From Gilroy to the ‘Shark Tank’

Rich Perez watches the Sharks practice in San Jose, after

Rich Perez plopped down on a bench in front of an empty locker.
There, for several minutes, he waited for his friends. Their names,
engraved on placards circling the locker room, loomed above him.
Joe Thornton. Patrick Marleau. Joe Pavelski. Perez rose to meet
them as they trickled in following a late-morning practice. Full
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Rich Perez plopped down on a bench in front of an empty locker. There, for several minutes, he waited for his friends. Their names, engraved on placards circling the locker room, loomed above him.

Joe Thornton. Patrick Marleau. Joe Pavelski. There were 20 others. Perez rose to meet them as they trickled in following a late-morning practice. Sweat dripped down the apex of Thornton’s 6-foot-4-inch frame, and he grinned as he caught sight of Perez.

“Hey, Richie,” Thornton said, extending his perspiration-soaked palm.

Perez, 55, a Gilroy lifer whose worked as an usher and mailroom coordinator for the San Jose Sharks for 17 years, clasped Thornton’s hand.

Perez and Thornton, Sharks captain and former National Hockey League MVP, are far from strangers. The same could be said about Perez and Thornton’s parents.

When Thornton was traded to San Jose from the Boston Bruins in November 2005, his parents arrived several hours early before their son’s first game in San Jose. They asked an usher if they could have a tour of HP Pavilion, the Sharks’ home area, but were told they unfortunately couldn’t be accommodated. In stepped Perez.

“Richie showed them around,” Thornton said. “Ever since then, they love Richie.”

They aren’t alone.

Perez’s generosity and infectious optimism have netted him the nickname “The Mayor.”

To his coworkers in San Jose, Perez serves as ambassador to Gilroy. To friends in Gilroy, Perez is a model resident in the Garlic Capital. After five and a half decades as a proud Gilroyan, Perez said he can’t picture himself anywhere else.

The 14th of 15 children, Perez was already an uncle the day he was born. His mother stayed at home with the kids while his father worked on a prune farm.

Perez grew up on Fourth and Rosanna streets, spending summer afternoons riding his bike to Coyote Lake and summer nights tuning into Los Angeles Dodgers baseball games. His unabashed love for the Dodgers, brought on by listening to Vin Scully on a transistor radio, does not go ignored by those closest to him.

“I get nailed for it all the time,” Perez said.

Hockey wasn’t a blip on Perez’s mind then. He, like most of his siblings, was a baseball player. After playing four seasons at Gilroy High School, Perez played one more at Gavilan during the 1974-75 school year.

Following Gavilan, Perez attended Heald College, where he studied for 18 months to become a field engineer technician. For 12 years, Perez was sent to banks, offices and other locations to fix computer modems and electronic equipment in a variety of locations. He made stops in Santa Clara County, St. Louis and even Hawaii. It was a decent living, and Perez was good at what he did. Then, things turned sour.

“In Silicon Valley in the early ’90s, it was bad,” Perez said. “For two years, it was hard to get a job.”

He didn’t lose his job, at least not right away. The company where he worked announced it was moving to Florida, and Perez didn’t want to leave California. He accepted a severance package and started looking for work in the Bay Area.

Perez found a new job, but was laid off four months later. He then found another job, only to be laid off again after a brief stint. Times were tough, and Perez needed a break from the stress of the unpredictable job market.

“I said, ‘Screw it,’ ” Perez recalled.

He moved to a friend’s home in Merced, where he stayed, unemployed and unsure of his future, for eight months.

Back in the Bay Area, opportunities began to emerge. A new arena was scheduled to open in the fall of 1993. By that summer, people from all over the region began applying to work at the soon-to-be-realized San Jose Arena. “Out of the blue,” Perez decided to throw his name into the ring and get in line.

“It was like, zoom, fast,” he said. “It was like a micro-interview.”

Perez was hired as an usher. For the Sharks’ first game in their new venue, Perez happened to be assigned to watch the team’s locker room door. The team approved of his performance and decided to keep him at that post – for three years. Over that time he met throngs of players, along with their friends, families and any celebrities who happened to finagle their way to obtaining a locker room pass.

“It was a pretty cool job,” Perez said. “I just happened to be lucky to stay at that position.”

Former Sharks head coach Kevin Constantine certainly believed Perez was lucky. Following a late-season victory against Anaheim that clinched a playoff berth for San Jose, Constantine threw his arm around Perez and told him, “You’re going on the road with us.”

In the opening round of the playoffs, the Sharks upended the favored Calgary Flames in seven games. Perez’s “good luck charm” seemingly wore off by Round 2, as the Sharks fell to the Detroit Red Wings in a four-game sweep.

“It was still really fun,” Perez said.

In 1996, luck would swing his way again, as the position of mailroom coordinator opened. Perez got the job, giving him responsibility over all shipping, receiving, faxing, scanning, copying and the like in the arena. Also among his duties was delivering fan mail to Sharks players. They received a glut of that, Perez said.

It didn’t take long for Perez’s title to evolve from mailroom coordinator to simply “Richie.” He couldn’t help but be a friend.

“I interact with everyone in the building.” Perez said. “It’s just my personality. It’s just a twist of fate that I got to know a lot of people.”

Soon, Perez began treating Sharks players and executives like he would any of his friends. General Manager Doug Wilson once referred to Perez as “a legend.”

“He’s an awesome guy obviously,” Sharks player Patrick Marleau said. “He’s upbeat, optimistic and he takes care of you – anything you want.”

When Marleau wanted to attend the Gilroy Garlic Festival one year, Perez took care of him, netting Marleau tickets and a behind-the-scenes look at the city’s most-revered event. The only thing missing was a spoonful or garlic ice cream, which Marleau admits he forgot to grab.

Perez said Sharks players enjoy visiting Gilroy.

“Ah, they love it,” he said. “They like hanging around here.”

He added, “Little old Gilroy gets some famous people sometimes.”

Player Torrey Mitchell said Perez’s presence around the team makes a difference.

“He always has a smile on his face,” Mitchell said. “He’s always in a good mood. It’s good to have people work here who are positive.”

Joe Pavelski said Perez has become somewhat of a social tour guide for players in the South Bay Area. His friends are their friends, Pavelski said.

“He’s created good relationships,” Pavelski said. “That speaks to the kind of guy he is.”

Don DeLorenzo, a PGA certified instructor at Gilroy Golf Course, also could speak to the kind of guy Perez is.

Each June, the golf course hosts the Special Friends charity golf tournament, with proceeds going to therapeutic recreation and rehabilitation for the disabled. And each year, Perez always shows up with an autographed jersey or other team memorabilia to sell to help raise money, DeLorenzo said.

“He’s always been a really big help,” DeLorenzo said. “There’s always some Sharks goodies.”

Perez, though, said he’s never touted his ability to access Sharks players – and their John Hancocks – at any given time.

“I do it silently,” Perez said. “I say, here you go, here’s your jersey. Sell it, make some money off it.”

To some, Perez might as well be the mayor. To others, maybe he is a legend. To his own self, however, Perez is sure of one thing: He is grateful.

“Grateful to meet so many good friends, good families,” Perez said. “Why would I want to be anywhere else?”

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