Coming full circle

By Bill Ballou || AHL On The Beat Archive

It’s not exactly the Quebec pipeline, the one that brought Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau, “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion and friends to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1950s.

But player-by-player, the San Jose Sharks are beginning to create a homegrown feel in their organization.

It starts in Worcester, where Oakland’s Roy Sommer – the first Bay Area product to play in the National Hockey League – has coached the Sharks’ American Hockey League affiliate for seven seasons.

One of his defensemen is second-year player Sena Acolatse, who was born in Hayward and learned about hockey as a San Jose Sharks fan before moving to Canada with his family.

The latest Bay Area NHL hopeful is Matt Tennyson, a rookie defenseman with Worcester who got his first taste of professional hockey late last season in the AHL.

Like Acolatse, Tennyson is actually a hockey hybrid, but with a reverse resume. Acolatse spent his first eight years in the Bay Area before relocating to traditional hockey country. Tennyson didn’t get there until he was a teenager.

“I was born in Minnesota and my family moved around quite a bit when I was a kid,” Tennyson said. “We lived in Michigan and Wisconsin. When I was about 13 or 14, we moved to Pleasanton, Calif., and I lived there until I went to college.

“Both of my parents’ families are from Minnesota and the first time I ever skated was on a frozen lake in the winter,” he added. “It’s how everything got started.”

Specifically, Tennyson was born in Minneapolis, so for a while he was a Twin Cities area resident along with fellow Sharks prospect Alex Stalock, the goaltender from South St. Paul, and current San Jose defenseman Justin Braun.

While Tennyson may have skated for the first time in the North Country, he definitely made the transition from a pond player to a prospect in Pleasanton – which turned out to be a bit of surprise.

“When my dad first told me we were moving,” Tennyson said, “I wasn’t sure what I was going to find in the way of playing hockey. But when we got there, I was really impressed by the level of skill. I joined the Jr. Sharks and didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be top notch in every way.

“The weather was a little weird for hockey,” he added, “but I didn’t mind that at all.”

Tennyson grew up as a Sharks fan.

“A big-time one,” he said. “I got to go to a couple of games a year since one of my dad’s work buddies had season tickets and he’d send them our way when he couldn’t use them.

“I remember going to the games around 2004, and about the first thing I remember was it was one of [defenseman] Matt Carle’s first games,” Tennyson added. “When I lived out there, I actually liked [former Sharks forward Jonathan] Cheechoo the most. He won the Rocket Richard Trophy one year [2005-06] and was the most exciting player to watch.

“But for defensemen, I always liked Carle.”

While Tennyson has never played with either one, both preceded him on the Worcester roster, so they’ll have that in common.

When he was 17, Tennyson headed southeast to pursue his hockey career in juniors. In 2007-08, he skated for Texas of the North American Hockey League and the next year moved up to Cedar Rapids of the United States Hockey League.

After that, it was off to college and Tennyson spent the next three seasons playing defense at Western Michigan. In his three seasons, Tennyson had a different coach every year. Counting his junior career, Tennyson had five different coaches in five seasons. Last year, though, his coach at Western Michigan was former Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues bench boss Andy Murray.

“He was definitely the most experienced coach I ever played for,” Tennyson said. “And he definitely prepared me for the pro game more than any coach I’d had. He taught me how, at the pro level, the minor details can be so important.”

Tennyson reached the pro level last year, making his AHL debut in Worcester’s 2-1 victory over Albany on April 4. Sommer was so pleased with his play that he had Tennyson dress for each of the Sharks last seven games. The rookie had a goal and an assist, 17 shots and a minus-1 rating.

“I like the way he moves pucks,” Sommer said. “He’s pretty tenacious and has a lot of talent for that position. He looked comfortable and confident.”

Tennyson scored his first professional goal in Portland on April 7 and it was a big one. He connected on a power play midway through the third period to bring Worcester into a 4-4 tie with the Pirates. The Sharks eventually lost in a shootout, but Tennyson’s goal allowed them to come home with a point.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said of the transition from college to pro. “I knew everyone would be bigger and stronger, but moving up to the pros you’ll get that no matter what. The pace of play was a lot different, and at the pro level everyone is so much smarter.

“You have to take advantage of every shift and manage it well,” Tennyson added. “You can’t turn pucks over, because the transition is a lot faster.”

Although Tennyson bloomed into a hockey player in California, he enjoyed his time in Michigan and is looking forward to spending some time in New England as well. He hasn’t seen much of this area.

The decision to turn pro was a difficult one. “It’s one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made,” Tennyson said. “Being part of Western [Michigan] was awesome. We went from last place my freshman year, then did some great things in my sophomore and junior years. I could’ve tried to stay and win a national championship.”

However, Tennyson wound up signing with what had become his hometown team.

“It was definitely a career decision,” he said, “but it helped that the Sharks were one of the frontrunners. I don’t know if I would have left for a team other than the Sharks.”

He’ll never know, but from what he saw of the AHL last spring and what the Sharks saw of him, it looks like Tennyson made the right call.