Watching professional ice hockey teams combine for 13 goals and knowing one of those teams featured Wayne Gretzky makes for an unforgettable memory – even if you have to go back 40 years to retrieve it.
But Birmingham 7, Edmonton 6, is more than a score line from a World Hockey Association game played on April 14, 1979.
It was the end of an era.
On March 22 of that year the National Hockey League voted to absorb the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers, beginning with the 1979-80 campaign. Meanwhile, the remaining two WHA franchises – the Birmingham Bulls and Cincinnati Stingers – would fold, release all their players and end the insurgent league after seven seasons.
That meant the game played at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum on April 14 would be the last regular season major league hockey game ever contested on Alabama ice.
I was among the 8,179 fans on hand to bid a fond farewell to a team I’d grown to love, and on the “bittersweet” scale it leaned heavily on the bitter side. Before the Bulls moved from Toronto to Birmingham in 1976, I didn’t know the difference between a cross-check and a cashier’s check, but by 1979 I had memorized the hockey glossary – and there was no sport I’d rather watch live.
The death knell of this league and these Bulls was a gut-punch.
Their first ever game came against the Atlanta Flames in a WHA/NHL exhibition at the BJCC on Sept. 21, 1976, (Birmingham won, 7-6), and being in the arena was a sensory experience.
The hissing sounds of the blades as a skater raced down the ice were complemented perfectly by the sharp report of clashing sticks.
A puck smashing against the protective glass always gave me a start, and when players crashed into the boards it demonstrated how quickly an event built on grace and artistry could morph into a collision sport.
I walked into that contest as a curious onlooker and left as a hockey disciple, soon finding myself abandoning weekend football plans so I could cheer on the Bulls.
While Birmingham was not one of the league’s better teams – in its three years in the WHA it never had a winning season and won a grand total of one playoff game – the Bulls were both brutal and beautiful to me.
And even though it always played second fiddle to the NHL, the World Hockey Association was a damn good circuit and major league in just about every way (financial stability excluded).
I saw “Mr. Hockey” Gordie Howe skate as both a member of the Houston Aeros and New England Whalers (he scored his 1,000 career goal in Birmingham).
Hall of Famers Frank Mahovlich and Rod Langway played for the Bulls.
Gretzky, although not yet “The Great One,” was still “The Very Young And Good One” while honing his craft in the WHA.
Bobby Hull, Mark Messier, Dave Keon … so many legends of the sport played in Birmingham. And even though my Bulls were on the receiving end of quite a few beatings, I got to see the very best professional hockey had to offer.
So when the horn sounded to end the WHA’s time in Birmingham 40 years ago today, I felt a real sense of loss.
I was so jealous of the teams that were headed to the NHL – teams that would get to host famous clubs like the Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs.
I wondered what it must be like to live in a hockey town, knowing hockey would always be a major part of that town in the future.
The consolation prize, which would be made official in an announcement less than a month after the Bulls’ final season ended with a 5-4 loss at Winnipeg, was that Birmingham would resurface in the Central Hockey League for the 1979-80 season. The “new” Bulls served as a farm club for the NHL Flames.
I supported the CHL Bulls – even got to see them play the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team – but it wasn’t the same.
It was good hockey, but it wasn’t great hockey, and with the demise of the WHA, Birmingham would never again be home to that elite level of competition.
Oh, and I just realized something … the first WHA game in Birmingham resulted in 13 goals, just like the last one.
That’s supposed to be an unlucky number but, looking back, I was incredibly lucky to be there for both – and many of the ones in-between.