SAN JOSE -- For many of the teal-clad fin fans who returned to the Tank for their team's season debut on home ice Thursday night, the past four months is a time best forgotten -- if not entirely forgiven.
With two wins already under their belt in a season halved by a labor dispute between owners and players, the Sharks came back to HP Pavilion to play the Phoenix Coyotes for the first game there since April. And, more significantly for the local economy, their followers reappeared in downtown San Jose, coming from all over the greater Bay Area to root at the stadium as well as eat, drink and make merry at surrounding bars, restaurants and nightspots.
"We were joking when we came down that we almost got lost coming here, it's been so long," said Brian Peterson, 23, who journeyed from Novato with two friends who, through eager teamwork, had just demolished a 120-ounce "beer tower" at Britannia Arms in downtown San Jose. And it was still hours before the enormous red-eyed shark head would drop to the ice. "It is so good to be back."
While posters in online forums are still fuming about the lockout and the word "boycott" is still tapped out by fans who feel they've been taken for granted, the sentiment among many who geared up and hit Santa Clara Street on Thursday ran one of two ways.
There's the "it's over; let's move on" crowd, just happy to get half a season and hope a showstopping labor dispute doesn't happen again.
Then there are those who acknowledge some bitterness remains, although they've let enough of it go that it doesn't mess with their enjoyment of the game.
"Last time it happened, I didn't watch the whole next season -- I was really hurt by it," said Chris Dong Placencia of San Francisco, referring to the complete loss of the 2004-05 season due to a labor impasse. "I feel like they say the fans are important, but for (an impasse) to happen again so quickly, it doesn't show how important they think we are."
He said there's definitely some ill feelings, but "it's difficult to find an appropriate way to express it."
"We want to support the community, the Tank, and its workers," said Placencia, adding that not attending games affects more people than the team's owners and players. "You have to think about what would be the best way to express it without hurting anyone."
Restaurateurs certainly appreciate the sentiment. Some reported sales halved or worse because of the loss of Sharks fans.
At the Poor House Bistro, one of the venues closest to the Shark Tank, owner Jay Meduri said the business took a 25 to 35 percent hit. He depends on fans headed to the game -- the old New Orleans-theme restaurant doesn't have televisions and on Thursday a blues band was entertaining a sea of teal and black.
"I've heard people with season tickets say they'll sit out the first game to make a statement, while others are ready to go," he said. "It will be interesting to see if there are any empty seats."
Longtime fans Rich Hartnett and Harry Elkins of Redwood City, who were among the growing crowd of fans headed down Santa Clara Street about an hour before showtime, are season ticket holders of the latter variety.
"The problem with a shortened season is that it's going to be hard to make it every night when you have all those games in a row," Elkins said. "But one of us will be here. They're not going to go to waste."
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.