Birmingham hockey experience more like family gathering than game
By Gary Lloyd
PELHAM – It was fitting to cover a Birmingham Bulls hockey game the day before Thanksgiving, because the atmosphere inside the Pelham Civic Complex felt more like a family gathering than a game.
“You feel like you’re coming to a Thanksgiving,” says Tom Waldrop, a Bulls fan since his days as a team stick boy in the 1970s. “Everybody you know is here. You may not see them every year, you may not see them every day, but you see them at the core events, and here you go.”
Some in attendance Wednesday had followed the Bulls from 1976-1981 as kids, when the team was part of the World Hockey Association. They saw five losing seasons, the last of which ended because the team folded before completing the season. When the organization returned in 1992 as part of the East Coast Hockey League, many fans again followed the team, now bringing their kids to games.
Waldrop’s father had season tickets in the 1970s. Like many kids in Alabama, Waldrop was drawn to baseball. But after an Atlanta Braves game in the 1980s, he was told by a player to get away from him when he sought an autograph. Three nights later, seeking an autograph from a Bulls hockey player, he left with twelve signatures.
“Nobody shunned me,” Waldrop says. “Nobody pushed me away.”
He was hooked on hockey from that point forward. He knew little of the game, but he had fun. It was exciting and fast paced. Waldrop got season tickets in the 1990s.
The Bulls won fifty games during the 1993-1994 season and lost in the third round of the playoffs. From that season through the 2000-2001 season, the Bulls had three winning seasons at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex. Then, the Bulls were gone again. Waldrop worked for the Birmingham Slammers, Alabama Gunners, and Pelham Prowlers in the Bulls’ absence.
But in February 2017, the Pelham City Council agreed to lease the Pelham Civic Complex and Ice Arena for a Southern Professional Hockey League team to begin play in October 2017. The Bulls, after sixteen years, were back again.
“When we heard the Bulls were coming back it was bittersweet,” says Josiah Burdette, a lifelong fan. “We knew that it would bring back memories, both good and bad, including the passing of both of my mom’s parents. We decided to all get together and go to the season opener of the inaugural season because they were honoring a lot of the legends from back in the day. We went to say ‘Remember when,’ but we all were quickly bitten by the hockey bug and all developed a new, fresh love of hockey again.”
Burdette’s maternal grandfather, Frank Vanderhart, was affiliated with the team when it was the Toronto Toros. When the franchise relocated to Birmingham in 1976, Burdette’s mom started working at the BJCC, where she met Gloria Burdette, who worked in the ticket office. Gloria introduced Burdette’s mom to her son, and the two married shortly thereafter.
“I tell people all the time, if it weren’t for the Birmingham Bulls, we literally wouldn’t be alive. We went to every game in the ‘90s as a family, and now are all grown and get to bring our own kids to the games,” Burdette says.
Vaughn Harris, whose wife, Ambre, is a Burdette, has season tickets to Bulls games. He grew up going to games and now brings his family to each home game.
“It’s a part of the heritage,” Harris says. “It’s a memory I have of when I was a little kid. Now I’m able to bring my kids. It’s now three generations of Bulls.”
As a kid during the 1990s, Burdette went to games, had players over to the house for birthdays and Thanksgiving, and more. He remembers his Papa driving the Zamboni during intermissions.
“Now that the team is back, I am making new memories, this time as a father bringing my son and daughter to the games with us,” he says. “Watching my son develop a strong love for hockey is probably what tops it all.”
Steven York, a fan who sits in Section 108, better known as Section 10H8, was five years old in 2000 when he attended his first Bulls game. He was ecstatic when the Bulls made the return to Birmingham.
“I never would have imagined I would be at another Bulls game, and when I found out that they were coming back I knew I would be the first in line for the home opener,” York said. “And that’s exactly what happened. I was the first to walk through the door and as soon as I walked in it brought back the memory of that day when I was five.”
Josh Argo, also a lifelong Bulls fan, watched his dad work as a member of the ice crew in the 1990s.
“We were faithful fans in Section 32 at the BJCC until their departure after the 2000-2001 season,” Argo says. “My mom also served on the ice crew the last two seasons, and I also volunteered those last two seasons. We were absolutely devastated when they were relocated to Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was our lifeblood. Everyone around us ate, drank, slept, breathed Alabama-Auburn, but we were Bulls hockey.”
Argo’s last statement speaks to the passion of the Bulls fan base. In a week of headlines dominated by the Iron Bowl, Tua Tagoaviloa’s Heisman Trophy odds, Gus Malzahn’s job status, and Nick Saban’s legacy, the fans at the Pelham Civic Complex on Wednesday, clad in red-and-black Bulls jerseys, were more concerned with how the Macon Mayhem, another SPHL team, was performing against the Pensacola Ice Flyers.
As the 2005-2006 National Hockey League season played out, Argo’s family went on its biggest family vacation ever, to Disney World. One night, the family dined at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Grill.
“This evening proved to be the best, most memorable night because we sat at a table, watched hockey on TV and reminisced about our Bulls,” Argo says. “We were in the ‘Greatest Place on Earth’ and we felt most at home watching the ‘Greatest Sport on Earth’ and talking about our Bulls.”
About five years ago, Argo told his mom, “They’re coming back. I just feel it.”
“Maybe it was still the kid in me with that sliver of hope that I would get to relive the best memories of my childhood,” he says.
And then, early last year, the announcement came that the Bulls were back in town. It came at a particularly important time for Argo, who lost two grandparents in a span of two weeks. He says his family was heartbroken during that tough time. But, in the midst of it all, the Bulls’ return was a gleam of hope.
“I remember my parents FaceTiming us to tell us that they had reserved our season tickets and it just felt so right. In the midst of a terribly rough season, the Bulls were, in a way, our rock,” Argo says. “It was something special to our family that definitely played a part in bringing us closer together yet again. The Bulls are really special to us because my dad got to experience the return in the ‘90s when I was four or so and got to raise his kids on the game and the Bulls. And now I get to raise my kids, ages 2 and 4 currently, on the Bulls as well. It is quickly becoming their sports lifeblood as well and means something more than just a single A sports team for the Argo family. It has and will always hold a very special place in our heart and memories and has been there for us in times of struggle and times of need. It has brought us close to some very special people – Section 32 in the ‘90s and now the famous Section 108 – who love our kids and that means something special to us as well.”
These fans are avid, especially in Section 108. With a Bulls win over the Evansville Thunderbolts and a Mayhem loss Wednesday night, the two teams would be tied for the SPHL points lead, the top two teams in the ten-team league.
“The start to this season has been surreal,” Burdette says. “After suffering through most of last season, passionately cheering for a team that was not winning, it has been an incredible experience being fans of one of the best teams in the league. The team has a middle-of-the-season type chemistry and they are all playing at a high level and really complimenting each other well.”
Ahead of Wednesday night’s game, the Bulls were 9-0 to start the season. Last season, the team posted a 21-34 record.
Before two minutes of the game had even passed, Taylor Dickin scored to put the Bulls up 1-0 over Evansville. Kasey Kulczycki scored midway through the first period, Evan Schultz found the net two minutes into the second period, and Dickin’s second goal gave Birmingham a 4-0 lead at the 12:15 mark of the second period. Evansville scored on a power play late in the second period, but the Bulls again answered, this time just over a minute into the third period, when Mike Davis found the net. Evansville scored two more goals in the final period, and the Bulls won, 5-3.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, fans from the popular 108 section chanted, “10-0!” The Mayhem lost 2-1 to the Ice Flyers, leaving the two tied atop the SPHL standings. The Bulls’ 9-0 start to the season set an SPHL record for most wins to start a season. The SPHL record for an overall win streak was set by the Peoria Rivermen in 2015-2016, when the team won 14 straight. It appears these Bulls have something special.
“I remember the opening puck drop last November and hearing ‘Birmingham, let’s play hockey!’ and remembering as a kid when I thought those were the last four words of the Star-Spangled Banner, and realizing that my kids might make the same mistake,” Argo says. “That was a truly special night and this season is proving to be very special as well. With the run they’re making, this team appears to have what it takes to do something the ‘70s or ‘90s Bulls never did. Win a championship.”
A championship would be monumental for a hockey team that is on its third try in a Southern city dominated by football. A championship would mean recognition and legitimacy as a franchise. It would also mean a strengthening and increasing fan base, which may be more important.
“Hockey is family,” Harris says. “That’s pretty much all it is around here. Hockey is a big family no matter where you go. It’s a home away from home. The only way I can describe (what winning a championship would mean) is magical. It’s something that’s been attempted before numerous times before to have a successful hockey team here. To actually win the cup would be amazing. It would show that Birmingham is definitely a very, very strong hockey town.”
Hockey does not get the headlines or air time in much of the South. Football does, even in winter. Hockey deserves a chance. Maybe the third time will be the charm for the Bulls in Birmingham.
“The way that I explain it to people is if you watch it on TV, it’s kind of boring because they follow the puck,” Waldrop says. “But if I’m not a fan, come to the game. See the excitement. See the pace of the game.”
A young father and his sons sat behind Harris for the final few minutes of Wednesday night’s game. Harris knew the man, who said he had only recently started attending Bulls games. Harris leaned back in his chair in Section 208 and asked one of the boys, “Having fun, bud?”
The boy nodded and said, “Yes.”
“Good,” Harris said, and he smiled.