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Sports Corner

Hockeytown?

Opening night for the San Francisco Bulls photo: S.F. Bulls

Hockey is the least telegenic of team sports. The puck is tiny. It gets lost to the TV viewer along the boards. Watched live, the flow of players skating around the rink is beautiful to behold. Wayne Gretzky was an amazing skater, whether controlling the puck or away from it. But most of the skating away from the puck is never televised.

Now we have a chance to watch pro hockey live without the 90-minute drive to San Jose. Welcome San Francisco’s newest professional team: the Bulls. They’re an expansion AA-level team that plays its 36 home games at the Cow Palace. The 8,000-seat arena is intimate, and a full house can generate a lot of noise. Tickets start at $14.25; with seats $34 and up, you have access to the Red Hook Ice Lounge.

San Francisco Bull’s Alex Tuckerman was a psychology major at Northeastern University in Boston. His freshman year of college, he was one of the best players on the hockey team, but he had shoulder problems. A few years and two shoulder surgeries later, the San Francisco Bulls offered him a contract. “It’s my first year of pro hockey,” Tuckerman says, “and I hope to play as many games as I can, hope to get better each day and week.” He almost seems amazed to say,
“We’re professionals.”

Dean Ouellet scored the first goal in San Francisco Bulls history. He’s a 25-year-old center from Edmundston, New Brunswick. Of San Francisco, he says, “It’s unbelievable. People are so great here.” He says that the team chemistry is already strong, and veterans Justin Bowers, Scott Langdon, Jordan Morrison, and Hans Benson have been generous with their help. His favorite moments in San Francisco, so far, have been an excursion on the RocketBoat, going to a 49ers game, and seeing a Giants game.

The Bulls are affiliated with the San Jose Sharks. This means that the Sharks have sent the Bulls some players, most notably Taylor Nelson and Thomas Heemskerk, two goalies. The Sharks send coaches to help the Bulls during practice, but they don’t make the day-to-day decisions. The arrangement also means that if the San Francisco Bulls become a stable franchise, fans could see many players advance to the NHL.

There seems to be a lot of money and local influence behind this team. From the slick and informative website (www.sfbulls.com) to their almost-daily ads in the Chronicle, from enticing Bob Weir to sing the National Anthem on opening night to inking a deal to have half of their home games broadcast on Comcast Channel 104, the Bulls are making themselves known in a city that is not lacking for places to have a good time.

But San Franciscans must now ask themselves the unsettling question: Is San Francisco a minor league city? The Giants are here. The Niners are waiting for their McMansion to be constructed in the suburbs while they snobbishly endure the old neighborhood they have called home for 50 years. The Warriors are trying to move into the City. Where does that leave us?

Professional teams have come to view San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, and all the hamlets in between as a single sports region, with nodes of population and nodes of money (the two do not necessarily overlap). That the San Jose Sharks have partnered with the minor league San Francisco Bulls, that the San Francisco Giants control the minor league San Jose Giants, indicates that major league franchises do not feel threatened by the minor leagues, and indeed, believe the minor leagues somehow build up the major league franchises. Perhaps it’s as simple as keeping a close eye on the development of minor league players. But to answer the question, San Francisco is now, in part (gulp), a minor league city.

Among the cynical set of people known as sportswriters, hockey players have, for decades, had a reputation as being approachable, nice, generous, friendly, and willing to talk. Just like San Franciscans, right? These Bulls players, despite being minor league, just might weave themselves into the fabric of this town. If you’re out at a Marina bar and overhear a group of young guys with Canadian accents, go ahead and ask them if they’re with the San Francisco Bulls.

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