This is Birmin'ham, y'all. Sweet Home, Alabama. This is the heart of Dixie, where signs on street corners proclaim the city as the FOOTBALL CAPITAL OF THE SOUTH, where grits 'n' biscuits 'n' gravy come with breakfast and where the smoke from the chimneys of the steel, coal and natural-gas mills smudges the skyline. And, now, where one or two nights a week in the lavish Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum two flags hang from the scoreboard clock. One is the Stars and Stripes of the U.S.. The other? No, not the Confederate flag. The Maple Leaf of Canada.
In its 82nd year, hockey has discovered Alabama. The team is the WHA's Birmingham Bulls—formerly known as the Ottawa Nationals and the Toronto Toros—and while none of the Bulls is as popular as one of Bear Bryant's centers, the townsfolk seem fascinated by the funny new game. "We don't understand all that swishy-swishy they do with the puck," says Mike Summers, a local construction worker, "but as long as they kick some butts and win once in a while, they're the greatest thing to come here to Birmin'ham."
So, not surprisingly, the darlin' of Dixie is not an old NHLer like Frank Mahovlich or Paul Henderson, a kid star like Mark Napier or a Czechoslovakian refugee like Vaclav Nedomansky, but a 5'7", 170-pound roughneck named Leapin' Louie Nistico. Leapin' Louie and the Bulls regularly fill about half the seats in the 16,753-seat Coliseum, but so far they lead the WHA in only two departments: payroll and losses. They are in last place in the WHA's Eastern Division with an 8-20-1 record.
Hockey arrived in Birmingham in August, when Owner John Bassett, the Toronto speculator who gave Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield a bundle to play in the World Football League, realized he would never sell enough tickets to survive as Toronto's other team, particularly when that other team—the Maple Leafs—owned the only building in town. "I saw this incredible facility here with no tenant and saw a city that, while small (296,000), had tremendous potential as a sports market," says Bassett. "It was the biggest city in North America without a pro team it could call its own. And unlike, say, Atlanta, all people talk about here is sports. Birmingham led the WFL in attendance in 1974 and '75. They sell out for high schools, Alabama, Auburn, everything."
But hockey? "I was driving through Birmingham in the summer of 1975 and someone set me up for a television interview," says Napier, the 19-year-old right wing. "The first question was, 'What is hockey?' Later the guy mentioned they were building a rink. I said 'Good luck,' and thought to myself that someone had to be crazy. What would they do with a hockey rink in Alabama?
"Well, here I am. I was skeptical when I arrived, but most everyone on the team has enjoyed it. The life here is small town, and the fans are really enthusiastic—the loudest I've ever heard, at least when we give them something to cheer about." Some Toros were so skeptical about the Bulls' market that they declined to move to Birmingham. Defenseman Jim Dorey—a reluctant transfer—was traded to Quebec for Dale Hoganson, who has become the Bulls' best defenseman. And another defenseman, Barry Long, remained in snowy Edmonton rather than play in Alabama.
"It's a lot better for us here than it was in Toronto," says Right Wing Jeff Jacques. Jacques has become a regular ole boy, installing a CB radio in his '76 Thunderbird. Unfortunately for Jacques, when freezing rain shut down all the interstates recently, forcing the players to take an unknown route over Red Mountain to their practice rink, he could not make contact with any CBer who knew how to get to the Oxmoor Ice Lodge. So Jacques drove into a filling station, got out of his car and asked for directions. "They just kept staring at me," Jacques says. "I had my hockey uniform on and they didn't know what I was. I told them it was Halloween."
"The tradition here is The Bear and 'Bama," says Julian Bell, a regular customer at Bulls games. "In other words, hell-raisin' and fanny-bustin'." Or, as Bulls Executive Vice-President Peter McAskile says, "No hockey crowd in the world can drink beer with these fans." The Bulls had planned to have the organist play Dixie at their first home game, but they changed their minds, preferring not to use any outlandish gimmickry. The favorite selections now are Yeah, Alabama and War Eagle, the fight songs of Alabama and Auburn, respectively. Leaving one game, a spectator complained to his date that hockey still wasn't football. She replied. "How many football players have made hat tricks?"
"The first thing the fans here really liked was the sound of guys crashing into the boards," says Nistico, the 23-year-old left wing. "They'd say, 'It must hurt when y'all hit them walls.' " So Leapin' Louie, the league's shortest—and maybe widest—player, gives them what they want. He is greeted with chants of "Lou! Lou! Lou!" each time he hops onto the ice to set out on the search-and-destroy missions that keep the fans on their feet. So far, 75 of his 94 penalty minutes have been assessed in Birmin'ham.
The Coliseum fans bait the referees and treat opposing players like Killer Kowalski. On Thanksgiving night New England Coach Harry Neale grabbed a stick and invaded the crowd. Neale was calmed down by the police. The next day the police questioned Neale, and after the interrogation he jumped into a cab, screamed "Get me out of here!" to the driver and—a $120 fare later—arrived in Atlanta. Neale is now known around the WHA as "David Janssen." Two Alabama state troopers were stationed behind the visiting team's bench at the next game in Birmingham.
McAskile and Public Relations Director Jim Finks Jr., the son of the general manager of the Chicago Bears, have given the Southerners a crash course in hockey. McAskile even conducted a seminar of 50 students at the University of Alabama's local campus. The Coliseum message board flashes out explanations for such violations as "icing" and "off-sides" and warns the fans to "beware of flying pucks." The public address announcer explains complicated rules, and the program is mostly an instructional guide. The Birmingham media, which gives the Bulls second billing only to Southeastern Conference football, also has taken pains to help the Mike Summerses appreciate the "swishy-swishy" as well as the fanny-kickin'.
Education aside, the Bulls have tied their future to Napier, who already has earned a reputation as one of the game's bright young stars. Napier scored 43 goals as the WHA's Rookie of the Year last season and had 24 goals in his first 28 games this season. When Napier skates, he looks as though he is riding a horse, but his wide-track, bowlegged style provides exceptional balance. "No one in the WHA can accelerate and change speeds like Napier," says Bulls General Manager Gilles Leger.
"I think I could write a book about my life already," Napier says. He signed with the Toros when he was just 17, abandoning the junior Toronto Marlboros in a move that created a major hockey scandal. Napier was the first 17-year-old player to be signed by any pro club, and Bassett's checkbook raid aroused the ire of his WHA colleagues as well as his NHL rivals. "Some of the friends I grew up with are still in high school—and look where I've been already," Napier says. "I think I'll do some kind of book like the one Jim Bouton did on baseball. I'll write about all that goes on in this game and all my experiences on the road."
Bassett recently appointed Napier captain of the Bulls, but Napier shrugs off the appointment. "It's an honor," he says, "but I don't believe in captains." Napier is more enthusiastic about the NHL's draft, for which he will finally be eligible next June. He will be among the first players selected in that lottery. "I can't wait," he says. "Look, I knew the NHL wouldn't touch me until I turned 20, but I felt I had nothing to gain by staying in juniors two more years. Bobby Orr was in the league at 18. It was a waste of time for Denis Potvin to stay in juniors his last two years. I've learned a lot more in the WHA than I would have learned with the Marlies."
Napier readily admits he still has a lot to learn. "Until last week, no one had ever told me how to pick up my man on the wing or how to play any defense," he says. Team defense—or lack of it—is a continuing problem for the Bulls, who have given up more goals than any team in hockey the last year and a half. Pat Kelly, a tough product of the semipro leagues, recently replaced Leger as coach and has been emphasizing defense. "Now we're finally talking about having a system," says Forward Dave Gorman.
Birmingham's best player has been Goaltender John Garrett, whose sky-scraping goals-against average (3.75) hardly reflects his performances. "I've earned the red badge of courage," Garrett said after a recent 3-1 win over Cincinnati in which he stopped 34 shots, including one that left him with a huge red lump on his chest. "Let's just say that some nights my job really isn't the best in the world."
McAskile, who runs local operations for Bassett, maintains that the Bulls need only two things to survive in Birmingham: "a team that hits and wins." But, he says, "We haven't offered either so far." In fact, the Bulls have won only seven of their 17 home games. Birmingham has been hampered by the loss of 38-year-old Frank Mahovlich, who tore ligaments in his right knee on Nov. 13 and now may retire, and the ineffectiveness of the experienced Paul Henderson, who has scored only five goals. Meanwhile, Czech defectors Vaclav Nedomansky and Richard Farda worry about their status as landed immigrants in Canada when they are playing hockey and living in Alabama. Nedomansky is far behind his pace of 1975-76 when he scored 52 goals, and the Bulls have been trying to trade him to a Canadian team. Another obvious problem is that the Bulls' leadership is supposed to come from a teen-ager.
"When we get all this straightened out," says McAskile, "I think we'll be the one franchise south of the Mason-Dixon Line that is strong. Considering everything, we've done well to average 7,500. The schedule has really hurt us, from conflicts with the World Series to 10 home dates in November, when football is at its peak."
"You know what would really help us?" says Finks. "To get Bear Bryant and his players to come to one of our games." Sweet Home, Alabama.