After thirteen years and months of speculation, professional hockey is returning to the Magic City.
In a press conference today at the Pelham Civic Complex and Ice Arena, Birmingham Hockey Club, LLC, announced the final approval to join the Southern Professional Hockey League for the 2017-18 season. General Partner Art Clarkson, flanked by SPHL President Jim Combs and Pelham Mayor Gary Waters, made the announcement.
Clarkson is no stranger to professional hockey. Clarkson relocated the original ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones to Birmingham when the Cyclones made the jump to the old IHL. When the Birmingham Bulls played at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, Clarkson owned the Bulls for their first five seasons, from 1992-93 through 1996-97 before selling his interest in the franchise.
From today’s news release, Clarkson said, “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.”
Birmingham was originally introduced to pro hockey in 1976 when the World Hockey Association’s Toronto Toros moved to Birmingham and rebranded as the Bulls. The WHA Bulls played from the 1976-77 season through 1978-79, when they moved to the Central Hockey League when the WHA folded. The WHA Bulls were coached by notables such as ECHL founder Pat Kelly and legendary Hampton Roads Admirals coach John Brophy.
The next few years were chaotic for professional hockey in central Alabama. The CHL Bulls folded after two seasons before returning to the league as the Birmingham South Stars for the 1982-83 season. Unfortunately, the South Stars lasted one season before folding, only to be replaced by the next, short-lived, incarnation of the Bulls in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League. The ACHL Bulls lasted all of three games in 1983, and the city was without professional hockey until Clarkson brought the ECHL Bulls from Cincinnati in the first wave of expansion of professional hockey in the southern US.
The ECHL Bulls played at the BJCC for nine seasons and featured two current SPHL coaches, Columbus’ Jerome Bechard and Macon’s Kevin Kerr. Bechard played for four seasons with the Bulls and is the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes while scoring 202 points. In the Bulls inaugural 1992-93 season, Bechard and Kerr combined for 54 goals, 75 assists, and a whopping 433 penalty minutes. Two seasons later, Bechard would almost match this total singlehandedly when he amassed a franchise record 427 minutes in the penalty box in 67 games.
The newest incarnation of the Birmingham Bulls will play at the Pelham Ice Arena, the former home of the Alabama Slammers, the area’s last professional hockey team. The Slammers, featuring Knoxville Ice Bears coaches Mike Craigen and Jamie Ronayne, played in the WHA2 – one of the forerunners of the SPHL – for the 2003-04 season.
From the press conference, reported by AL.com’s Cheryl Wray, big plans are in place to make the Pelham Ice Arena a full-fledged professional hockey facility. The arena, originally built as a community recreation rink and housing college club hockey teams for the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, is set for improvements which will increase the seating capacity from 3,500 to 6,000 over the next two years. Addressing this, Pelham Mayor Gary Waters said, “Given the improvements we’ve made in our hockey programs at all levels, the move to bring pro hockey to Pelham is the next logical step.”
The Birmingham Bulls will return professional hockey to central Alabama, after a 13-year hiatus, in October. We will have exact dates when the SPHL releases their 2017-18 schedule.