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Posted 2018 February 8
I want to spend a couple of minutes discussing where the name "Birmingham Bulls" comes from. Not because it's a bad name (it's not great but it is good), nor because it tells you anything about the history of Birmingham (it doesn't), but rather because it's just weird. Why is this team called the Birmingham Bulls? Because the Spanish word for bull is the first four letters of the name of Ontario's biggest city.
No, I'm not kidding.
For those who don't know, back in the 1970s there was a league called the World Hockey Association, which strove to challenge the NHL in much the same way that the ABA challenged the NBA and the AFL challenged the NFL.* Like those other leagues, they were somewhat successful in that the league itself folded but some of the teams were eventually absorbed into the league they challenged.** But there was a lot of chaos and a lot of failed teams along the way. Even before the WHA took to the ice, roughly a third of its charter teams relocated. And it's with one of those pre-debut relocations that our story begins.
The WHA's strategy for team placement was to hit some of the big cities that they figured were big enough to support two teams, then hit some smaller markets that didn't have an NHL city. Part of that strategy involved putting a team in Toronto. Wait, I hear you say. You've already said Toronto has something to do with the team and you said it involves one of those pre-debut relocations, so what gives? Well, I'm getting to that. See the WHA tried to put a team in Toronto, but there was a problem. The only place in Toronto that really worked for a major league hockey team was Maple Leaf Gardens, the arena used (and owned) by the Toronto Maple Leafs. And Harold Ballard, owner of the Leafs at the time, didn't want a damn thing to do with the WHA. He didn't outright refuse to let the WHA team play in Maple Leaf Gardens, but he did set the rent at approximately fuck-you dollars per game. There was no way the WHA team could afford that rent, so it headed north to Ottawa, where they became the Ottawa Nationals.
Ottawa didn't really work out. They did all right on the ice (finishing fourth in a division of six, enough to barely make the playoffs), but terrible in the stands, with an attendance average of only 3,000 or so. So by the end of the season, relations between the Nationals and the arena were fairly strained. They got so strained, in fact, that the team approached Maple Leaf Gardens again, this time asking about playing their playoff games in Toronto.
The Maple Leafs, believe it or not, agreed, and gave them a reasonable rent. Why the change of heart? Well, it wasn't so much a change of heart as it was a change of management. See, Harold Ballard had managed to get himself charged with 49 counts of fraud, and by the end of the season he was in prison and his son was running things.† And since the Maple Leafs weren't in the playoffs that season, the son probably figured what the hell, it's either this or let the arena sit empty.
Anyway, crowds for the playoff games in Toronto were nearly twice the size of what they'd been in Ottawa, so the team moved to Toronto full-time the next season. And they needed a name. They had used "Nationals" in Ottawa because Ottawa is the capital of Canada, but the name didn't make as much sense in Toronto. For reasons that I'm guessing had something to do with large amounts of Canadian whiskey, they got it into their heads that since the first four letters of Toronto are Toro and since toro is the Spanish word for bull and since bulls are nasty sons of bitches, Toronto Toros would make a great name.
So the Toros played three seasons in Toronto, and at first things seemed to be doing all right. But then the old man got out of jail and started running the Maple Leafs (and thus Maple Leaf Gardens) again. And he went into full-fledged asshole mode. He jacked up the rent, and then wouldn't turn on the lights for the games unless the Toros rented the lights on top of renting the arena. He wouldn't let the Toros use the existing locker rooms, so the team had to pay to have more built. And so on. At some point, this plus the fact that Toros attendance was droppping (they were getting worse and the Maple Leafs were getting better) caused the Toros to say the hell with it and move.
But where to move to? There weren't that many places that could support a major league hockey team that didn't already have one, and the Toros weren't keen on the idea of sharing a market with another team. So they headed down to Birmingham, Alabama. Presumably it seemed like a good idea, because the NHL had a team in Atlanta and that team had terrible attendance. Surely moving to a city even smaller than Atlanta with no more experience with ice hockey than Atlanta was the ticket to success, right? So down to Birmingham they went. They changed their name to the Bulls, partly because it allowed them to keep the same logo but mostly, I believe, because Birm isn't a word.
Somehow — don't ask me how, because I truly have no idea — this actually worked out for them. With the exception of their (and the WHA's) final season, their attendance was above the league average. On the ice the team wasn't so great, but in a way that just makes the attendance more impressive. Nonetheless, when the WHA merged with the NHL over the summer of 1979, the Bulls were excluded. The Bulls, along with the Cincinnati Stingers (the other WHA team excluded from the merger) joined the old Central Hockey League, which was a top-level minor league at that time; they folded partway through their second CHL season.
Since then, the "Bulls" name has been re-used a couple of times in Birmingham. The first came in 1983 in the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, a league that can be seen as one of the main ancestors of today's ECHL. That team was a stellar success, and only folded after they played three whole games. (Of course, they went 2-1-0 in those three games, which means they have one of the highest all-time winning percentages of any team in the history of hockey.) Then in 1992, a local investor bought the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones franchise (the Cyclones had just obtained a franchise in the IHL), which began a nine-year run in town. Now, the same person who owned the ECHL Bulls has started an SPHL team, and he's using the same name and logo as last time.
That logo has always struck me as a bit busy, but I like it. First of all, the bull is about as uncartoony as a drawing of a bull can be. Second, I like the fact that the logo is a bull painted on an old time goalie mask. I've never been a fan of putting sports equipment in logos (it speaks of a certain insecurity about the team's identity in my opinion), but this is a subtle way of doing it so I'm inclined to let it slide. Third, it's another one of those starting-straight-at-you perspectives that I'm so fond of. In short, it's a damn good logo.
And the name? Well, like I said at the outset, it's not great but it is good. And when you consider the fact that it comes from a rehash of Toronto Toros, it's quite impressive that such a good name came out of such a stupid one.
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