DALY CITY -- Pat Curcio isn't ready to declare that his minor league hockey team will benefit from the labor impasse that has shut down the NHL and left his fledgling San Francisco Bulls the logical alternative for puck-starved fans.
"In truth, are they hockey fans or are they Shark fans?" he asks rhetorically about the regular crowds of 17,562 that fill HP Pavilion between NHL lockouts.
Curcio, who owns a share of the Bulls and also serves as coach and general manager, is about to find out as his team opens the ECHL regular season Friday night at the Cow Palace against the Bakersfield Condors.
Lockout aside, longtime Sharks fans might be tempted to check out the Cow Palace for nostalgic reasons as it was the NHL team's home for its first two seasons. While the 1940s-era structure is essentially the same, there are some changes.
The Bulls have invested more than $2 million in everything from a new video board and sound system to improved security in the parking lots. Tarps in one end zone and curtains elsewhere will reduce capacity from 11,000 to about 8,500. A beer garden has been added at ice level. And the team has hired ice girls, calling them the Cow Belles.
The hockey played in the ECHL is considered two steps below the caliber that Bay Area fans are accustomed to seeing. While the Bulls are a Sharks affiliate, San Jose's top prospects play in Worcester of the AHL, with only a few players such as goalie Thomas Heemskerk and defenseman Mikael Tam reassigned to San Francisco at this point.
Many of the Bulls are players looking for a second or third chance at the NHL.
"Hockey's a crazy game sometimes -- a couple injuries and a lot of stuff happens and you get your chance. You've just got to make the best of it," said defenseman Trevor Hendrikx, a seventh-round Columbus draft pick in 2005. "For me, I'm still living the dream."
Hans Benson, a 29-year-old right wing who grew up in Menlo Park, sees it similarly.
"Why somebody else and not me?" said Benson, who played in NHL exhibition games for Edmonton and St. Louis.
Others, however, recognize they probably missed their NHL chance.
"For me, it's about being around the guys, being around the atmosphere and just playing hard," said Chris Frank, 26, a defenseman who pursued a master's degree in business administration while playing in Cardiff, Wales, last season.
Curcio's challenge is to balance the need to develop players with a shot at the NHL and the need to develop a fan base by winning.
"It becomes difficult because sometimes your 28-year-old player is better than your 20-year-old right now. But your 20-year-old player has a chance to make the NHL still," Curcio said. "Sometimes you sacrifice an older guy's ice time to give a younger guy an opportunity."
One older player not likely to lose much ice time is Peter Sivak, 30, a veteran forward from Slovakia who moved to San Francisco because his wife, a doctor, took a job with Kaiser Permanente.
One of Curcio's assistant coaches knows the Cow Palace better than anyone else in the organization. Tom Pederson, now 42, was a defenseman with the Sharks in their final season before the move to downtown San Jose.
"It brings a lot of memories back," Pederson said. "Some of the guys are like, 'You played here?' Yeah I played here."