Bulls off to strong start in unique hockey season

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INDEPENDENCE DAY
July 04 2021 12:00 am

PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The Birmingham Bulls sit in second place in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL) standings through six games, and they have a chance to claim first place this weekend.

But it may not be their biggest accomplishment, so far. The Bulls have been forced to postpone just one game in a season beset by an ongoing pandemic. Team president Joe Stroud credits a team approach that extends well beyond the guys on the ice.

“It’s really been a collaborative effort from the city to the building to our fans,” he said. “And they’ve all done a great job.”

SPHL COVID-19 strategies started taking shape in June, when, according to Stroud, league leaders began holding weekly conference calls with teams. After cutting last season short, they decided to start this season late and returned in late December with safety protocols. Stroud calls it the longest offseason of his sports career.

“No matter what you do, you can’t be 100% sure you’re not getting this virus,” Stroud said. “But we’re taking every precaution we can, and it has changed things in really a lot of ways.”

One change will play out tonight at the Pelham Civic Complex. The Bulls were originally scheduled to host Macon, but the Mayhem couldn’t travel due to COVID-19, so the league added Huntsville in their place.

“You have cases from time to time, and it does affect your schedule,” Stroud said. “But we all have to be flexible this year. It’s one thing we agreed on as a league.”

Last-minute opponent changes aren’t as jarring as one might expect. With only five teams playing this season, familiarity is thick, and the Bulls were already preparing to welcome Huntsville Saturday. Now they’ll play back-to-back nights.

“It kind of takes our focus off having to worry about two different teams and just having to worry about one,” Stroud said.

Players and staff have lived in a pseudo-bubble this year. It’s not as restrictive as what the NBA did in 2020, but there are limitations on where they can go and with whom they can interact. Certain restaurants, for example, are approved based on the extent of their safety procedures.

Fans also are expected to follow safety guidelines. At the Pelham Civic Complex, masks are required, temperatures are taken and social distancing is encouraged. There’s also a capacity limit, so the Havoc won’t face as big an opposing crowd as they typically do in Pelham. Of course, that doesn’t mean the crowd will be friendly to the in-state rivals.

“I just heard where they think we’re their little brother,” Stroud said. “So I think we need to show them something different this weekend.”

The Bulls and Havoc face off tonight at 7:30. Puck drop Saturday night is at 7.

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