The big barrel of a man with the bushy white beard stood up onstage and stared down at the judges. "My song of choice is a traditional Scottish folk song," he said, and then rumbled the tune until a woman sitting in the front row of the audience held up a glossy picture of a hockey player in a bright-orange jersey to signify that the man's 30 seconds were up.
"That was operatic," said one of the four judges, Vicki Liviakis, an anchor at KRON 4 News. "Do you sing opera?"
"I used to, yeah," the man said. His tone was half-humble, half-hostile, like that of a surly teen receiving a compliment from an aunt.
I couldn't really blame him. He seemed pretty legit, sort of in the booming Rene Rancourt mold, and you would think he'd be the type of guy who gets booked to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" before sporting events via more traditional channels — agents, phone calls, old opera connections, etc.
And yet here he was, up on the Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water Center Stage at Pier 39 at San Francisco's tourist-trappy Fisherman's Wharf, in front of a small but supportive crowd, participating in an open tryout to be one of six winners selected to sing the national anthem at the start of a minor league ice hockey game.
The event was being held by the San Francisco Bulls, the newest franchise in the ECHL, to drum up some enthusiasm and publicity for their first season, which begins October 12. This marriage of minor league hockey — the Bulls play in a league that is two tiers down from the NHL — with an American Idol–esque singing competition was as wonderfully campy as it sounds.
Each contestant got 30 seconds to warble a part of the national anthem, and another 30 for whatever song they wanted. An enthusiastic young man brought his own background music, got the crowd clapping, and did "King of Wishful Thinking." Another guy explained that he chose "Bridge Over Troubled Water" because it's one of the songs he's warmed up with before doing the anthem at San Francisco Giants games. We had a ringer in our midst!
One girl's out-of-tune "Oh say can you see" made much more sense in the context of her pretty bang-on "Me and Bobby McGee." A little boy named Jerren, who couldn't have been much older than 6, stole hearts with his patriotic rendition as the Bulls' mascot, an orange steer named Rawhide, swayed encouragingly behind him.
"I'm gonna do a gospel song," said one contestant, who was wearing fuzzy red socks under rugged sandals. "It's called, 'His Eye Is on the Sparrow,' from Sister Act." He got so blissed out that he ignored the woman holding up the 30-second warning sign, singing on until the organizers decided to cut off his mic. "Any Christians in the house?" he yelled out, unamplified.
After each performance, San Francisco Bulls employee Jason Lockhart interviewed the contestants, Seacrest-style. "You told me beforehand you were freaking out!" he said to one woman reassuringly. "Why were you freaking out?"
"I was — my heart was freaking out!" she said, and then things got real. "I have a rare heart condition."
Like many on the staffs of small start-ups, Lockhart pulls double duty. He's the "Voice of the Bulls" as well as being the director of media relations. He vigorously emceed the anthem tryouts, even belting out a tune himself at one point; minutes later he was huddled over a laptop in the adjacent sports bar, writing the press release about the event.
You could say that his boss, Pat Curcio, also (to use HR speak) wears many hats. Curcio played on the minor league and European hockey circuit for a decade and has coached in juniors and in the ECHL since 2001. Now, he is the Bulls' president and general manager. He's the head coach as well. And, along with his wife Elouise and a consortium of other investors, he's a co-owner of the team.
He's also its biggest cheerleader. Curcio is the kind of glowering guy who seems intimidating until you talk to him, at which point he's effusive. (Go here and click on his name to see some photos from his overseas playing days; you'll get what I mean.) Within minutes of meeting me, he was pulling out his phone to show off pictures of the new icing system he'd had installed at the Bulls' arena, and the new locker rooms, and the new giant Jumbotron. He explained that it was here at Pier 39 that he'd gotten the idea for the franchise's name.
"We couldn't get the Seals," he said, meaning the rights to the name. "Then someone said, a male seal is called a bull."
The Bulls will play at the aptly named Cow Palace, an arena in Daly City, at the southern border of San Francisco. (It was Curcio's wife, Elouise, who, according to Kukla's Korner, first took notice of the underused arena while on a business trip to San Francisco.) One woman who came by for autographs wrinkled her nose and asked if the arena, which holds the Grand National Rodeo every year, smelled like cows. Bulls staffers assured her it did not.
The venue has held hockey before, but never for long. The old San Francisco Seals played there in the early '60s before moving to Oakland and becoming the more inclusive "California Seals." The San Francisco Shamrocks of the Pacific Hockey League were there from 1977 to 1979. The NHL's Sharks played in Cow Palace for their first two seasons, then decamped to San Jose in 1993. (Bulls assistant coach Tom Pederson, whom Curcio knew from playing in Germany, was on those early Sharks squads.) The ill-fated San Francisco Spiders of the now-defunct IHL existed for a lone year before closing up shop completely in 1996.
It's an uncertain place and time to be launching a new hockey franchise. Locally, one of the few rinks in the Bay Area, San Mateo's Ice Center, will likely have to cease operations when its lease expires next year. (Kristi Yamaguchi, who grew up skating at the Ice Center, announced that her Always Dream Foundation would be partnering with the Bulls.) And while the San Jose Sharks (with whom the Bulls are affiliated) have been one of the most consistent teams in the NHL, it's unclear when their season will even begin.
The NHL is in the midst of a labor battle that may well cause the cancellation of a few weeks, a few months, or [shivering] longer. On the one hand, this is kind of a good thing: The ECHL operates under a separate bargaining agreement and would go on unaffected by an NHL lockout, giving it "only game in town" potential. But an NHL lockout would be damaging to the sport of hockey in general — particularly at a time when so much positive momentum has been building.
Still, Curcio is optimistic, and says that the Bay Area location is particularly helpful in one aspect: recruiting. "I'm most surprised at how many people I've had to say no to," he said. The Bulls have signed 11 players so far, and are holding open tryouts in late September. All 84 slots were sold out in two days. (The team will also have auditions in a few weeks for "ice girls," an announcement for which they've taken a bit of heat from the Northern California community.)
Two of the newly inked players were on hand at Pier 39, and both appeared to have been spat out from some sort of minor league hockey player generator. One was Hans Benson, the team's enforcer ("protector," as Curcio calls him), who grew up in Menlo Park, California, and has the warm, manic eyes of a man who would be equally at home breaking your nose or giving you a brotherly noogie. An older couple who had known him since he was a kid stopped by to say hello. The woman told him how she was recently switching her old VHS tapes to DVD and watched some old footage of his younger days. "It was like, Benson, two minutes for this, two minutes for that!" she said, laughing.
The other was Peter Slivak, a 30-year-old Slovakian winger who was the team's first player signing this summer. The move made sense for him because his wife is a doctor in the Bay Area, Curcio said. As it turns out, his wife has also had to play the part of Slivak's de facto translator lately; he came to the States not knowing a lick of English. He's getting accustomed, but slowly: When Curcio called him over to introduce me, Slivak took off his jersey, folded it, and handed it to me. I'm pretty sure he thought I worked for the team.
Minor league sports in general, and hockey in particular, are inherently comic thanks to the big personalities and the sparse budgets within. But they're also raw and earnest and sweet. They're not about the money (because when they are, they typically won't last for long) so much as they're about the love, however inconvenient or sloppy or ultimately unrequited, of the game.
In contrast to their bigger-league counterparts, there's something wonderfully goofy about these ECHL teams. My parents had season tickets to the league's Trenton Titans in the late 90s, and I used to love having them around. My brother and I both took skating and hockey lessons from guys on the Titans during their off days. Games were always a fun time, with the surprisingly into-it fans, the colorful local sponsors, and the wacky promotions. (I asked Curcio whether it was true that his own arsenal would include a mechanical bull. "We're working on the bull," he said with a cryptic smile.)
So it really was no surprise to me when the day dissolved, like a Dalí painting, into the absurd. Six winners were chosen — seven, actually; young Jerren got a surprise bonus nod. At the conclusion of a performance by a magician called Al Catraz, the lucky seven were ushered together onstage for photos. They stood, smiles frozen, a motley crew of found talent.
Among them was Jimmy Leslie, who wore a fedora, brought a guitar, and had put his own acoustic spin on the anthem. (There's always one.) There was Ariel Bowser, whom everyone agreed had been the best of the day. The bearded baritone whom I had considered a shoo-in walked away with his wife disappointed, their big faces set in grim lines.
Another winner, Keith Love, had earlier, before his audition, gushed something at Judge Vicki about how she's made him want to do LASIK (I wasn't sure, but I gathered that she either shills for or just generally raves about the procedure on TV), which had prompted her to gush back, after he finished: "If you need to fix the eyes, go for that LASIK, but don't do anything to that voice!" You could tell she'd been letting that one marinate for the entirety of Keith Love's winning minute onstage.
I went into the sports bar. "So which of them won?" demanded a waitress.
"Well, six of them won," I said. "Actually, wait, it was seven. That cute little kid ... "
"I thought there was going to be just one person," she whined. She had some kind of colorful star pattern shaved into one side of her head and seemed legitimately disappointed by this outcome.
Later, a guy sat down near me at the bar, and everyone greeted him: "What's up, Rawhide?" It was, I realized, the man beneath the mascot suit. Sitting next to him in his civilian clothes wasn't quite as traumatic as actually witnessing him, say, take off his big furry head live would have been, but it was close. I asked how long he'd been, um
" working from the home office?" he filled in for me, smirking.
And I have no idea what he said after that, sorry. I was too busy internally laughing and feeling overwhelmed with how happy I am to have some good old totally zany minor league hockey back in my life.