Is the Bay Area ready for more hockey? San Francisco's newest professional sports team thinks the answer is yes, and tonight it will begin to find out if it's right.
The San Francisco Bulls, an East Coast Hockey League franchise, will play their inaugural regular season game at 7:15 p.m. against the Bakersfield Condors at the Cow Palace. Click here for the full schedule.
The Bulls have reason to believe they can be successful at drawing fans. At least 5,200 tickets have been sold for tonight's game, a pretty good number for an ECHL team. You can think of the ECHL as hockey's version of baseball's Double A, with the Bulls featuring prospects from the San Jose Sharks, their NHL parent club. (The American Hockey League is hockey's Triple A league.) Capacity at the Cow Palace will be 8,500 for Bulls games.
Thanks to the Sharks, Bulls players and management also have ample evidence that Bay Area sports fans appreciate hockey. The Sharks drew an average of 17,562 fans per game during the 2011-2012 season, according to ESPN. That's the capacity for hockey at HP Pavilion.
And at least for now, those Sharks fans will have to come to San Francisco if they want to check out pro hockey. That's because the NHL has cancelled games through Oct. 24 due to a labor dispute with the players. The season was slated to open Thursday.
If the NHL's lockout continues, the Cow Palace may be the only place to watch a professional hockey game in the Bay Area during the 2012-13 season.
So if you're not sold on pro hockey, here are four other reasons you may want to check out the Bulls this year:
1. Individual game tickets are relatively cheap. Before taxes and fees, the most expensive seat is $41, the least expensive $14.25. By comparison, the cheapest seats for a San Jose Sharks game are $35 each before taxes. A seat near the glass can cost $225.
2. There will be goals. ECHL teams averaged nearly one-half goal per game more than NHL teams last season. OK, so that may not seem that impressive at first glance. But carry that over a 72-game ECHL season, and it means 36 more goals for fans than in the same number of NHL games. That gives you a better shot during an average game at seeing plays like this:
(And by the way, there also will be fights. Whether you're a fan of it or not, violence is part of both the NHL and minor league hockey, with a long history. The website hockeyfights.com says that the ECHL's leading brawler fought 29 times during the 2011-2012 season; by comparison, the NHL's leading fighter was involved in 20 dustups. If it's to your taste, here's a look at one of the ECHL's fights from last season.)
3. The promotions should be fun. The Bakersfield Condors caused a bit of stir earlier this year when they advertised their Dec. 27 game against the Stockton Thunder - whose home city is struggling financially - would be "Our City Isn't Bankrupt Night." The ECHL can have ridiculous and fun promotions that are in the best tradition of minor league sports. That includes the teddy bear toss, a promotion held in many minor league hockey arenas. It calls for fans to bring stuffed animals to the game and throw them on the ice after the first home team goal; the toys typically are donated to charity.
The Bulls' first teddy bear toss is set for Dec. 7. To get a better understanding of what it will be like, check out this video I shot of a teddy bear toss in Stockton:
4. San Francisco Giants Manger Bruce Bochy says he'll be there. Because when your team completes a startling comeback in baseball, you should celebrate with some hockey.