Hockey returns to San Francisco as Bulls open with 4-3 loss

913857.jpg

Hockey returns to San Francisco as Bulls open with 4-3 loss

DALY CITY There was a little more than an hour to go before the inaugural puck was to drop for the San Francisco Bulls on Friday night, and it was easy to sense the nervous energy emanating from the teams president, its general manager and its head coach.

That may be because Pat Curcio is all three. Its a hat trick of professional hats, so to speak.

Its a little surreal, and hard to explain the emotions going through my mind, thats for sure, Curcio, 39, said from his office, moments after meeting with his team. The last couple years since the actual thought of this came about, to where we are today, its been an amazing ride. Im real excited to finally play some hockey tonight.

The Bulls are the newest member of the 23-team East Coast Hockey League, essentially a double-A feeder team for the NHL and its primary minor league, the American Hockey League. The Bulls are affiliated with the San Jose Sharks, although only goaltender Thomas Heemskerk is under contract to San Jose (goaltender Taylor Nelson and defenseman Mikael Tam are Worcester Sharks property, but have been reassigned here to San Francisco).

Heemskerk, in fact, started in net for the Bulls on Friday, suffering a 4-3 loss to the Bakersfield Condors. Although wins and losses are important to Curcio the coach, Curcio the president knows that the success of his nascent franchise will be determined not by the number of wins or losses, but by the number of butts in the seats.

The Bulls announced an impressive crowd of 8,277 on Friday night, so theyre off to a good start in that regard. They had a stated goal to reach 1,000 season ticket holders, and a team spokesman said they are close to reaching that number.

When youre wearing two hats, my emotions are you want to win, you want to teach, you want to make these players better, Curcio said. You want to see the couple goalies that we have here that are Sharks prospects, and a couple defensemen -- we want to see them in the NHL. Thats going to take winning and development.

The other side of it is, the business side, we want to see the fans come out and build this product and build an identity here. We want to be a fabric of this city, and something this city can be proud of long after Im gone.

The Bulls first game marked the return of hockey to the Cow Palace for the first time in more than 15 years. The San Francisco Spiders of the now defunct International Hockey League lasted only one season, shutting down operations after reportedly losing more than 6 million in 1995-96.

The way Curcio sees it, the Spiders were victims of playing in an unstable league, as the IHL shut down operations after 2001. He points out that the Spiders drew more than 5,000 fans per game, which in minor league hockey, is a respectable number.

It took some work to make the Cow Palace, built in 1941, ready to house a team again.

Here at the Cow Palace, every time we opened a door to correct something, we found something else that needed to be corrected, said Curcio, who spent 10 years playing in the ECHL and Europe. It was tiresome, it was stressful, and a lot of times we thought, can this really be fixed?

At first glance, they did a good job. There is a new scoreboard that is much more high-tech that those found at most minor league arenas, but there remains a certain charm about the old place, which was home to the San Jose Sharks for their first two years of existence.

The players, who literally have to walk down stairs to get from their locker room to the ice, and back up again at intermission, seem to sense the novelty and history of their home.

You can tell how old the rink is, and its going to be a special barn to play in, and it literally is a barn, said captain Justin Bowers, referring to the Cow Palaces history of rodeos and other assorted bovine-related celebrations. Its fitting that were the Bulls and were playing in the barn, and its all coming together.

Local product Hans Benson -- who is a minor league marketers dream when you consider his Menlo Park, CA upbringing, authentic tough guy-scowl and a willingness to drop the gloves at any time -- said, We call that character. Its a real character place. The glass is noisy, its a loud building, and a great place to play.

The Bulls inaugural season timing may be beneficial in that Sharks fans looking for a place to see some live hockey dont have too far to go while the NHL remains in a lockout. Seeing the Bulls wont cost them nearly as much, either, as tickets range from 19.50 to 41, while the average price for a Sharks ticket was approximately 50 last season, according to Team Marketing Report.

RELATED: NHL, union continue to bicker
For me, Im the biggest hockey fan there is. I hate that theres a lockout. I want to see NHL games, and I love watching them, Curcio said. As a hockey fan and a Sharks fan, we provide an alternate product for them if they want to see some hockey live. Its going to be exciting, entertaining, and worth coming up to.

Hes confident that the Bulls can keep drawing fans on a regular basis after what can only be considered a successful opening night, despite the one-goal loss.

We had a vision, and I think for the most part its pretty much in line with what we imagined.

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

braun-justin-sharks-teal.jpg
AP

Mailbag: Which Sharks player is most likely to be traded?

No one asked, but I’m going to begin this week’s mailbag with my prediction for the Stanley Cup Final – Preds in six. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to a few of your questions…

Most likely to be moved this off-season? (Nik @niknisj25)

If the Sharks do make a move – and I’ve argued here that I think it may be time for a shakeup – they’ll surely be looking for someone up front to boost the offense. In that case, they’d likely have to sacrifice a defenseman or two.

The Sharks defense is the strength of the organization at the moment, as they had one of the best one-through-seven groups in the NHL this season. But it’s also an expensive one. The Sharks have nearly $27 million committed to their top seven defensemen next season, while Marc-Edouard Vlasic is due for a hefty raise beginning in 2018-19.

One name that could be intriguing to other teams is Justin Braun. The 30-year-old has been a part of the Sharks’ top shut down pair with Vlasic for several seasons now, and is signed for the next three years at a reasonable $3.8 million cap hit. The Sharks could potentially move him for offensive help, and slot in a guy like David Schlemko alongside Vlasic, while finally giving Dylan DeMelo a chance to play on a nightly basis on the third pair. A Vlasic-Schlemko pair could be more offensive than Vlasic-Braun, too, because as adept as they were at keeping the puck out of their own net, the Sharks didn’t get many goals from their defenders outside of Burns.

Of course, the upcoming expansion draft all but assures that nothing will happen until Las Vegas selects its team on June 21. If the Sharks lose a defenseman to the Golden Knights, they’ll be more reluctant to move another one. Still, with guys like Joakim Ryan, Tim Heed, Julius Bergman, Mirco Mueller and now Radim Simek in the pipeline, the club might be able to handle a couple departures.

How do we fix the power play next season? Bring in a coach that could help us? Change up the lines, or style of play? (adam smith @kickback408)

One thing that won’t be happening is a new coach, as Doug Wilson recently confirmed that Steve Spott would be back alongside Pete DeBoer. Bob Boughner could move on if he gets hired as a head coach elsewhere, but Boughner’s focus is the team’s defense and penalty kill.

Obviously, the future of the power play depends on who is on the roster, beginning with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Both saw their power play production dip this season.

Thornton went from 29 power play points in 2015-16 to 19 this season (he had eight power play goals in 2015-16, and just one this season). Marleau saw a decline from 25 power play points in 2015-16 to 16 last season. Even if both return, it may be time to try other bodies on the top unit.

Do you see Meier, Labanc and/or Sorensen having a breakout season next year? Or anyone else on the Barracuda? (Colin Dunn @ColinDunnACA)

Someone better had, because this team needs to start getting younger, and soon. One of the bigger disappointments of the 2016-17 season is that none of them apparently showed the coaching staff that they were prepared to play on a nightly basis at the NHL level.

Timo Meier and Marcus Sorensen, I would surmise, are at the top of the depth chart as far as forwards go. Their line in the playoffs with center Chris Tierney was the Sharks’ best through the early part of the series with Edmonton. As for Kevin Labanc, I think he’s fallen a bit since he had a brief run of success for the Sharks in December.

While the Sharks did a good job stockpiling some young players through the 2013-15 drafts, they’ve traded away a number of picks in recent years. In last year’s draft they didn’t have a first or third round pick; this year they don’t have any picks in the second, third or fourth rounds; and in 2018 they are already without their second and third round picks. 

It’s great to accumulate young players, but at some point they have to break through. Now is the time.

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

Sharks, Robinson parting ways after five seasons

After five seasons with the Sharks, Larry Robinson is leaving the organization.

Robinson, 65, spent the last three seasons as the club's director of player development. He served as an associate coach from 2012-14.

TSN in Montreal and the Montreal Gazette originally reported the news.

The Sharks confirmed that Robinson's contract would be expiring, and general manager Doug Wilson told NBC Sports California that the divorce was amicable, and "because of geography." Robinson lives in Florida.

According to the Montreal Gazette

Robinson’s contract with the Sharks expires on July 1, but agent Donnie Cape said Thursday that San Jose general manager Doug Wilson has given him permission to speak with other teams. Robinson lives in Bradenton, Fla., and the long travel distance to San Jose is one of big the reasons he’s looking for a new team to work for.

Robinson seemed to ponder retirement in 2014, but signed a three-year extension to remain in the Sharks' front office. He worked mostly from his home in Florida the past two seasons, making occasional trips to San Jose, including during training camp.

In the summer of 2015, Robinson underwent surgery for skin cancer.

Recognized as one of the best defensemen in NHL history, Robinson won six Stanley Cup championships with the Montreal Canadiens as a player, and holds the NHL record for playing 20 straight seasons in the playoffs. A 10-time All-Star and two-time Norris Trophy winner, Robinson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Robinson was the head coach of the Los Angeles Kings from 1995-99, and the New Jersey Devils from 1999-2002 and again in 2005-06. He led the Devils to the Stanley Cup in 2000. Robinson has nine Stanley Cup rings as a player and coach.

* * *

The Sharks did not renew the contract of pro scout Jason Rowe, who had been with the organization for the past nine seasons. Rowe focused on eastern NHL and AHL teams.