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. "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 has 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 for their first two seasons.
Minor league sports in a major league area can be risky, but 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 downsized 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 8-12-1-2 overall but 6-3 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 bull's-eye. Unlike the Sharks, the Bulls have hired "ice girls." A video that uses San Francisco scenes to introduce the team is first class.
The Bulls have had a few growing pains on the ice. They lost six straight on a nine-game trip before rebounding with five wins in the next six, all at home. That momentum stalled when San Francisco went back on the road last week and picked up only one point of a possible six.
The Bulls are a San Jose affiliate, and Sharks forward Ryane Clowe is 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."
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 included goalies Thomas Heemskerk and Taylor Nelson, forwards Marek Viedensky and Mikael Tam, and defenseman Daniil Tarasov -- San Jose prospects squeezed out of jobs in Worcester, the Sharks' top development team, where Tam was recalled over the weekend.
Playing close to San Jose means young players get a closer look from the Sharks front office. Assistant general manager Wayne Thomas was there for a recent 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 is one difference fans notice between the NHL and ECHL, said Clowe, who isn't playing for the Bulls 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. "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."