PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The last time the Birmingham Bulls competed in the President’s Cup Playoffs, then-captain Craig Simchuk helped lead the franchise to the finals.
Four years later, the Bulls are returning to the playoffs with Simchuk as their head coach. They are the No. 2 seed after finishing the 2022-23 Southern Professional Hockey League regular season with a 37-16-2-2 record. The Bulls will start the postseason Thursday at the seventh-seeded Fayetteville Marksmen in a best-of-three series.
“I love this organization,” Simchuk said. “I’ve been here since day one, and they deserve a championship. So, to go back, to have an opportunity to battle for a championship, it’s a great feeling, and we have a legitimate opportunity. But we have a lot of work ahead of us.”
After the Bulls fell to the Huntsville Havoc in the 2019 President’s Cup Finals, Simchuk became an assistant coach for the club under then-head coach Jamey Hicks. Simchuk took over the reins with Hicks dealing with a family matter in Canada before the 2020-21 campaign. In his first two seasons as their bench boss, the Bulls struggled and missed the postseason, but now Simchuk has returned the franchise to prominence.
Though the Bulls are ending their playoff drought, the postseason isn’t uncharted territory for everyone on the roster. Simchuk said the club will lean on its older skaters who have experience in the President’s Cup Playoffs to show the younger players the ropes. He mentioned Mike Davis, a forward who was with the franchise during its last postseason run and serves as Birmingham’s captain.
Davis said he learned in 2019 that in the playoffs, anyone can win and every line has to be going. At the same time, he said it’s important to just play hockey and not overthink it.
After the Bulls faceoff in Fayetteville, they will compete at the Pelham Civic Complex Saturday and could clinch the series then or in an if-necessary winner-take-all game 3 Sunday. Davis remembers what it was like when the Bulls clinched two playoff series at home in 2019.
“This place was buzzing,” Davis said. “I know the town of Birmingham, I know this place is excited to see playoff hockey again.”
Another experienced skater the Bulls will rely on is forward Stefan Brucato, who participated in the playoffs with the Knoxville Ice Bears multiple times before signing with the Bulls last offseason.
“My message is it’s a short window, and there’s not a lot of mistakes that can happen in a best-of-three series,” Brucato said. “So if you take one loss, then your season can be over the next loss. So that’s what I’m trying to get through to these guys.”
There have been multiple injuries and ECHL call-ups that have affected the Bulls’ roster throughout the campaign. Brucato said despite the Bulls consistently putting out different lineups every night, they stuck with the game plan and their systems, which he said he thinks will help them.
If the Bulls win in the first round, they will advance to the semifinals. All President’s Cup Playoff series are best-of-three.
As head coach, Simchuk is taking into account what he wanted as a skater from his coaches when the stakes were heightened. He said he wants his players to be focused but doesn’t want to overload them.
“Our whole motto and how our approach to the playoffs is worry about us,” Simchuk said. “Control what we can control. We’re all in this together. So, from top to bottom, front office, owners, the rink, we’re all pulling in the same direction. We’re just taking care of business day-by-day.”