Last summer John Bassett, owner of the hockey team now known as the Birmingham Bulls but soon to be known as defunct, was in a pickle. He had been prepared to fold his club as soon as the World Hockey Association merged with the National Hockey League, and expected to collect several million dollars as an indemnity. Then the merger fell through. In the meantime, Bassett had lost 2,000 season-ticket holders and had sold off $1 million worth of players, including Ken Linseman, Mark Napier and All-Star Goalie John Garrett. Now he needed half a dozen players—quickly and cheaply—in order to scrape through another year. Bassett's solution was to stage a raid on the teen-agers of Canada's junior hockey leagues—amateur players who had not reached the NHL draft age of 20. He signed seven of them for $50,000 each and thus was born the Baby Bulls.
Many underage juniors had been signed to pro contracts during the long WHA-NHL war (among those who succeeded as teen-agers were Bryan Trottier, Pierre Larouche and Mark Howe), but the idea of seven on a single team was preposterous. As it was, six of the seven made the team, and not only have they contributed, they have been the heart of the Bulls. Four of the team's top six scorers and its leading goaltender all started as teen-agers—and now they are battling Cincinnati for the last WHA playoff spot in the last WHA year.
Of the six young regulars, three are defensemen—Craig Hartsburg, Rob Ramage and Gaston Gingras; two are forwards—Rick Vaive and Michel Goulet; and one is a goaltender—Pat Riggin. NHL scouts have been migrating down to the land of cotton like scarred, toothless boll weevils, and they are salivating. All six signed long-term contracts with the Bulls last week on the eve of the NHL-WHA merger. Now the NHL teams that select the Baby Bulls in the "amateur" draft this summer will have to honor these contractual commitments. Hartsburg and Ramage will be two of the top three choices, along with Cincinnati Wing Mike Gartner, another "underage" player whose team is folding. Vaive is rated No. 5 or No. 6 among the draft eligibles, while Riggin is rated No. 1 among goalies. Goulet and Gingras are projected as late first-round selections. (Goulet is 18, the others are 19 or 20.)
Gilles Leger, the Birmingham general manager, was confident before the season that his Baby Bulls wouldn't embarrass themselves, but he certainly didn't anticipate that they would have his team fighting for a playoff spot. "We knew Hartsburg and Ramage could play," he says, "but we didn't know they would adapt so quickly. Hartsburg is poised, a great natural athlete. He's a quarterback. Ramage is more like a middle linebacker. He's a thumper. Ramage is the kind of guy who will go down and pound the Nautilus all day long, while Hartsburg's the kind who might go down and watch him. It's going to be very interesting to see who will be the better defenseman in the long run. One of the hardest things to do is project longevity. You probably will end up with another Serge Savard in Hartsburg and another Larry Robinson in Ramage."
Both shoot well, move the puck quickly, play on the power play and have the size (Hartsburg is 6'1", 190 pounds, Ramage is 6'2", 195) that everyone looks for in a modern defenseman. "If we'd been stuck another year in junior, who knows what kind of a year we'd have had?" Ramage wonders. "What can you do to outdo yourself? There would have been no challenge."
The Colorado Rockies will have the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft. Colorado General Manager Ray Miron is looking for a quality center, though, and may use his No. 1 choice to acquire one—possibly by trade. Still, Miron is very keen on the two defensemen. "Ramage is more aggressive," he says, "and Hartsburg has more finesse. But Ramage shoots right, and we could play him with Barry Beck. Who knows? We might just take Ramage."
After Edmonton's 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky, whose rights will remain with the Oilers when they join the NHL next season, Goulet is the best of the 18-year-olds—a classically swift French-Canadian skater who has a scorer's touch around the net. His 26 goals and 29 assists place him first among Birmingham's scorers. According to Miron, "Goulet would be perfect for a team like Montreal that could afford to wait a year or two with him. He'll be a good one."
There will be no waiting with Vaive. A 76-goal scorer for Sherbrooke in the Quebec junior league last year, he has become a brawler in Birmingham, where he leads the WHA in penalties. He also has scored 23 goals. Although Vaive weighs only 180 pounds, he takes on all comers—and often gets taken. Edmonton's "Unfriendly Giant," Dave Semenko, knocked Vaive out with a single blow in one fight. "I don't think I'll ever get this many minutes again," Vaive says. "It's my style of play. I hit a lot of guys, and since I'm a rookie they want to try me."
Vaive is something of a free spirit; he considers the 600-mile trek between his home on Prince Edward Island and Boston well worth it if he can take in a couple of Red Sox games. He answers to "Spud"—potatoes are his home province's main farm product—and is described by Leger as having "a natural tendency to be ornery." On the ice, that is. "There are a lot of right wingers that have his talent," Leger continues, "but not too many that have that special quality he does. You hate to play against him but love to have him." What is that "special quality"? Vaive, who is dark-haired, dimpled, good-looking, gives it some thought. "Nobody likes to lose, but I'm a really poor loser," he says.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Baby Bulls has been Riggin, who at 19 stepped in and won the No. 1 goaltending job over NHL veteran Ernie Wakely. Riggin's goals-against average (3.69) is half a goal a game lower than Wakely's and the other Birmingham goaltenders', and he has put together a 16-20-5 won-lost record. He is small (5'9") and lefthanded, and thus somewhat resembles Toronto's Mike Palmateer in the nets, though he plays with a more controlled style.
Riggin comes from good goaltending stock; his father, Dennis, was being groomed as Terry Sawchuk's successor in Detroit until he lost the sight in one eye after being struck by a puck.
The teen-age Bulls all feel that the Birmingham experience has improved their hockey skills more than staying in junior hockey would have. "This puts us maybe a year ahead of the rest of the guys," Vaive says. "If a player's good enough, they shouldn't hold him back."
Now that the WHA is being absorbed by the NHL, it is unlikely that many future 18- or 19-year-olds will have a chance to play for pay as the Baby Bulls did this season. The NHL has an agreement with Canada's junior leagues not to draft players until they are 20. "It's an arbitrary age," admits Jack Button, director of the NHL's central scouting program. "When they set up the draft in 1967, that's the age they happened to choose. Maybe we should be looking at experience at the junior level instead of just age, so that a kid who has been playing major junior A hockey since he was 16 becomes eligible for the draft a little earlier. That might be the way to go."
As for owner Bassett, shed no tears for the disbanding of the Birmingham Bulls. Bassett will get $2.85 million from the rest of the WHA teams to fold the franchise. The fans who will miss the Bulls are few (they averaged about 5,000 a game this year). "They're spoiled here with football and Bear Bryant losing one game a season," says Hartsburg. "We lose two in a week and they think we're bums."
Three weeks ago, before the NHL-WHA consolidation agreement was announced, an item appeared in the Bulls' press notes that may now merit greater consideration: "A new hockey league, known as the Bermuda Triangle Hockey League, is being organized with teams in Nassau, Bermuda and Palm Beach. Halfway through the season, the franchises will disappear and no one will ever discover what becomes of the players or the management."
No bull? Sounds ideal. Count you in, Mr. Bassett?