A Brief History of the Birmingham Bulls (and what could have been)
June 3rd, 2017. 17, 500 screaming fans fill the arena. A sea of gold towels wave throughout the air. A live band is playing southern rock and country music for the crowd. They aren’t here to see the musicians though. The real show is on the ice sheet below. Stanley Cup Final Game 3. Nashville is playing host to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Predators won their first finals game in franchise history in front of a raucous home crowd. June 3rd, 2017. The night when Nashville submitted it’s claim as the ‘Hockey Capital of the South’. This wasn’t always a certainty though.
The NHL began to target southern markets in 1972 when they put an expansion franchise in Atlanta partially in a bid to keep the upstart WHA from targeting the Atlanta market. Instead, the WHA moved into Birmingham four years later. The Birmingham Bulls were born specifically to spite the NHL. Despite not having much success on the ice, The World Hockey Association Bulls managed to attract a cult following to the BJCC. They played a physical brand of hockey that was considered tough even for the era. The WHA era Bulls set penalty minute records that still stand today. They had tons of young talent that made them exciting to watch. The Bulls attempted to recruit Wayne Gretzky to the team, but fell just short of recruiting the player that would turn into the greatest of all time. Despite high attendance numbers, the Bulls were left out of the NHL-WHA merger in 1979 due to the NHL’s lack of faith in southern markets. This lack of faith also led to Atlanta relocating to Calgary a year later. This decision has forever shaped the sports landscape in Birmingham. Birmingham has never had another major league franchise. It is certainly worth wondering if the Bulls would have survived in the NHL, but the team had steady ownership and deep pockets during this era.
Despite folding in 1981 after trying to join the CHL, the Bulls were revived by Art Clarkson in 1992, but now played their hockey in the ECHL. They still played what had been defined two decades earlier as Southern Hockey. Physical. Chippy. Hard Nosed. Grindy. The style was still extremely popular in Birmingham even if it was criticized by others in the league at the time. No player better defined this than the Captain, Jerome Bechard. Bechard was drafted by the Hartford Whalers, but never made it to the NHL. After bouncing around the minors, Jerome finally found a long term home in the South, first in Birmingham and then in Columbus, Georgia. Bechard was beloved by the fans in the Iron City and given the nickname, “Get Out of My Yard Bechard” by the Birmingham faithful for sticking up for his teammates by dropping the gloves.
“I loved my time in Birmingham. I loved the guys I played with. The crowd was always super supportive.” Bechard said, “We didn’t always win, but we always gave everyone a show, and I think the crowd really appreciated that.”
When the Bulls left Birmingham in 2001, it signaled the end of an era for southern hockey. The NHL had come back to the south in the mid 1990s putting teams in Miami, Dallas, Tampa, Nashville, Atlanta, and Raleigh. Birmingham was no longer the center of the hockey world south of the Mason Dixon line. In their absence, remaining southern minor league markets organized into a league of their own for travel and rivalry purposes.
The Bulls didn’t return until 2017. Due to disagreements between ownership and the BJCC, This new reincarnation of the Bulls plays in the Pelham Civic Complex, a small ice skating rink 20 minutes south of Birmingham proper. The building only holds 3,000 people, but the small environment isn’t a bad thing. The metal bleachers help amplify crowd noise, especially when fans stomp on the metal stairs. Section 208 leads crowd chants against the opposing goalie, the refs, and whoever else gets in the way of their team on the ice. It is a perfect building for the team that has always had a cult following in a city where football is king.
Despite only coming back in the last five years, Birmingham has made up for lost time with one rival in particular. Any time the Huntsville Havoc come to town, the Pelham Civic Complex is packed with fans from both sides. While the rivalry has been dominated by Huntsville, Birmingham fans have embraced their arch-rival 90 minutes to the north. It isn’t uncommon to see shirts depicting the “Battle for Bama” with messages like “BHAM > HNV” on the front. The players themselves have embraced the rivalry as well. Birmingham and Huntsville have more penalty minutes against each other than any other pair of teams in the league. Line brawls are common, and any whistle leads to a crowd gathering in front of the net.
This incarnation of the Bulls is in its 5th season now. While the Bulls had one year where they made the SPHL finals, they have been a bottom feeder for the most part. To solve this problem, Bulls management decided to bring in a brand new coaching staff, headlined by former captains Jerome Bechard and Craig Simchuk. While Bechard only was around for the first half of the season, Craig Simchuk has had some success during his short time as head coach of the Bulls. Under Simchuk, The Bulls have returned to playing a fast paced, physical style of hockey that has been a staple of previous Bulls teams.
“We just try to go out there and play hard for sixty minutes. Finishing checks and wearing teams down is how we want to play the game, and I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.” Simchuk commented.
While the team still has a cult following, It’s having a hard time attracting new fans. While many people love to watch hockey, The twenty minute drive down I-65 is a big turn off for certain people. Another key to this is the high ticket prices just to get in the door. The cheapest seat in the building is $15, while a burger at the concession stand will run you another ten. It’s just too expensive for families to afford on a regular basis.
“I’d go to more games, but fifteen dollars is alot of money just to watch a game for 2 hours.” said Caleb Harris, a junior at Samford.
While this incarnation of the Bulls is different in scale and location than its predecessors in the ECHL and WHA, many things are still the same. The play on the ice is physical and fast. The crowd is still rowdy when Huntsville comes to town. It’s a really fun time. While Birmingham could have been the hockey capital of the south, fans are just glad that the Iron City is home to the Bulls once again.