I sit here tonight, listening to the dismal San Jose Sharks game. It’s 2-0 Calgary and the San Jose Sharks haven’t scored a goal since their ECHL Minor League Affiliate San Francisco Bulls closed the barn doors on the season, 32 games away from a full second season, on Monday morning. Tonight, I should have been at a Bulls game watching a heated rivalry between San Francisco and the Stockton Thunder, but instead I found myself lost, mourning the death of grind-it-out-in-the-corners hockey in my backyard.
The San Francisco Bulls follow in the skate tracks of other teams who have tried to make a go of it at the venerable Cow Palace, where hockey teams go to die: The California Golden Seals, the San Francisco Shamrocks and the San Francisco Spiders, gone but not forgotten from the hockey fabric of the City by the Bay. People say this isn’t a hockey town, but I disagree. If that were true, it’d be easy to get ice time at the local rink. The Bay Area rivals the state of Minnesota for adult players, and the San Jose Sharks wouldn’t consistently sell out if this area didn’t love its hockey.
The Bulls benefited immensely in their inaugural season with the NHL lockout and the hockey starved made the trek to the Old Barn. Ryane Clowe shared the bench duties with Head Coach Pat Curcio and former Shark now Minnesota Wild forward Torrey Mitchell called the Cow Palace his home ice for a brief moment in time.
One can’t just point the finger at attendance in their second season, which fell significantly, as the main contributor to their downfall. It was probably the most noticeable to the casual fan and was a drag for the players, who played their hearts out every game night for their dedicated fans. No, there were many complicated details and drama, that put together, caused the team to fold. There is no point in dwelling on it now, what is done, can not be undone. It seems the way of things here in the city, San Francisco. There is only room for the Major Leagues (read: rich), the minor leagues (read: everybody else) have been pushed to the fringes, pay or pack.
I have been a hockey fan since the Sharks took roots in San Jose, but I did not truly fall in love with the game until I watched minor league hockey. Every night in an ECHL game, a player has something to prove, they are playing for their career. Their fans are a dedicated lot, suffering through the highs of high scoring games and the lows of players traded faster than horses. A minor league team becomes a part of the community like a major league team just cannot be. The players are people, not just abstract athletes, who have lives beyond the game.
The team became a part of my family and indeed as a part of the Matadors Booster Club we tried to be that “home away from home” for the players. I cooked for them, I shopped for them and yes, I even cleaned for them. I got to know them, as people, their likes and dislikes. It broke my heart to see my family all of a sudden scattered like leaves to the wind, with what seemed like so little warning to the coming storm.
The signs were there, we just chose to ignore them to stave away the inevitable truth. They weren’t just a team, they were my friends. Friends talk candidly, boldly. When the paychecks didn’t come, it was a sign. When players left to go back to Europe, it was a sign. The eviction notices, they came too, but still we all held out hope that somehow, the dream that Pat Curcio had to bring back hockey to the Bay wouldn’t die.
Coach “Curdog”, your dream won’t die, hockey is here to stay. The Bulls gave the community so many gifts in their brief life and infused a new generation with a passion for the game.
They inspired me to go behind the game, to dig deeper, and share the game I love as a writer.
Thank you San Francisco Bulls. I still Bull-ieve.