The Sharks and the Bay Area's newest hockey team tied the knot Wednesday as the San Francisco Bulls became San Jose's affiliate in the ECHL.
The Bulls open their inaugural season Oct. 12 at the same Cow Palace where the Sharks played their first two seasons and Pat Curcio — who serves as the team's CEO, general manager and coach — called the new partnership "an incredible honor."
"It's been our dream since we started this project," said Curcio, 38, who played and coached hockey in the minors and Europe before his start-up work with the Bulls.
Sharks assistant general manager Wayne Thomas said the two teams "share the same passion to put a strong, competitive product on the ice, as well as being an active member in our shared Bay Area communities."
The caliber of play in the ECHL is considered one step below the AHL, where the Sharks primary development team plays in Worcester. For the past two seasons, San Jose and the Edmonton Oilers have shared an ECHL affiliate in Stockton.
"It's huge," he said of the fact his team and the Sharks now have an exclusive arrangement. "It's a win-win for the NHL and for us."
An NHL affiliation benefits the Bulls because it means an upgrade in talent as the Sharks can provide as many as six skaters and two goalies. The ECHL has a strict weekly salary cap of $525 per player, but NHL prospects can earn more than that while playing in that league as they are paid by the parent
The primary benefit to NHL teams has been the opportunity to give goaltending prospects competition just below the AHL level. Last year, for example, Sharks prospects Alex Stalock and Thomas Heemskerk played a combined 31 games in Stockton. Past ECHL goalies now in the NHL include Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes and Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals.
"If you look at San Jose right now, they're real deep in goaltending," Curcio said. "We're optimistic we can have two of their goaltenders here full-time."
The Bulls are one of 23 teams in the ECHL, a league that began as the East Coast Hockey League and kept those initials even as it expanded as far west as Alaska. Four teams — San Francisco, Stockton, Bakersfield and Ontario — are in California.
Tom Pederson, a former Sharks defenseman who was a teammate of Curcio's in Germany, has joined the Bulls as an assistant coach. Only one player has been signed, Peter Slivak, 30, a right wing from Slovakia who has played 13 years in their and in the Czech Republic's top league.
The Bulls are counting on the Bay Area market to support both the NHL product and a lower-cost alternative. Individual ticket prices at the Cow Palace, for example, range from $12.25 to $41 with season-ticket holders getting a small discount.
Curcio said the team has already invested more than $2 million for improvements at the Cow Palace including a new scoreboard and renovated locker rooms.
In addition to Curcio and his wife, the primary investor in the team is Shmuel Fahri, a London, Ontario, real estate developer. But Curcio noted there are local owners as well in his group including Kevin O'Brien, president of the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and former general manager at KTVU-Channel 2.
For more on the Sharks, see David Pollak's Working the Corners blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/sharks.