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.