith, two thirds of the penalty kill unit that had been on the ice for that game on May 8th, 2006.

Telling those stories brought into focus the acts of devotion I’d engaged with as a fan. Stripping extension cords with flimsy disposable razors. Staying up late to catch the final score because I couldn’t go to sleep with an incomplete scoresheet. Wedging myself into uncomfortable and non-human shaped crevices of my cell, the only place with a signal. Withstanding inclement weather, hailstorms and lightning and thunder, because the game wasn’t over yet.  Bribing people with Top Ramen and Folgers and mayonnaise.

Searching every issue of The Hockey News for a flash of teal. Reading each article about the Sharks and every box score from every game. Cursing the Mercury News when they forgot to include the box score in the sports section. Lying to prison guards in order to get out of my cell. Frustration at signals that seemed to come and go with the wind. Sitting through Sons Of Anarchy because the guys had agreed to let me watch the Sharks game during commercials. Two and a half hour long bouts of anxiety as I “watched” a game via its DirectTV score ticker, which updated every minute or so. Joy at being able to see a game recap. And most of all, imagining the Sharks.

Years of devotion brought me to a seat in the Shark Tank on June 4th, 2016, where I had the privilege to see the greatest goal in Sharks history, Joonas Donskoi’s overtime winner in game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. I cannot say it was the happiest moment in my life, but it was pretty damn close. May there one day be a greater goal. I have already imagined it.

Feb. 10, 2012 – Sharks 5, Blackhawks 3 

4 thoughts on “Seven Years In The Penalty Box

  1. Love for hockey can make life bearable during hard times. It has worked that way for me, and I’m glad to hear that it worked that way for you, too. I really enjoyed your article and thank you for sharing your story.

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