What’s old — or perhaps what once was put on ice – is new again in Birmingham.
The Birmingham Bulls hockey team is coming back to town after it was announced last week that it will be the newest member of the Southern Professional Hockey League for the 2017-18 season.
The man who brought professional hockey back to Birmingham has some experience in this endeavor. It was Art Clarkson, back in 1992, who successfully brought hockey back to the city after 11 years off the ice. This time it was a 16-year gap, but Clarkson has done it again.
“I am very proud of what we have accomplished in this last year to bring the Birmingham Bulls back to the people of the greater Birmingham area,” Clarkson said in a statement.
Clarkson is now responsible for the two most recent iterations of the Birmingham Bulls, but the hockey legacy in Birmingham extends back over 40 years.
Before Clarkson, there was John Bassett, who first brought professional hockey to Birmingham, having moved the Toros of the World Hockey Association from Toronto in 1976. Bassett renamed the team the Bulls, and they were part of the final three seasons of the WHA, playing games at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Center, before the league merged with the NHL after the 1979 season.
In their three years in the WHA, the Bulls made the playoffs just once, in the 1977-78 season, losing in the quarterfinals to the Winnipeg Jets. The WHA would send four teams into the NHL for the 1979-80 season, but the Bulls proved to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The NHL was not yet prepared for the southern expansion that exploded in the 1990s – indeed, the first of two Atlanta franchises, the Flames, were on the verge of its moving to Calgary in the late 1970s.
So while small market franchises like Hartford and Edmonton were absorbed into the NHL, the Bulls were relegated to the Central Hockey League, where they played for two more seasons before disbanding.
Before the WHA disbanded, the Bulls almost made a historic signing, making a heavy push for a prospect named Wayne Gretzky. The future Great One eventually signed with Edmonton, but the Bulls would bring in future NHL stars like Michel Goulet, Rob Ramage and Rod Langway. Ramage would go on to be the first overall selection, by Colorado, in the 1979 NHL Draft. Goulet would be the last Bull to play in the NHL, retiring after the 1993-94 season.
Because of many of these signings—and despite the Bulls’ 32-42-6 record in 1979—coach John Brophy was named the final coach of the year in WHA history.
Birmingham would go 11 seasons before hockey would return to the city, thanks to Clarkson, already the owner of the successful Birmingham Barons (Class AA; Southern League) baseball team. In 1992, Clarkson moved the Cincinnati Cyclones of the East Coast Hockey League to Birmingham, where they would also play in the Jefferson Convention Center until 2001. The Bulls were affiliated first with the New Jersey Devils and later the Florida Panthers
Former Bulls player Phil Roberto became head coach in 1993 and led the Bulls to their best season in the ECHL, reaching the league semifinals.
Clarkson owned the team from 1992-1998, and after the 2000-01 season, new majority owner Charles Felix sold the club to Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn, who moved the team to Atlantic City, N.J.
Now Clarkson and the Bulls are back, set to play in the Pelham Civic Complex Ice Arena.
“We are excited to welcome the Birmingham market as a new member for next season,” SPHL President Jim Combs said in a statement. “Art Clarkson is well-known for his contributions to hockey in this area and we look forward to bringing hockey back to long-time fans of the Birmingham Bulls.”
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