Never mind the San Jose Sharks produced one of the worst seasons seen in the history of the NHL by winning only 11 of 84 games in 1992-93 – the second year of the team’s existence – a loyal fan base filled the cozy Cow Palace all but seven times.
We’re talking about an enthusiastic following from a non-traditional hockey market that knew the Sharks were on the South San Francisco/Daly City border only on loan until their permanent home arena in San Jose was complete.
It didn’t matter that the team stunk and the building smelled even worse – especially after the annual rodeo – a sellout crowd of 11,089 hit the turnstiles 34 times and enjoyed every minute of pro hockey by the Bay.
That’s what the ECHL is counting on again after awarding San Francisco a team to debut in the 2012-13 season on year from now. The San Francisco Bulls will actually be San Francisco’s latest plunge into the business of professional hockey, which has experienced success and failure in the past.
- The Cow Palace housed the San Francisco Seals, a team that moved from Edmonton to The City in 1961 to join the Western Hockey League. They remained until there until 1966 when the Seals moved to the new Oakland Coliseum Arena and eventually became the NHL’s first Bay Area expansion franchise in the NHL.
- The San Francisco Shamrocks of the Pacific Hockey League played at the Cow Palace from 1977 to early 1979.
- The Sharks were there from 1991-93.
- And the San Francisco Spiders of the International Hockey League played one season at the Cow Palace before folding in 1995-96.
Ownership of the Bulls, the 21st member of the low-level minor-league affiliate of the NHL, have to hope their success trends closer to what the Sharks enjoyed and not what the Spiders suffered.
“We feel that there are a lot of people from the East who have moved here on the last 5-10 years,” said Pat Curcio, who will wear the hats of team president, general manager and head coach. “There hasn’t been pro hockey in San Francisco in 15 years. We believe we will be able to provide an affordable entertainment for the families of San Francisco.”
Sources estimate the team will need to draw between 3,500-4,000 fans a game – a figure that is below the average attendance around the ECHL – to break even. The Bulls become the fourth team in California to play in the ECHL, joining the Bakersfield Condors, Ontario Reign and Stockton Thunder.
San Francisco could benefit from its proximity to San Jose as the Sharks’ affiliation with Stockton expires at season’s end. The current arrangement isn’t ideal because San Jose shares the affiliate with the Edmonton Oilers. The Sharks theoretically could use San Francisco next season as it’s sole ECHL affiliate and have more control over player ice time and the ability to see prospects with a quick drive.
The decision to put a team in San Francisco will raise the eye brows of some, especially considering the team will have to play in a building that needs updating. Curcio expected video boards, concessions and the dressing rooms to receive an upgrade. Curcio predicted individual game ticket prices to range from $10-$35.
“First and foremost we have a willing ownership group,” ECHL Commissioner Brian McKenna said. “We really believe in the market, they have an iconic facility in the Cow Palace that I am sure is excited to have hockey back as a permanent tenant.”
A look at the other three California-based ECHL teams follows:
- Bakersfield Condors: A two-week training camp opens Friday, Sept. 30, at the Bakersfield Ice Sports Center. The preseason opener is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 7 at Stockton followed by the first home exhibition at Rabobank Arena the next night – Saturday, Oct. 8 – vs. the Thunder. Bakersfield opens the regular season by hosting Colorado on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 7 p.m. The Condors are coached by Matt O’Dette. The Condors’ are affiliated with the Minnesota Wild of the NHL and the Houston Aeros of the AHL.
- Ontario Reign: The third-year franchise, affiliates of the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, open camp on Friday, Sept. 30, at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario. The Reign open the exhibition season with a 6 p.m. Game against visiting Las Vegas on Oct. 8. And Ontario begins the regular season on Friday, Oct. 14, when the Reign host Stockton at 7 p.m. Ontario is led by coach Jaston Christie, who was honored as Coach of the Year during is first season last year.
- Stockton Thunder: The Thunder open training camp on Thursday, Sept. 29, at Stockton Arena. The Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks share an affiliation with Stockton. Born in 2005, the Thunder open the regular season at home on Friday, Oct. 14, against Colorado, which moves into the ECHL after spending the previous eight seasons in the Central Hockey League. Stockton is coached by Matt Thomas, who enters his third season with the Thunder.