There's a pall in the office as Venti decamps. Curcio wipes the goalie's name off the team roster on a dry-erase board, fills out some paperwork, and sends a fax to the league office. "You memorize this number pretty fucking quick," the coach grumbles. Back in the locker room, Venti breaks the news to defenseman Alex Tuckerman, who played alongside him when they were both schoolboys in Woburn, Mass. "I don't know how long I'm gonna last here either, bro," Tuckerman says. "You never know."

Venti stoically begins the arduous task of packing up his voluminous goaltending equipment. Tuckerman breaks the silence: "Maybe we could start a business somewhere. A juice store. Everyone's juicing now. It's a West Coast thing." Venti flashes his old pal a wan smile, but doesn't commit to any entrepreneurial opportunities. He finishes wrangling his equipment, strips naked, and pads off for one last shower in the Bulls' facility.

Players come and players go. In the coaches' office, Curcio finalizes a trade for Thomas Beauregard, a 30-goal-scorer, "$850 man," and cap casualty in Orlando. As the fax machine whirs, Curcio chuckles. "Wheelin' and dealin', boys! We just got a lot fucking better!" Two weeks later, Beauregard is a Bulls cap casualty; he's released when the team signs a pair of players.

Moments before the Bulls’ opening game, owner Shmuel Farhi tells the team, “I have a lot of faith in you — work together and kick some ass!”
Joseph Schell
Moments before the Bulls’ opening game, owner Shmuel Farhi tells the team, “I have a lot of faith in you — work together and kick some ass!”
Before games, the Bulls unwind by juggling a soccer ball.
Joseph Schell
Before games, the Bulls unwind by juggling a soccer ball.

Yet in the Bulls' locker room, country music plays and the mood stays light. In the far corner, Curcio hands Brandon Richardson several numbers for lower-level hockey coaches to call on behalf of the forward's just-released roommate, a Swiss-born limited English-speaker. Several hours later, Richardson is released, too, and will be dialing those numbers himself. At the moment, however, he spots something peculiar and chuckles. "You'll see some funny things in here," he says, gesturing toward the middle of the room. Within the crowd, one of Richardson's teammates has, unmistakably, started jerking off, waiting to see how far he can go before eliciting a reaction. Hans Benson, the Bulls' burly enforcer, finally spots the action out of the one eye that isn't swollen with a shiner, shrieks with laughter, and shouts, "You're a sick fuck!"

Benson is nearly falling off the bench with laughter now. "You're gonna get fined! Tell me it's not a fucking fine to have a hard-on in front of 20 dudes!"

The locker-room stickhandler is unrepentant. "Twenty dudes? That's nothing."

The frigid odor of a fresh sheet of ice and the fumes of the Zamboni machine evoke nostalgia for a Canadian childhood. Unlike rinks in Sudbury or Medicine Hat, however, the Cow Palace ice staff was forced to shave off a quarter-inch after the stresses of the Exotic Erotic Ball affected the covered ice.

"There were some spilled margaritas here and there," notes ice technician Joe Ceccotti.

"Margaritas?" asks fellow tech Harly Crandall. "That's what you're calling it?"

Ceccotti sighs. "God, I hope so."

On the margarita-free ice, Bulls players race past with breathtaking speed, their arms and legs constantly pumping like locomotives. The sounds of a hockey practice reverberate around the cavernous, empty rink; not infrequently one hears the characteristic ping of a perfectly placed shot ricocheting off the goal's crossbar and down into the net, followed by whoops of joy. The Cow Palace's ice is a tad smaller than regulation-size, so it's no coincidence the Bulls are stocked with larger players suited for the physical game brought about by reduced ice space. A number of them boast extensive YouTube galleries documenting their on-ice fistfights; current teammates Benson and Scott Langdon beat each other in a clip from 2011.

For well over an hour Curcio runs his squad through a series of grueling, high-velocity drills. Just before noon the players are bug-eyed and gasping for air and water. "Take care of your bodies, boys," shouts Justin Bowers, the team's jovial 27-year-old captain and vocal leader, during a post-practice stretch. "Ibuprofin! Vicodin! Ambien! Whatever you boys do!"

The sound of pop tops emanate from the coaches' office a minute after noon. "That's the good thing about a Sunday practice," notes Curcio. "You can grab a beer afterward."

After the opening period of the Bulls' Oct. 12 inaugural game against Bakersfield, the home side trails, 2-1. In a calm monotone, Curcio tells a television interviewer he thinks "the team is doin' pretty well. We just need to clean up a few things." Then he clomps up the stairs to the Bulls' locker room and delivers the unadulterated version.

"Guys, the mistakes! They're our mistakes — it's not because they're doing anything fucking good! Defensemen — stop with the fucking turnovers, the backhand bullshit! Get the fucking puck in deep, play our style of hockey, and we'll bury these fucking guys!" The players are shirtless and utterly soaked; the team looks as if it just clambered off an amusement park water ride. Curcio isn't finished. "This ain't fucking shitty hockey no more! I told you, this is for real. Time to start playing with fucking heart!"

In the second period, the team surrenders two unanswered goals and falls behind, 4-1.

In the final stanza, the Bulls notch back-to-back scores in a supercharged 16-second sequence, but can do no more. Before an announced crowd of 8,277, the team drops its opening game, 4-3. Players sprawl in front of their lockers, utterly spent, a roomful of individuals alone together. The sound of tape being yanked off of uniforms mixes with voice after voice muttering "holy fuck, boys. Holy fuck."

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