By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Design by Andrew J. Nilsen.
In October of last year, large trucks rumbled up to Pat Curcio's office and dumped several tons of dirt and manure on his doorstep. Not long before, the Ontario-born hockey coach had announced the formation of the minor-league San Francisco Bulls, which would play 36 home games a year at the Cow Palace. Yet while the Bulls derive their name from their stadium, their stadium derives its name from the bulls. The Grand National Rodeo is the 71-year-old arena's signature event, and will be rescheduled for no man. Certainly not for Curcio — even if, on the very day the trucks disgorged their foul load to cushion the hoof path into his future rink, Curcio was conducting his initial round of staff interviews. "People walked in through the main hall, and all this dirt and manure and shit was getting into the office," recalls the coach with a shake of his head. "God, it stunk so bad."
It's a month later, and the arena is unlit. The rodeo has recently left, but its essence lingers; the bowels of the Cow Palace smell like the bowels of a cow. The stadium's antechambers are strewn with empty boxes of shotgun cartridges and countless flattened cardboard beer cases. Curcio navigates this sea of detritus and wanders into the structure's vast, darkened main area. His future ice floor is a worn and perforated concrete slab; nothing has frozen here for years. With no plexiglass boards ringing the rink, one must hop a menacing gap. A glance within reveals a scene resembling an undersea documentary; corroded, FDR-era pipes and spaghetti-like wiring lurk underfoot. It's pitch dark in here, but Curcio is obviously smiling. "If we give this building a little love," he says, "maybe she'll give it back to us."
Curcio is short but solidly built, with an oversize head resembling a battering ram. Like every Canadian boy who laced up a pair of skates, he once dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League. After more than a decade eating bad sandwiches on the back of the bus for 14 squads in places like Saginaw, Mich., Dayton, Ohio, and a smattering of European cities, that dream withered. He transitioned from journeyman player to journeyman coach, eating bad sandwiches on the front of the bus. As middle-age approached, Curcio realized that he'd prefer to own the bus. "The NHL is a great dream," says the 39-year-old. "But you're always bouncing around. You're just hired to be fired. I'd rather have my own business."
And so, backed by a consortium of well-heeled Canadians — and his American wife, Elouise, who runs a playground surfacing company — Curcio devised a plan every bit as challenging as skating into the NHL: He pushed the always dicey proposition of establishing a minor-league team in a major-league city. Compounding that challenge, his franchise would be housed in the Cow Palace, an archaic and isolated edifice resembling the world's largest muffler, which the state senator representing the region has pushed to demolish.
One year after Curcio was inundated by manure, thousands of hockey fans, eager to take in the Bulls' Oct. 3 preseason debut, amble through the Cow Palace's halls. Reaching this point has required not only "a little love," but big bucks. The spiraling costs of getting this team off the ground have resulted in an ownership shake-up. By Curcio's own admission the franchise spent more than threefold the yearly operating costs for a typical minor-league hockey franchise — before the puck even hit the ice. All of this, however, is far from his mind as the scoreboard clock winds down to zero. Perched behind his desk, he grows philosophical. "The true tell of attendance is when they play the national anthem," he says. "You see everyone standing. That's when you really get the feel of what kind of atmosphere it'll be." He sighs. "So, if we can get 5,000 more people into the building in the next 22 minutes — that'd be incredible."
If the bars at Salt Lake City International Airport didn't close early, the San Francisco Bulls wouldn't exist. Back in 2009, Pat Curcio's flight to visit his then-employer, the NHL's New York Islanders, was bumped to midnight. But the bars shut at 8 p.m. The only watering hole in this desert was Delta's Crown Room. Drinks were free, but a monthly membership cost $90 — "and I figured we could drink 90 bucks worth," recalls Curcio. He did — and also met his future wife. "This," he says, "was the best 90 bucks I ever spent." Two years later, when the Bulls' $475,000 franchise fee was paid and the team came into existence, Elouise Bird-Curcio owned 29 percent of the stock.
A 22 percent stake was owned by Shmuel Farhi, a man Curcio first bumped into when Farhi was walking his dog through the streets of London, Ontario. That was six years ago. Now, "Pat is, how do I say it, he is like my adopted older boy. And I love him dearly," says Farhi, a frenetic Israeli Canadian. "My job is easy — I write the checks. It's for me to give Pat the opportunity to have his dream come true. This means lots to me. You cannot count this in dollars and cents."
You can, however, count the nearly 100 properties in downtown London alone owned by Farhi's holding corporation, which controls about 4 million square feet of real estate and is valued at upward of $600 million. Farhi declined to specify exactly how much he's sunk into the Bulls. But if he wants permission from his company's chairman of the board to spend a bit lavishly on the team, that shouldn't be a problem. Because it's his dog. And she loves Pat, too.
Curcio has needed the money. Replacing the Cow Palace's ice system, an estimated $100,000 job, swelled into an engineering ordeal costing more than seven times that. After spending $1 million and change on a new scoreboard, Curcio discovered it would cost more than a quarter of a million dollars to install the necessary electrical infrastructure to power it. The Colosseo company can actually run the board remotely from its headquarters in Slovakia, notes Curcio, and even shut it off. This, he says, provides an impetus to make payments on schedule.
Wandering through the stadium last month, Curcio rattles off a litany of unforeseen costs: TV lights — a surprise $86,000 expense. Giant tarps covering surplus seating — $30,000. Netting preventing errant shots from maiming fans — $7,000. As the money poured into the Cow Palace added up, Curcio lost several reticent minority owners. He and Elouise sold a hefty chunk of the team to Farhi, who now holds roughly 40 percent of the franchise; Farhi's Bulls business card simply reads "owner." Getting the team this far has required more than $5 million.
"Great time to sell season tickets!" reads a November entry on the timeline Bulls CEO Joe Wagoner has scrawled onto the otherwise bare white walls of his office (the entry for Sept. 21-23, the Exotic Erotic Ball, reads "Sex People @ Cow Palace."). Wagoner had an odd icebreaker earlier this year when interviewing with Curcio: "I don't know shit about hockey." But that's just what Curcio wanted. He didn't need someone meddling in on-ice matters, and Wagoner didn't need someone lecturing him about promotions or sponsorships. The two even moved into a San Francisco apartment together, a stone's throw from the Cow Palace parking lot; they'll grunt hellos to one another at 4 or 5 in the morning when Wagoner quits working and goes to bed and Curcio rises and starts working.
Like all minor-league teams, the Bulls aren't just selling sports — they're selling entertainment. Wagoner's ideas on how to deliver the latter tend to the distinctive. When he was working for the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the now-defunct United Football League, nonprofit workers were outfitted in padded suits. They were then given a five-second head start to run as far as they could through the end zone and onto the field before a trained attack dog was released. The more yards they ran before being taken out, the more money was donated to their charities. Fans of the Sioux Falls Canaries baseball team, Wagoner reminisces, were invited to bet on how many balloons it would take to levitate a 3-year-old in a folding chair. The answer: 130 — and "Thank God we had her tethered down, because no one was paying attention when she started to go up." He grins: "That would be totally illegal in California."
Outside Wagoner's office, a phalanx of Bulls employees in black-and-orange team polo shirts are in perpetual motion. Ticketing manager Raudel Wilson makes upward of 50 cold calls a day — and there have been strikes and gutters. "We tried to get payment for your season tickets from two different credit cards," Wilson informs a customer over the phone. "Neither worked." Wilson nods and makes affirmative sounds. "Will either of these cards be good for $656 today?" He nods again. "Okay, what about tomorrow?" Wilson smiles. "Good! Should we try in the morning or afternoon?"
There's a late September chill in the air at 8 a.m. in the Cow Palace's vast parking lot. Several score of large men hoist gargantuan bags from their cars and waddle through the stadium's front doors. There, they sign a waiver reading, "I AM AWARE THAT THESE ACTIVITIES ARE HAZARDOUS ACTIVITIES AND THAT I COULD BE SERIOUSLY INJURED OR EVEN KILLED." Then they're handed a jauntily colored hockey jersey.
Some of these men, shelling out $225 in an attempt to play their way onto the Bulls during this year's open tryouts, were bagging groceries the day before. There's a TSA agent, a Utah landscaper who says the best thing about making the club would be escaping Utah, and 38-year-old active Navy man Doug Homis — who sports the build Pablo Sandoval will surely sport at 38. "Oh, I got a one-in-600 chance," says Homis with a grin. "But I can bash heads and protect the younger guys."
These 62 working stiffs face long odds in attempting to break onto a pro squad two rungs below its parent club, the San Jose Sharks; the Bulls are the hockey equivalent of a Double-A baseball club. Amateurs' chances are rendered even more infinitesimal by the ongoing NHL lockout, which has created a trickle-down effect. With NHL-caliber players joining minor-league teams, talent is pushed downward at each rung of pro hockey to the detriment of on-the-bubble professionals.
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."
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.
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."
Curcio and his assistants sit, dejected, in their cramped office. "Petey," Curcio says after a pause, "that wasn't the fairy tale fucking game I was hoping for." Wayne Thomas, the Sharks' soft-spoken assistant general manager, glides in. "What's your flavor, Wayner?" asks Curcio, and beers are distributed.
Farhi, decked out in a checkered jacket, backward Kangol cap, and pink button-up, bursts into the office and envelops Curcio in a bear hug. "I am so proud of you. My big boy! You are my big boy!" he bellows. "Listen, Pat, two years ago, we have a dream. And we make this dream a reality! Even if we lost the fucking game and the next 20, Pat, I'm behind you my man. Don't worry, you have the insurance of a lifetime, man. Now breathe! It is important to breathe."
He leaves the room and the energy leaves with him. The hockey staff morosely sips its beers, searching for silver linings. Finally, Thomas speaks in a voice barely above a whisper. "I thought," he says, "the ushers were really friendly."
One day later, not half as many fans show up for a game that turns out twice as well. The twin fire-blasting columns between which the team enters the ice can be felt even in the nosebleeds, and the Bulls come out just as hot with a goal barely three minutes into the contest. A barn burner ensues, with both teams trading scores leading to a 5-5 contest at the second intermission. In the final period, the Bulls strike less than a minute into action, then hold off Bakersfield for the duration, killing a 5-on-3 power play en route. The announced crowd of 3,659 howls as the final horn sounds on a 6-5 victory. In the locker room, the players do the same.
Paige strides into the room and distributes chilled cans of Coors to the team. Curcio bursts in behind him, laughing maniacally. "Holy fuck, boys! Holy fuck! Hell of an effort. We build from here, boys." Trainer Osama Kassab emphatically sets a heaping bucket of beers on the carpet and is greeted with raucous cheers of "fuck yeah!" Ice Cube's "Check Yo Self" blasts on the soundsystem, and the players sing along.
In a few short hours, the ice will be broken down and removed. In a week's time, a quarter of the players singing and drinking in the historic victory will be gone, too. The trucks full of manure are on their way, and the team heads off on a 26-day, nine-game road schlep during the duration of the rodeo. The Bulls win only one game, dropping three straight in Anchorage to an Alaska squad featuring three locked-out NHL players. Last week, the team responded by signing Edmonton Oiler Theo Peckham — who served the third-most penalty minutes in the NHL last year — and Ryane Clowe, a hometown hero for the San Jose Sharks who figures to put pucks in nets and butts in seats. A prediction Curcio made in early October regarding idle NHL stars appears to be coming true: "These guys are gonna be falling out of the fucking sky." As of press time, Curcio is still driving his own truck.
All of that will come soon enough. But on the night of the Bulls' first win, the squad can only focus on the present — and there are worse places to be. "Put the beer on ice, boys!" Curcio shouts to his victorious team. "And no one gets in trouble tonight."