PELHAM, Ala. — The Pelham Civic Center was abuzz with excitement. Packed to near capacity with 3,471 fans, both fans of the Birmingham Bulls and the Huntsville Havoc faithful who made the trip down Interstate 65 to witness the first championship series game in the decades-long history of professional hockey in the state of Alabama.
The magnitude of the match was not lost on Pelham Mayor Gary Waters, a crucial advocate of the construction – and refitting – of the Pelham Civic Center as an ice hockey venue, rather than a firefighting museum. Waters, a former firefighter, expressed his initial desire to maintain a home for the sport after the departure of the ECHL Birmingham Bulls to Atlantic City in 2001. “I thought it was important to keep the sport alive and it’s a proud moment to see these two great teams playing in such an important game,” said Waters.
The history of Birmingham hockey was well represented Friday night, with all three Birmingham Bulls captains over the ECHL and SPHL eras in the building. Former Bulls captain Jerome Bechard – the former Columbus Cottonmouths coach – was in the building, signing autographs and dropping the ceremonial puck prior to the start of the contest. Jamey Hicks, now the coach of the Bulls and the newly-named SPHL Coach of the Year and the architect of the Bulls’ quick resurgence, was behind the bench with current captain Craig Simchuk on the ice.
In the SPHL, the Bulls and Havoc quickly became intense, yet friendly, rivals. The two teams, located less than two hours apart, have featured the kind of games as well as the witty banter between fan bases which is reminiscent of the Alabama/Auburn rivalry. “If you’re from outside the south, you don’t realize how popular hockey is down here and how much the fans care about the game,” said Havoc Head Coach Glenn Detulleo.
“With this team coming into Birmingham, the fans jumped on board right away… There’s a natural rivalry and now you’ve got two good teams that seem to play really good games against each other that gets the crowd into it. It’s a lot of fun,” remarked Detulleo.
The opening game of the 2019 President’s Cup Final, like a heavyweight title fight, lived up to its billing of a matchup between evenly-matched opponents. The Havoc, like any champion, came out swinging at their upstart rivals from central Alabama. However, it was the Bulls who would counterpunch first when Mike Davis would open the scoring after finding some open space in the slot, fed by a quick centering pass from Jacob Barber.
The defending champion Havoc would try to land the knockout blow early second period with back-to-back tallies from Derek Perl and Sy Nutkevitch. “There’s going to be a lot of nerves and we wanted to make sure the first five minutes we pushed things and be unafraid to make mistakes… We wanted to match their intensity,” said Detulleo.
The Bulls, a team with a businesslike nature, would not go down without a fight. The already electric atmosphere was further sparked by an early third-period power play goal by Barber followed by a gorgeous snipe by forward Cole Golka would eventually give the fans the ultimate playoff hockey thrill – an overtime game.
The Havoc would eventually win game one, 4-3, with a goal by third-line forward Rob Darrar after a Bulls neutral-zone turnover. “It was a broken play in the neutral zone. The puck squirted, it got taken down in a 2-on-1, and it was a good shot,” said Hicks about the game-ending play.
Despite the result, the true winners of game one were the fans. The arena maintained it’s notoriously loud atmosphere throughout the game by both Bulls and Havoc faithful alike and the camaraderie between the fan bases made this historic game a pleasure to witness.
The President’s Cup Final series moves to the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, where the second game on Saturday night is certain to be played in front of a sellout crowd in the league’s most-attended venue. Regardless of which team will eventually lift the President’s Cup this weekend, the true winner will be the hockey fans of Alabama who have conducted themselves with the kind of class and support in the league’s premier event.
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