World Hockey Association (1976-1979)
Central Hockey League (1979-1981)
Born: 1976 – The Toronto Toros relocate to Birmingham, AL.
Died: February 23, 1981 – The Bulls cease operations in midseason.
Arena: Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center
The Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association were one of the first major pro hockey teams to make their home in the Deep South, sharing that distinction with the slightly older Atlanta Flames of the National Hockey League.
The Bulls franchise had a fascinating history dating back to the formation of the WHA in 1972. Originally they were the Ottawa Nationals, but the team foundered in Canada’s capital city and moved to Toronto in 1973 with a dynamic new owner in charge, 34-year John Bassett, Jr. Bassett’s father, John Bassett, Sr., was a Toronto media mogul who owned the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and was a former partner in the ownership of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1960’s when the team won four Stanley Cups. The elder Bassett was forced out of the Maple Leafs in 1971 following a bitter power struggle with his partners Harold Ballard and Stafford Smythe. (Smythe would die within a matter of weeks).
Harold Ballard’s consolidation of control over the Maple Leafs in the early 1970’s launched an era of pitch black despair for the city’s passionate hockey fans. He failed to take seriously the arrival of the WHA in 1972 and the leafs roster was raided mercilessly by the upstart league as a result. He then promptly went to prison on fraud charges. While the Maple Leafs sank and Ballard fought his legal battles, the younger John Bassett moved Ottawa’s WHA club to Toronto and set up shop at Varsity Arena. Now a second generation of Bassetts would do battle with Harold Ballard.
In their first season in the winter of 1973-74, the Toros were a popular draw. But in 1974, Bassett moved the Toros into Maple Leaf Gardens. Ballard, who controlled the Gardens, was in the process of re-asserting himself after his release from prison. The Leafs owner carried a special hatred of the WHA, who he blamed for plundering his roster and driving up salaries in an inter-league bidding war. When the Toros made their Gardens debut in 1974, Ballard dimmed the lights for their opening game.
Ballard’s control of the building lease ultimately made life impossible for the Toros in Toronto. So Bassett moved the team all the way to Birmingham, Alabama, of all places, for the 1976-77 WHA season. Actually, the move wasn’t quite as strange as it seemed. Bassett had previous pro sports experience in the American South, having owned the popular Memphis Southmen of the World Football League in 1974 and 1975. In Birmingham, the hockey team would retain the Toros old colors and logo, but switched to the more Anglicized “Bulls” nickname.
The Bulls were not especially good in Birmingham. They never had a winning record and made the playoffs only once in three WHA seasons. But they always had a fascinating cast of characters. Future Hall-of-Famer Frank Mahovlich moved south with the team from Toronto, as did 1972 Summit Series hero Paul Henderson (who many feel should be in the Hall). But what the Bulls would truly become known for was Bassett’s maverick youth movement: The “Baby Bulls”.
In the late 1970’s both the NHL and the WHA observed a minimum age of 20 years old to be eligible for the pro draft. Bassett thought it was ridiculous to restrict player movement after the age of consent and also saw an opportunity for a competitive advantage over the NHL. In 1977, he signed 18-year old Ken Linseman from the Kingston Canadians junior hockey team. The WHA attempted to invalidate the signing, but Bassett won in federal court. Linseman signed and scored 38 goals as a rookie during the 1977-78 season.
The next summer, Bassett raided the juniors in earnest, signing seven more 18-year olds, including Gaston Gingras, Michel Goulet, Craig Hartsburg, Rob Ramage, Pat Riggin and Rick Vaive. Birmingham finished dead last in the WHA in 1979-79, but the league still saw fit to name Bulls coach John Brophy as its coach-of-the-year for molding a group of teenagers into a reasonably competitive squad.
At the end of the 1978-79 hockey season, the on-again/off-again merger between the WHA and the NHL finally came together. The WHA’s three Canadian franchises plus the New England Whalers were allowed to pay $6 million each to join the NHL. The WHA’s remaining two clubs – the Bulls and the Cincinnati Stingers – were dropped. Both decided to re-organize and join the minor Central Hockey League.
Head Coach John Brophy continued with the CHL edition of the Birmingham Bulls, which retained the team logo and colors of the WHA franchise. But John Bassett stepped back from majority ownership, which would ultimately cripple the Bulls’ viability. Magic City Sports, headed by Frank Falkenburg, were the new majority owners of the now minor league Bulls. Ironically, the Bulls became a farm club of the Atlanta Flames – the NHL’s own struggling Deep South franchise. The Flames would move to Calgary after the Bulls first season in the CHL but the clubs would maintain a long-distance relationship – briefly.
Midway through the 1980-81 CHL season, Magic City Sports ran out of money. They asked Calgary for a bailout to get them through the season, but the parent club declined. The Bulls were forced to fold in midseason on February 23, 1981. Owner Frank Falkenburg publicly criticized the Flames, both for failing to prop up the club and for allegedly sending lousy players to Birmingham, resulting in a losing team and declining attendance.
Michel Goulet and Rob Ramage were the last active members of the original Birmingham Bulls. Both players retired in 1994 after long NHL careers.
Birmingham saw several other minor league teams come and go over the next couple of decades. The longest lasting of them was a nostalgic 1992 revival of the Birmingham Bulls brand new by the East Coast Hockey League. The ECHL Bulls lasted nine seasons from 1992-2001.
John Bassett went back to football and founded the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League in 1983. In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? Bassett is presented as the league’s white knight owner, battling Donald Trump for the soul of the springtime football league. Bassett’s struggle with Trump was hampered by his diagnosis with brain cancer in 1985. He succumbed to the disease on May 15, 1986.
==Birmingham Bulls Programs on Fun While It Lasted==
Bulls owner John Bassett died of brain cancer on May 15, 1986 at age 47.
World Hockey Association Media Guides
World Hockey Association Programs