By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
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By Leif Haven
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By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
While Homis et al. toil on the ice below, Curcio receives a text from one of his former minor-league players, now a locked-out NHL star with a multi-million dollar contract. The winger asks if a spot on the Bulls comes with housing and a car. The former's no problem; Bulls players and even many staff are hooked up with rooms at Park Merced. League rules prevent teams from providing the latter — but Curcio would gladly surrender his own ride, a hulking Dodge Ram with Ontario plates he uses to tow the Bulls' trailer.
In the Bulls' league — formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League but now, like KFC, just the ECHL — stability is a relative term. Founded in 1988 with five East Coast teams, the league has swelled to 23 squads nationwide, though all five original teams have folded, or moved, or both. Of the 37 teams established between 1990 and 2011, only nine remain in the same location. Brian McKenna, the ECHL's commissioner, admits his league "has had mixed results, to be perfectly honest" in big cities.
And in San Francisco particularly, a minor-league hockey franchise is skating uphill. "On the West Coast, you have to win to draw a crowd," says Dean Rascher, a professor of sports management at the University of San Francisco. "Think about the Chicago Cubs. They haven't won a World Series [since 1908]. But they sell out every game. Here they would draw as poorly as the Oakland A's draw."
Winning, however, is not a matter over which Curcio has total control. As a Sharks minor-league affiliate, he must take the players sent down the ladder. And when his players perform, they'll be rapidly pulled up. Curcio likes to tell a yarn about his coaching days with the Utah Grizzlies, then an ECHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames and New York Islanders. After registering 12 wins in 14 games, nine of the team's best players were promoted. "We lost 10 straight," the coach recalls. "God, it was the worst month of my life."
Players come and go with a rapidity mirroring hockey's on-the-fly substitution system. Equipment managers learn to sew rapidly as names come on and off team jerseys. Rooting for an ever-changing roster of players whose deepest desire is to be promoted out of town will be a new experience for most San Franciscans.
The players they'll see, however, are in a different universe than the hopefuls trying out for Curcio and his staff in September. The coach and his brain trust peer down from the Cow Palace's unfinished press box at the on-ice action below, critiquing the amateurs' game play like a hockey-themed Mystery Science Theater 3000. Converging in the coaches' tiny, shared office, Curcio and assistants Kyle Paige and former Shark Tom Pederson struggle to pinpoint three standouts.
Beers are cracked and, while Lydia the cleaning lady scours the office, the coaches rapidly bandy about and nix candidates before settling on a pair of forwards and "a goalie," Curcio says, emptying a Miller Lite into a stadium cup. "Find me a goalie and make sure he's in here by 9:30 tomorrow morning." Paige and Pederson then, just as rapidly, hire Lydia to clean their Park Merced flats, hammering out a shared, twice-monthly arrangement.
Upon being informed he's invited to preseason camp with the Bulls' pros, goalie Chrichton Clark is flabbergasted. The former backup at Trinity College in Connecticut knows full well that within days the Sharks will be deploying goaltenders down the chain. But, if only fleetingly, he'll shelve his law career to play pro hockey. The 34-year-old Burlingame attorney makes a rash of calls to explain his forthcoming absence. At 9:30 a.m., his desk at PayPal will be empty. But the Cow Palace's net will be occupied.
The one element of fielding a minor-league hockey team that doesn't cost much money is the one element you can't do without: the team. When an older Bull facetiously mentions pulling down "the big bucks," a locker room wit chimes in, "Hundreds and hundreds of dollars — bi-weekly!" The salary cap for an ECHL franchise is $12,400 a week, split roughly 20 ways, and only during the 30-odd weeks of the season. The NHL's highest-paid player, the New York Rangers' Brad Richards, earns $12 million a year; the entire Bulls roster will pocket about 3 percent of that. In mid-October, Curcio and his staff review a spreadsheet and note that they're a whole $25 over the cap. "Well, I got $24 in my pocket," says Pederson. "You got a buck?" A player making $850 a week is at the top of the heap, and actually banks enough to become a salary cap casualty, being cut or traded simply because he earns too much.
"It's a numbers game" is a term that comes up in the ECHL with a regularity rivaling "it is what it is." When Chris Venti is called into Curcio's office in mid-October, he knows what's coming. NHL teams use their ECHL affiliates as incubators for their prized goaltending prospects, making Venti, an undrafted free agent, the victim of a numbers game. It is what it is.
Curcio and the coaches stand as Venti enters the room. "The Sharks are sending me another goalie. I thought you did unbelievable. But I have to release you today," Curcio says. He shakes Venti's hand. "I watched you make some great saves. Ah, fuck. Keep working, and next year you'll be a starter. Thanks, buddy. Good luck to you."