DALY CITY -- David Claudio provides a short answer when asked why he made the 44-mile drive from San Jose to the Cow Palace for a minor league hockey game.
"Withdrawal," said Claudio, wearing his Sharks jersey as he celebrated his 28th birthday at a San Francisco Bulls game with his wife and another couple last weekend. Later he elaborates: "It's pretty rough. Hockey was a routine for me and when that went away it left a hole."
The NHL lockout, of course, is what disrupted Claudio's routine, and with one-third of the Sharks season canceled, he and other fans can find themselves in need of a hockey fix. For them, the Bulls are part East Coast Hockey League expansion team and part methadone clinic.
During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the closest pro hockey to San Jose was the now-defunct Fresno Falcons. Since then, the ECHL added a team in Stockton and now another in the building where the Sharks skated their first two seasons.
Minor league sports in a major league area can be risky, but so far the Bulls seem to be making a go of it.
Attendance for the first nine home games has averaged 4,597 -- about 50 percent above the minimum owner-coach Pat Curcio says he needs for financial viability in a building whose down-sized capacity is 8,277.
"It seems like a minimal number, but 4,000 in this building is loud and they're energetic," said Curcio, whose team is 8-10-0-2 overall, but 7-3 at home. "I think you'll see more fans if we continue to win, but there's a loyal base there now, win or lose."
Individual game tickets range from $14.25 to $41, far less than what the Sharks charge. And a night at the Cow Palace differs from one at HP Pavilion in other ways as well.
Fans can spend $1 to throw a foam rubber puck on the ice between periods with the hopes of winning $150 and a team jersey if it lands on the bulls-eye. Unlike the Sharks, the Bulls have hired "ice girls" -- though the "Cow Belles" attire is more modest than the bare-midriff look favored in many arenas.
A video that uses San Francisco scenes to introduce the team is first class, but the pubic address announcer needs to learn that the Massachusetts city of Worcester is pronounced Woo-stah and not WOR-chester, and ex-Shark Setoguchi's first name is DEV-in, not de-VON.
The Bulls have had a few growing pains on the ice as well. They lost six straight on a nine-game trip before rebounding with five wins in their last six, all at home.
Two separate Shark connections get much credit for the turnaround.
The Bulls are a San Jose affiliate and five prospects who weren't getting ice time in Worcester are now on the San Francisco roster. In addition, NHL forward Ryane Clowe is both practicing with the team and serving as an assistant coach during games.
"Ryane's been awesome," said Curcio, who also serves as the Bulls general manager. "His work ethic in practice makes everyone else better."
Behind the bench Clowe, strangely, is responsible for the defense -- "It's weird because I'm always screaming at the D during the year and now I'm defending 'em" -- and earning high marks from players.
"He almost simplified how we were taught to play," said Bulls captain Justin Bowers, a 27-year-old forward with his fourth ECHL team. "That helped a lot. Guys are in the right spots now."
Those guys include goalies Thomas Heemskerk and Taylor Nelson, forwards Marek Viedensky and Mikael Tam, and defenseman Daniil Tarasov -- the five prospects squeezed out of jobs in Worcester, the Sharks' top development team.
Playing close to San Jose means young players get a closer to look from the Sharks front office. Assistant general manager Wayne Thomas watched Friday night's 5-1 victory over the Ontario Reign.
"It's been very convenient," said Thomas, who doubles as one of two Sharks goalie coaches. "The proximity of being able to work with them (goalies) also is of great benefit."
Heemskerk was named ECHL netminder of the week Tuesday, but Viedensky has had the biggest impact on the scoresheet with four goals and 10 points in six games. In Worcester he was odd-man-out as the NHL lockout meant 17 forwards were competing for 12 jobs.
"I had a feeling I might play here," said Viedensky, 22, a second-year pro from Slovakia who was San Jose's seventh-round pick in 2009. "When I came here it was kind of tough going from nothing to playing three games in a row, but I survived."
Back-to-back-to-back games are common in the minors. And because ECHL teams are limited to three forward lines -- not four like the NHL -- it can be extra taxing.
Fewer forwards was one difference fans would notice between the NHL and ECHL, said Clowe, who has stopped short of playing with the Bulls at least in part because he would be risking injury in his contract year.
What else is noticeably different?
"The biggest thing is speed and how quick players make decisions," Clowe said. "You get six defensemen in the NHL and they're all bang-bang, they know what's going on right away. Things probably happen a little slower here."
Still, Sharks fan Claudio and his friend, Brad Helfenberger, weren't complaining.
"Minor league prices, minor league game," Helfenberger, 29, said. "It's cool."