As Aces make moves, San Francisco Bulls fold

Doyle Woody
Bob Hallinen

The Alaska Aces did not practice Monday, or even play a hockey game, but they generated news nonetheless -- they assessed the fallout from the San Francisco Bulls folding and had their roster shuffled significantly.

The ECHL and the Bulls announced Monday that the franchise immediately ceased operations after one and a half seasons because of massive debt and the inability to lure new ownership.

For the Aces, who play in the Western Conference that included the Bulls, San Francisco's demise left significant gaps in their schedule. Alaska still had seven games -- four road matches and three at home -- scheduled against the Bulls, matching the Bakersfield Condors for most games left against San Francisco.

Aces managing member Terry Parks said the club has in hand a revamped preliminary schedule designed by the ECHL, and he expects the league to announce the changes Wednesday. Parks said the Aces will still play their allotted 36 home games but will play 70 games overall in the regular season instead of the usual 72.

Parks said all eight Western Conference teams will make the playoffs, and because teams will play an unbalanced schedule, playoff seedings will be determined by regular-season winning percentage.

On the roster front, Aces standout goaltender Olivier Roy was summoned to the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League, as was defenseman Drew MacKenzie. Abbotsford returned winger and Aces alternate captain Jordan Kremyr to Alaska and also assigned defenseman Zach McKelvie to the club.

Minor-league hockey teams folding, suspending operations or moving in-season are rare. The ECHL last ran into teams folding in-season in 2008, when both the Augusta Lynx and Fresno Falcons went bust.

San Francisco coach Pat Curcio, who helped bring hockey back to the Bay Area, last week told the San Francisco Chronicle the franchise lost about $2 million in its debut campaign last season and was on track to eat that much again.

Curcio said on the team's website Monday that a lead on new ownership did not pan out.

"We had a great opportunity come to us that would've kept the Bulls in San Francisco at least through the end of the 2014 season, with potential for future seasons, but we ran out of time to complete all ends of the deal,'' Curcio said. "At this point, the best thing to do financially is to reluctantly end the season. We will miss playing here, miss our fans, and miss the city.''

Parks said the Bulls were in difficult circumstances from the outset. The cost of living in San Francisco is very high. The Bulls played in an old building, the Cow Palace, that wasn't particularly suitable for hockey. The franchise's start-up expenses were high and attendance declined precipitously in its second season.

After averaging 4,164 fans per home game last season at the Cow Palace to finish 10th in average attendance among 23 teams, the Bulls this season averaged 2,292 fans through 18 home games. That plunge of 45 percent left the Bulls 21st out of 22 ECHL teams in average attendance.

"It was a bad situation,'' Parks said. "We hate to see them go.''

Sharply declining attendance similarly plagued Fresno in the 2008-09 season, when the club folded a few days before Christmas. The Falcons averaged 5,035 fans per home game in 2007-08, but that declined nearly 35 percent, to 3,284, before the team ceased operations.

All Bulls players who were under ECHL contracts -- those are strictly one-year deals -- immediately became free agents.

As for the Aces, who Wednesday night open a three-game home series against the Idaho Steelheads at Sullivan Arena, Roy's promotion to Abbotsford will test veteran goaltender Gerald Coleman.

Coleman on Saturday night in Colorado backstopped a 4-1 win with 27 saves in his third appearance since offseason hip surgery. He has yet to play games on consecutive nights this season, and this week will likely start three games in four nights against the Steelheads, who the Aces also play Friday and Saturday.

"He said he's ready to play,'' Aces coach Rob Murray said of Coleman. "At least we're not playing three (games) in three (days). We have Thursday off. It makes a difference. But I would say it's a push for him.''

Murray said he will likely use an emergency back-up goaltender to fill his roster against Idaho.

Kremyr's return will lend depth to the Aces' depleted crew of forwards. Winger Evan Trupp remains up with Abbotsford, and forwards David Eddy, Andy Taranto and Tim Coffman have been out with injuries.

Murray said McKelvie is a defenseman by trade, but Abbotsford has been transitioning him to forward. Still, Murray said, with defenseman James Martin out with a lower-body injury suffered last week in Colorado, he will play McKelvie on defense to start his stint with the Aces.

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