September 21, 1976, was a big day for Birmingham, Alabama.
Turns out, it was a pretty big day for me, too.
The brand new Birmingham Civic Center Coliseum opened for business – a 17,000-plus seat palace designed for sports and concerts. What I remember most as I walked through the doors were the smells … popcorn, hot dogs and just a hint of Hai Karate aftershave, which was apparently standard issue for Southern adult males.
But I wasn’t there for the olfactory sensations or a tour of the facility.
I was there for professional hockey – something as alien to Birmingham as glaciers and polar bears.
By the end of the night, however, the Civic Center felt like home. And the Birmingham Bulls became a part of my family.
Just a few months earlier, the World Hockey Association franchise was based in Toronto and known as the Toros. But owner John Bassett (who I was familiar with because he owned the Memphis Southmen of the defunct World Football League) decided to take a big gamble by moving his team to the Deep South.
The Bulls’ first introduction to fans came a few days earlier when 4,000 showed up to watch an intrasquad scrimmage. On this night, though, the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Flames provided the opposition in an exhibition game, and it was hard to imagine a better opening gambit.
I don’t think anyone had a clue how many people would show up on a Tuesday night (although 4,000 season tickets had been sold), but by the time the teams took the ice 8,868 sports fans were in the building.
I try to avoid using the word “awesome” because it’s so overused it has lost much of its meaning.
But man, that night was awesome.
From the moment the skaters left the tunnel and glided in formation on the frozen pond, I was mesmerized.
But, I was also prepared.
When it was announced in June that the Toros were headed to Alabama, I made a point to read everything I could about the sport – the rules, the history, and the stars.
Birmingham, for example, featured Frank Mahovlich, who was already one of the most decorated players in hockey history.
The “Big M” had played on six Stanley Cup-winning teams, and was a cinch for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Paul Henderson was another Bulls standout. The two-time NHL All-Star led Canada to victory over the Soviet Union in the famous 1972 Summit Series, scoring the game-winning goals in the sixth, seventh and eighth games.
And then there was Mark Napier, a 19-year-old phenom who was named WHA Rookie of the Year in 1975.
The public address announcer spent much of the night explaining nuances of the game, but I was already a step ahead of him. I studied hockey rule books like I was prepping for a test, and not only knew why the ref blew his whistle but was happy to explain it to anyone sitting near me.
It was the first time I had ever seen this high speed collision sport up close and personal, and I was hooked. It was ice skating with attitude, and I absolutely loved it.
With the death of the WFL less than a year earlier, I wondered if there was any team – in any sport – that could fill the void.
After a couple of hours, I wondered no more.
For the record, Birmingham won the inter-league showdown in overtime, 7-6. Napier scored three goals, his last coming with just 46 seconds remaining in O.T. to clinch it for the WHA side.
I don’t know how many fans understood everything that was going on, but they all understood what a game-winning goal was. The place erupted when Napier’s backhander flew past Atlanta goalie Dan Bouchard’s glove and the red light behind goal lit up.
Normally all I would ever talk about in a given September would be football, but thanks to one magical night in the Magic City, hockey moved to the top of the chart and remained there throughout the Bulls’ history.
Even though the WHA is now just a distant (but fond) memory, it brought professional hockey to my hometown. Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier – Birmingham was never one of the league’s better teams, but the Bulls faced some of the best players on the planet. I’m extremely lucky I got to see them in the flesh.
And while that exhibition game 43 years ago didn’t count, don’t ever tell me it didn’t matter.
It did … and still does.