PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — For Birmingham Bulls head coach Craig Simchuk, recruiting players to his franchise is a 24/7 job. 

As an independent club in the Southern Professional Hockey League, the Bulls are not affiliated with other teams. Therefore, all skaters on their roster are under contract with the Bulls, and that means it’s up to them on who they acquire. 

“You’re always looking,” Simchuk said. “You’re always checking scores and stats and who’s coming out of a college, who’s available and keeping up to date with different levels, different leagues so you know how guys are doing. You’re always touching base with agents, players. They always say players are our best recruiters, so we’re always asking our guys if they know friends or know ex-teammates from somewhere.”

Though hockey clubs try to keep the same core group of players, rosters change frequently in the minor leagues. The ECHL, which is the circuit that serves the level above the SPHL in North America, has teams affiliated with the NHL and AHL. But because franchises in the ECHL receive just several players at most from those leagues, they fill their squad with their own players. 

That sometimes means ECHL teams acquire players off SPHL rosters. Along with injuries and cuts, the Bulls’ roster is constantly changing. 

When the Bulls seek out new signees, Simchuk said they emphasize development. Despite them losing players to the ECHL, the Bulls want to put their players in a position that will allow them to advance. Simchuk said the Bulls do whatever they can with their ECHL connections to help send skaters up, noting they run their practices like those in the ECHL. 

So far, Bulls forward Jordan Martin has spent time in the ECHL during the 2022-23 season before being returned to Birmingham. Others, like forward Carson Rose and defenseman Mackenzie Dwyer, started the campaign with the Bulls and are currently in the ECHL. 

Another selling point for the Bulls is the environment. They discuss the Birmingham area – which has the largest metropolitan population for any SPHL franchise at 1,115,289 people as of the 2020 U.S. census – plus the fanbase and history behind the Bulls that dates back to the 1970s. 

Austin Lotz, a goaltender, first joined the Bulls in the 2019-20 campaign. Though he’s received a few ECHL call-ups since then, he likes to remain in the Birmingham area with his wife Caitlyn and 4-year-old son Garner year-round. 

“Obviously, the goal is to keep climbing your career up,” Lotz said. “But having a wife and kid, one of the most important things for me is playing in a place where they’re comfortable, and for us, Birmingham has been top notch for that. We couldn’t ask for anything more.”  

Birmingham Bulls goaltender Austin Lotz allows a linesman to take a puck from his glove during a game against the Peoria Rivermen on Feb. 9, 2023.

Lotz’s wife is from Jacksonville, Florida, so she likes the warmer climate in Birmingham compared to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Lotz grew up. Throughout the summer, Lotz not only hunts, fishes and golfs but also conducts one-on-one goalie lessons with those in the area. He said coaching was his main source of income last summer. 

Forward Troy MacTavish is newer to the Bulls, as he joined them at the end of the 2021-22 campaign after finishing his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He agreed to terms with the franchise after his college coach reached out to the Bulls.

The Ottawa, Ontario, product said he decided to stick with the club because of how professional the organization is, from the coaching staff to the trainers and the front office. 

“Everyone treats us with the most respect and obviously, that goes both ways, and that’s what I found really appreciative,” MacTavish said. 

The Bulls average 2,879 fans a night, which is the second lowest figure in the 10-team SPHL. That, however, equates to about 70% of the arena’s capacity, and MacTavish noted it’s fun to play in front of a good atmosphere. 

With 11 games left in the regular season, the Bulls are second in the SPHL. The top eight teams in the SPHL qualify for the President’s Cup Playoffs, and all series are best-of-three. The one time the current Bulls franchise made the playoffs was in 2019 when they made it to the finals and fell to the Huntsville Havoc. 

“Everyone here has the one goal of winning the championship,” Lotz said. “We think Birmingham’s had a lot of championship teams, and we’re kind of the last one not to do it. So we have that mind, and obviously through that, through being a winning team, we also get lots of call-ups. We’ve had a ton this year, so I think most guys have the goal of moving up and progressing their career, and I think Birmingham is a good place to do that.”