Northern California gets a third hockey team, San Francisco Bulls will make ECHL Pacific Division debut in 2012
News that Northern California will get a third professional hockey team for the 2012-13 season generated a lot of unexpected buzz around the hockey world this week. On Wednesday, the ECHL Board of Govenors approved a San Francisco Bulls franchise that will play alongside three other Californian teams (Stockton, Bakersfield, Ontario) and one from Nevada (Las Vegas) in the Pacific Division.
The process of bringing another hockey team back to San Francisco was a long one, but it was also “surreal and at the same time very exciting,” noted San Francisco Bulls President Pat Curcio. It was a 9-month journey from deciding on a hockey team in the Bay Area to meeting the state requirements needed to play at the Cow Palace. A state-run facility, there was not one person making the decision which resulted in more back and forth. “It was worth the effort, we are happy to be here,” Curcio told Sharkspage on Wednesday. “I think having a stable tenant here at the Cow Palace is something they have long waited for.”
Built in 1941, the Cow Palace (originally the California State Livestock Pavilion) has an illustrious sports and entertainment pedigree. It hosted the San Francisco/Oakland Warriors of the NBA three times, and served as the San Jose Sharks home for their inaugural two seasons while the then San Jose Arena was being constructed. The IHL San Francisco Spiders hockey team also operated from the Cow Palace in 1995-96. Curcio notes that with an upgraded ice system, and upgraded scoreboard and facilities, the Cow Palace will be “a fun place to watch hockey.”
With no expansion or supplemental draft in the ECHL according to Director of Communications Joe Babik, the San Francisco Bulls will look to add veteran free agents from around the league as well as dip into the junior, major junior and college ranks. “We want to be an exciting team. Youthful, energetic and offensive,” Curcio said. “An entertaining team. A team that even if they are down 3-1 or 4-1 has the ability to score goals and come back.” The Bulls also hope to affiliate with an NHL team to help develop prospects. “Our goal is affiliate with a team like the San Jose Sharks when the time comes,” the Bulls coach/GM said. The Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks renewed their co-affiliation with the Stockton Thunder last Tuesday.
A Toronto native, Curcio will serve as the team’s inaugural head coach and general manager. A veteran of close to 12 seasons in major junior and minor leagues in the U.S. and Europe, Curcio noted the inspiration instilled in him by legendary former Ottawa 67′s head coach Brian “Killer” Kilrea. It is a connection he shares with current Sharks EVP/GM Doug Wilson and Calder finalist Logan Couture. After his playing career finished in 2001, Curcio started on a coaching track that most recently saw him as an assistant coach with the London Knights of the OHL, the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL, and back to the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. “While we were (in the OHL), we were still pursuing this dream,” Curcio said. “Here we are today.”
From a business perspective, minor league sports can be a hard road but it is difficult not to take into account the success minor league hockey has had in California. The debut of the Stockton Thunder at their new arena in 2005 could not have been more impressive for the central valley. Similar to San Jose, Stockton featured a hockey team as the centerpiece of their downtown revitalization efforts. The Thunder followed that with a sustained entertainment/sports push that resulted in the franchise leading the ECHL in attendance their first 4 seasons (averaging over 6,000 a game for 6). “You have to find ways to keep it interesting,” Stockton Thunder Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations Mike Benton told Sharkspage on Wednesday. While stressing the ability of the hockey staff to help develop hockey prospects, “we have found that found success is based on half selling the hockey and half selling the party,” Benton said. “There are fans that come to these games that have never seen a hockey game in their life.”
That is where minor league hockey in California diverges from the strict developmental structure on the East Coast and in Canada. “That’s what we have seemed to have done, not only to reach a hockey-centric fan base, but we have also become more of a lifestyle because we are appealing to people with different tastes and different backgrounds,” Benton said. Appealing to a broader audience not only has worked in Stockton, but also for the southern California Ontario Reign franchise which was founded in 2008. Ontario lead the league in attendance the last two years, with 240,596 and 232,223 fans at the gate respectively. Hosting the 2010 ECHL Allstar Game also drew more eyeballs to their new building, the Citizens Business Bank Arena. The Bakersfield Condors have finished a respectable 6th in attendance the last two seasons, but they have also finished second and first in playoff attendance which is a longstanding trend for their team. Even the defunct San Diego Gulls franchise folded due to ownership issues, not the lack of a strong fan base.
“We are so excited and proud to provide professional hockey to the San Francisco Bay Area,” Curcio told the San Francisco Examiner. It is an excitement shared by many. There will be a press conference at the Grand Hyatt hotel on Stockton Street in San Francisco (1PM, Fillmore AB room) September 27th to announce the new team. ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna, representatives from the city of San Francisco and the Cow Palace will also attend. Season tickets go on sale October 3rd. Visit sfbulls.com for more information.
[Update] Press release from the ECHL:
ECHL Board of Governors approves Membership for San Francisco
September 21, 2011
PRINCETON, N.J. – The ECHL announced on Wednesday that the Board of Governors has approved the Expansion Membership application of the San Francisco Bulls for admission to the ECHL.
San Francisco is scheduled to begin play in October 2012 when the Premier ‘AA’ Hockey League will celebrate its 25th season, making it the third-longest tenured professional hockey league behind only the National Hockey League and the American Hockey League.
The San Francisco ownership group is by Pat Curcio and his wife Elouise, who have relocated to San Francisco from Salt Lake City. Curcio will serve as president, general manager and head coach for the Bulls. The team will play its home games at the Cow Palace, located less than 10 miles from downtown San Francisco.
The Cow Palace opened in 1941 and has welcomed more than 50 million visitors through its doors. The arena, which has a capacity for hockey of approximately 11,000, was home to the San Jose Sharks during their first two seasons in the National Hockey League from 1991-93 and also was home to the San Francisco Spiders of the International Hockey League in 1995-96.
“San Francisco is a good addition to our Western Conference and a logical rival for our California teams in particular,” said ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna. “We look forward to working with Pat as he assembles his front office team and works toward the October 2012 opening at the iconic Cow Palace.”
“We are so excited and proud to provide professional hockey to the San Francisco Bay area,” said Curcio. “The on-ice product will be very entertaining and the Cow Palace is the perfect venue for our team.”
“The Cow Palace is excited to host high quality, professional ice hockey again,” said Cow Palace CEO Joe Barkett. “It is an iconic venue that is well suited for an enjoyable and convenient fan experience. The San Francisco Bulls will offer great family entertainment for the San Francisco Bay area.”