BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — The night before his wedding, Matthew Ford was at the Pelham Civic Complex, cheering on the Birmingham Bulls as they faced the Pensacola Ice Flyers.
Ford is a lifelong hockey follower and was one of the first fans to buy season tickets for the current Bulls franchise when they started in 2017. He found a clever way to not miss his local hockey franchise while preparing for his wedding.
On December 28, 2018, Ford’s party rented out the complex’s corporate suite so they could have their rehearsal dinner and watch the game. He’s not the only Bulls supporter to make the franchise an important part of their life.
Kevin Deerman proposed to his girlfriend on January 28, 2022, when the Bulls matched up against the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs. The Bulls front office made sure a camera was pointed right at them for the Kiss Cam. Alabama football announcer Eli Gold commentated the moment live on HockeyTV.
These are just a few examples where an established and growing fanbase have expressed dedicated love for the Bulls despite them being in the unaffiliated, lower-tiered Southern Professional Hockey League. Cheering on their team is not just banging on the glass or taunting the opposing goaltender at games – it’s a part of their identity.
“We’re fanatical,” Bulls fan Vicki Harkness said. “We have a room dedicated to hockey in our house. We have jerseys, hockey sticks, hockey pucks.”
It may not seem like hockey would be a good fit for central Alabama’s humid climate. Football, basketball and baseball take precedent. Though there are winters without snow in Birmingham, the Bulls are performing on and off the ice to connect with their community in a non-traditional hockey market that’s been around for 45 years.
Birmingham hockey’s in-and-out history
The current Bulls are driving in new fans, but there were already a number of local hockey supporters in town because the Bulls had been in the Magic City before.
At two months and 11 days old, Ford saw his first hockey game at the BJCC. His parents owned season tickets behind the visiting bench, and on October 14, 1977, Ford was in tow for the Bulls’ season-opener versus the Houston Aeros.
“I’m sure the smell of hockey players stuck with me,” Ford said. “It’s the worst smell in the world. So, then I was born into it that way. Through all the iterations of professional hockey in the city, we were there.”
The first Bulls charged down to the Yellowhammer State from Canada. Formerly the Toronto Toros, they played in the World Hockey Association, which was a major hockey circuit in the 70s designed to compete with the NHL. The Toros bolted from Maple Leaf Gardens to the brand new BJCC in 1976 at the direction of their owner, John Bassett, who changed their name to the Bulls.
When Clint Scherf — who is the current Bulls front office manager — moved from Chicago to Birmingham in 1973, he told his wife they’d never see hockey again. Yet the sport followed him, and Scherff remembered a huge crowd on opening night on Oct. 8, 1976. The club averaged 8,468 fans in its first season in Birmingham. The talent was immense in a league that hosted some of hockey’s most famous names.
“We saw all the big mean guys,” Scherf said. “The Bobby Hulls, the Gordie Howes and Wayne Gretzky. All those guys who were at the time either still young enough to play in the NHL, or like in Gretzy’s case, brand new to pro hockey because he was a younger guy than the rest of them. So, they all came here in different types of organizations.”
When the WHA folded in 1979, the Bulls stayed in existence and entered the Central Hockey League. The CHL served as a minor league system for NHL clubs. But after an ownership change and dwindling attendance, the Bulls became defunct in February 1981. The Birmingham South Stars emerged in the CHL before the 1982-83 campaign.
They lasted one season in the league before the South Stars switched to the independent Atlantic Coast Hockey League and renamed themselves the Bulls. Financing issues caused the franchise to cease after three regular season contests. Birmingham professional hockey had lost its magic.
Yet, the spell was broken a decade later. Art Clarkson, who owned the Birmingham Barons in the 80s and helped move them to the Hoover Metropolitan Stadium, brought the Bulls back. They would play in the young, mid-tiered, ECHL. They commenced competition in 1992 in a familiar place for Birmingham hockey fans – the BJCC.
Scherf, who was an off-ice official when with the WHA Bulls, continued as an off-ice official. The ECHL Bulls were Ford’s Bulls. Deerman, a current Bulls season ticket holder, became hooked on the 90s Bulls growing up when his parents took him to games.
“The 20-minute period, and it’s just so fast paced,” Deerman said. “There’s not a whistle after every single play. It’s so action packed and fast paced and it’s so exciting. I think if anybody around here, especially in the South where it’s not that big of a sport, but most everybody that goes if they were given a chance they would fall in love with it.”
In their first ECHL season, the Bulls averaged 5,306 fans per game – good for fourth in the league. That number increased to over 6,000 the next campaign.
Yet, by the 1996-97 season, attendance dropped to just above 5,000 per contest. Clarkson sold the franchise in 1998 to the Berkman Group, and the franchise’s decline continued. The Bulls postponed their 1998-99 home-opener because the ice wasn’t properly frozen, and in the 1999-00 slate, the league forced them to forfeit three games because they used an ineligible player.
In the ECHL Bulls’ final season, 2000-01, they drew a mere 2,598 spectators to each game and ownership had enough. George Shinn bought the franchise and moved it to Atlantic City, New Jersey. The Bulls had vanished into thin air once again like a recurring disappearing act.
“There was a void,” Ford said. “It was terrible.”
Instead of driving into downtown Birmingham for hockey, Bulls fans were stuck watching NHL games on their TVs. The slashes and brawls that once complimented Birmingham winters were no longer there. But the Bulls had another act in store, though it was with a long delay.
The Bulls appear in Pelham
On February 20, 2017, Bulls fans rejoiced when it was announced Clarkson signed an agreement with the Pelham Civic Complex to host a professional hockey team after discussions with the BJCC didn’t work out. He was taking another chance at minor league hockey after being disappointed with how it had ended the first time around.
Though the Bulls run over Birmingham hockey history, Pelham housed three short-lived franchises of its own in the late 90s and early 2000s, including the Pelham Prowlers, which won the Southern Elite Hockey League championship in 2000.
It was settled in April that the Bulls would officially join the SPHL for the 2017-18 season, and Bulls nation resumed into action. Ford said he was so scared the Bulls would vanish again he put his season ticket deposit down for that spring.
When Ford asked the front office for the season ticket form, the staff sifted through boxes to find the paper. With the arena undergoing renovations to be a suitable SPHL facility, the section numbers and seats weren’t marked out yet, though Ford knew where he wanted his tickets.
“My girlfriend at the time, she thought I was crazy,” Ford said. “But my dad didn’t. I was planning on going to all my games with my dad, but my now-wife is now a hockey fanatic herself.”
It wasn’t just the fans who instinctively returned to the Bulls. Scherf again joined the off-ice officials for a few seasons before becoming the franchise’s front office manager. He was hesitant at first with the SPHL’s quality, thinking it was a beer league, but realized it had talent when he started watching games.
Joe Stroud interned with the ECHL Bulls and worked his way up to assistant general manager until he left the franchise when Clarkson sold it. Stroud said it was a “no brainer” to work as a vice president for the Bulls when they came back.
Clarkson retired from his managing partner role with the Bulls in June 2019 and died that October. Though the Bulls were without Clarkson, unlike the last time he wasn’t a part of a Bulls organization, they became stronger and continued turning the turnstiles. Stroud was named team president in 2019.
“More and more people are aware that we’re back,” Stroud said. “The first couple years we got a lot of, ‘oh, I didn’t know the Bulls were back.’ Now, a lot more people are being more and more aware, and we get a lot of folks here, and we only have a 4,200 seat arena. So, it doesn’t take much to do it. The support here has been tremendous.”
The new generation of Bulls fans
Like with certain fanbases in baseball and college football, Stroud said the Bulls bring in generational fans with people who attended WHA contests coming with their children and grandchildren. He mentioned with the good in-game production and videos, along with the promotions, everyone is entertained beyond the game itself. Scherf said word of mouth is probably the biggest reason that Bulls support has grown.
Harkness is one of the newer generations of Bulls fans. Though she attended Bulls games in the 90s, she became hooked in the spring of 2021 when she went to her first SPHL Bulls contest with her husband and teenage sons. Harkness said they bought tickets because she wanted to do something fun with her family.
“Everybody was so excited, and it was loud and obnoxious,” Harkness said of that Spring 2021 game.
Now, the Bulls have become a six-month endeavor for Harkness and her husband, who own season tickets and bring additional people with them at least every other home game. Like other devout Bulls followers, they travel to road contests and after parties at Pelham’s Beer Hog. And, to no surprise, the Harknesses and other fans enjoy meeting players at team events.
They usually pick up Harkness’ 8-year-old grandson, Parker Harkness, from Tuscaloosa to take him to the Pelham Civic Complex. Despite living in the Crimson Tide’s backyard, he wears Bulls attire to school.
“They’re always having stuff for kids,” Harkness said. “Everybody that works in that office to the hockey players, they’re all just so good to kids. They’re always signing autographs … I have another grandson that’s autistic, and he loves to watch hockey on TV, but he’s afraid of being in the big crowd. They had us bring him and watch practice, and they turned on the jumbotron for him.”
Last October, the city of Pelham announced they and Bulls operator Birmingham Hockey Club LLC had signed a five-year contract to keep the Bulls at the Pelham Civic Complex. Though there are no guarantees in minor league sports, it appears the Bulls have found their mojo at a durable home.
“Sports teams give towns identities,” Ford said. “Sports is like that. It’s kind of the magic that sports have that it can unite a community. With the Birmingham Bulls, even though we’re not in Birmingham proper, it gives us a more complete identity as a Birmingham sports community.”