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.