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.