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Ice Team could work as PR distraction for San Jose Sharks

The San Jose Sharks continue to deal with backlash for their decision to replace their regular ice maintenance crew with an Ice Team for the 2014-15 NHL season. The backlash was big enough to be addressed by Puck Daddy Sunday, July 13.

Even with men on the Ice Team, many fans object to the featuring of ice girls. Some fans also see it as indicative of management not knowing what fans want or the team needs.
Photo via website of San Jose Sharks

The photo list shows it heads San Jose's five most unpopular events to follow choking away a 3-0 series lead against the Pacific Division rival Los Angeles Kings. That the loss was at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champions is giving some fans the impression this team is close enough to maintain course.

The Sharks have already been close for years, but comments by general manager Doug Wilson about rebuilding the team were still wildly unpopular. It is understandably difficult for the fan desiring immediate results, having emotional attachments to players that have shown so much promise to stomach starting over as a rebuild suggests.

The reality is a team dropping two Stanley Cup-winning blue-line veterans, buying out an underachiever that played only one postseason game and allowing a reserve go elsewhere in free agency is not a rebuild anyway. Unpopular signings of three marginal free agents over 29 years old only add frustration because they neither fit a rebuild nor do much for the team right now.

Could it be that San Jose's decision on the Ice Team have been meant as a distraction from the painful choke, unpopular rebuild or controversial signings? If so, early results suggest it has failed.

As Greg Wyshynski pointed out, there is a Say No to Ice Girls Facebook page. The Ice Team was also a source of three threads on the SJ Chomp page, with comments ranging from outrage to apathy but no support. Even David Pollack of the San Jose Mercury News had so much negative feedback from the announcement that he dedicated a July 3 article to fan reaction.

The Sharks are quick to point out that they have an Ice Team that includes men, not just ice girls. That seems great on face but Wyshynski noted the same imbalance in staff that Examiner pointed out in marketing the news earlier in July, but better defined the difference in attire—women looked more like cheerleaders while men looked more like gym teachers.

San Jose chief operating officer John Tortora took responsibility for the suggestion and stands behind it. He points out that the outfits are not as scantily clad as the ice girls many other teams employ or the cheerleaders of other sports. However, this is still a move toward that direction from the previous crew used to repair the ice during television timeouts.

Tortora's stated reason was to combine the previous maintenance function "with higher energy, increased fan engagement and more involvement within the community." The first part of that means scantily-clad ladies get the largest segment of the crowd riled up, leading to more purchases. How the change will increase community involvement is unclear.

Did the Sharks mean involving a progressive community in a backlash? Their culturally insensitive decision also runs counter to NHL attempts to broaden the appeal of the sport to women.

Being tone deaf (as Wyshynski termed them) on this matter would appear to have created a public relations nightmare. Many fans see it as more evidence management is on the wrong track or has misplaced priorities.

However, there is a chance it could help the team win—really. To understand this, a little American political history that predates the memories of many fans might help.

In early 1988, all many could talk about was how George Herbert Walker Bush had never been in charge of anything—even though he had been CIA director. His first major campaign decision of a running mate appeared to be a disastrous one: Dan Quayle came across as a silver-spoon buffoon that could not spell, actually thought they spoke Latin in Latin America and opened the campaign up to ridicule by attacking the television program Murphy Brown.

Perhaps Quayle reminded the oft-called "Yes-man" of his son, George W. Bush. Whether by luck or brilliance, the media focus shifted from frankly ridiculous questions about the then-vice president's fitness for a post he actually held for a short time after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

One story that has had a dip in focus since the Ice Team hoopla began is the speculation over the future of Joe Thornton in San Jose. At the very least, two months without action since Wilson made statements his about a rebuild suggests no team the current captain is willing to go to wants him badly enough to part with anything that would make a trade worthwhile.

If Thornton and Wilson are stuck with each other, they need to make the best of it. Having focus on whether the team's most significant player is no longer wanted is a big distraction that will not help the team.

It could be that the parties have already moved on. For instance, Wilson has apparently begun backing off from a rebuild, saying first that it was meant as a statement of commitment to the younger players and then also that he was referring to rebuilding the culture. Neither of those priorities are wrong, mutually exclusive nor in direct contradiction with any previous statements, but they carry vastly different meaning than the standard use of the term.

If there are still reparations needed, the Ice Team could provide both parties a cooling-off period from the issue. Wilson should at least privately be apologetic, admit his words were about Thornton but also spoken rashly from the emotion of disappointment.

Thornton must in turn acknowledge that the Sharks need a different direction because the status quo continues to fail in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That change could be the captain taking a different tone with teammates, abdicating that role, adjusting to the system rather than insisting teammates adjust to him pulling up to pass through traffic and/or a myriad of other things.

The sooner Thornton (or anybody else Wilson has called out indirectly or privately) gets on the same page, the sooner that new course can be set. Whether San Jose is able to make good on its threat to rebuild or whether that worked to drive out whomever it is meant to matters less than having everyone focused on the same goal when training camp starts.

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