SAN JOSE -- When he played for the San Jose Sharks, Owen Nolan was known as a hard-skating captain, an all-star forward and fan favorite.
Now he's going to be known for something else: saving open space in Silicon Valley.
Nolan, who formally retired from hockey in February and lives in South San Jose, has sold his 1,157-acre ranch in the Mount Hamilton foothills to the Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation Department.
The property -- a scenic expanse of oaks, meadows and manzanitas roughly the size of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco -- will become part of Joseph D. Grant Ranch County Park, which it borders.
"I just hope people enjoy it as much as I have over the years," Nolan said, visiting the property this week. "It's a special place."
Under the deal, Nolan, 40, sold the property for $2.6 million. The funding came from three sources, with $867,000 each contributed from the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust; the Santa Clara County parks department; and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which wanted to preserve five miles of creeks on the ranch that eventually flow into Calaveras Reservoir near Milpitas.
Nolan bought the land shortly after he was traded to the San Jose Sharks in 1995 from the Colorado Avalanche. Over the years, he said, he has hunted deer and wild pigs, wild turkeys and quail on the property. He never built a house on it.
Riding around on the ranch's dirt roads in his pickup truck, Nolan noted that during the eight seasons he played with the Sharks, he regularly would drive up on days off or after practice to relax. He'd ride his mountain bike, even train in the offseason on his road bike by charging up the hills of Mount Hamilton Road.
"I love the outdoors. It's not just hunting and fishing. It's getting outside," he said. "There's a lot of pressure that comes with being an athlete. Getting outside has always helped me get peace of mind."
For biologists and open space advocates, the property is a key link, connecting the 9,560-acre Grant park with property owned by the University of California where Lick Observatory sits at the summit of Mount Hamilton.
"The views are stunning across the valley, all the way to the bay," said Mike Conner, senior project director with the Nature Conservancy. "I'm really in love with the huge oaks and native grasslands up here."
Over the past 15 years, through purchases of land and development rights, the Nature Conservancy has protected roughly 115,000 acres in the Diablo Range between San Luis Reservoir near Highway 152 and the foothills east of San Jose and Milpitas.
An additional 200,000 acres extending to Livermore is preserved in other ownerships, including Henry Coe State Park, Pacheco State Park, Ohlone Wilderness and Sunol Wilderness.
Saving the large landscapes around Mount Hamilton -- either in parks, as working cattle ranches or other open space -- from development is key to preserving the corridors that wildlife in the remote area need to survive, biologists and parks managers say.
"Mountain lions, deer, bobcats and other species use it," said Tim Heffington, a senior real estate agent with the Santa Clara County parks department. ''Protecting lands like this allows all kinds of wildlife to migrate and not get caught in islands around development. It's very important for genetic diversity."
The county parks department won't be able to open Nolan's land to the public until it does detailed studies of its wildlife and plants, including possible endangered species, and maps out trail routes, Heffington said. That could take five years, although the property is likely to be open before then through tours or other special events, he said. Although limited cattle grazing is expected to continue on the property, hunting is not allowed in county parks.
Nolan, a native of Northern Ireland who grew up in Canada, played professional hockey from 1990, when he was a first-round NHL draft pick with the Quebec Nordiques, until 2010, when he ended his career playing with the Minnesota Wild. He and his wife, Diana, along with their two children, plan to stay in the San Jose area indefinitely, he said.
"I have no plans to go anywhere. My kids were born here, and my wife is from here," he said. "It's a great place to raise a family."
In addition to being co-owner of the Britannia Arms pubs and restaurants in Silicon Valley, Nolan has been spending his new retirement hunting and fishing extensively. He is hosting a new TV series, "Sportsman 360 TV," that will air starting next summer on Wild TV, a Canadian cable network based in Edmonton, Alberta.
Five of the first episodes have been filmed, he said, including footage of deer hunting on the ranch and tuna fishing in Monterey Bay. He said fans should follow him at Twitter.com/OwenNolan11 and Twitter.com/Sportsman360TV to learn more as the premiere nears.
Looking around on a sunny afternoon across the oaks on the ranch, he joked about all the wildlife, even the rattlesnakes that live there, and marveled at how much wildland still exists on the doorstep of the Bay Area, with its 7 million residents.
"Everybody I took up here, they were amazed at what was back here," he said.
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.