Southern-fried hockey: How Alabama has made the sport its own

Greg Wyshynski

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- It's not easy to blend in as a hockey player in Alabama. Usually the jig is up the minute they open their mouths.

"Obviously, I don't hear my own accent," said Stuart Stefan, an Ontario-born assistant coach for the Huntsville Havoc of the Southern Professional Hockey League. "But you're out in the community, you're talking to someone, and a lot of times they pick it up right away: 'You're a Havoc player.' If you're Canadian, what are you doing in Alabama if you're not on the hockey team, right?"

If you are Canadian and you are playing for the Huntsville Havoc or the Birmingham Bulls, the two SPHL franchises in Alabama, you've undoubtedly had "the talk" with your friends back home.

About the strange juxtaposition between playing professional hockey in the cradle of college football, in a place where most of the ice is found in beer coolers. About the failure of the Atlanta Flames and Thrashers, the empty seats in Florida, and the dozens of minor league teams and leagues that have existed in the South but no longer do.

About how hockey doesn't "belong" in Alabama. That talk.

"You would see [the attendance], and you would wonder why there were even teams in the South," said Stefan, who played seven seasons with the Havoc after leaving Canada. "I didn't know there was a Southern Professional Hockey League. I didn't know there was hockey in Huntsville, Alabama. But once I got down here and saw our crowds and everything, it's awesome. I don't think they get how popular hockey is in the South."

So it's on the Canadians-turned-Alabama hockey players to convince them of it.

"I'll see people from high school, and I tell them I play hockey in Huntsville. And they think 'Alabama,' and they think 'really redneck,' you know? I can see why," said Havoc defenseman Nolan Kaiser, a native of Calgary. "But Huntsville doesn't seem like Alabama. They draw people from all over the place. And they're really strong hockey fans down here."

If his townies aren't yet swayed, Nolan goes to his sales pitch talking points.

"Good weather. Great for golf. Honestly, we live like we're retired. We come to the rink at 9 a.m. And then we'll warm up, practice, sometimes work out after practice, but there's rarely a day when we're not out of here by 12:30, and then the rest of the day is ours. Guys go golfing. Go to the movies. Go to lunch. We're hockey players in our 20s, but we're living like retired people," he said.

This is a story about a state where hockey shouldn't thrive, but does. About two very different cities, and their fans, seeking to ignite a hockey rivalry. About an NHL team that's fostering hockey's popularity across the region. And about one owner who fancies himself as the P.T. Barnum of minor league sports.

This is a story about hockey in Alabama today. But first, a bit about yesterday.

A brief word about the history of hockey in Alabama

In 1973, the Toronto Toros were the bratty younger sibling to the Toronto Maple Leafs, a World Hockey Association team desperately seeking to draw attention away from an Original Six NHL mainstay. That included such stunts as giving the legendary Evel Knievel four shots against a Toros goalie during intermission one night, earning him $2,000 for every goal. (He'd score twice.)

But a lease dispute at Maple Leaf Gardens meant the Toros would move, and owner John Bassett felt there was fertile ground in Birmingham, Alabama. They relocated there in 1977, and quickly discovered a market that wasn't quite ready for the beauty of hockey but blood-lusted for the fighting. Canadian hockey legends such as Frank Mahovlich and Paul Henderson barely registered with fans, but one of the Hanson brothers amassed 453 penalty minutes in 95 games with the Birmingham Bulls and became a legend.

When the WHA merged with the NHL in 1979, the Bulls were left behind, partially out of fear that hockey wouldn't work in the South. (Thanks, Atlanta Flames.) Which was a shame, because by the time the merger happened, the Bulls had ditched much of the goon act and amassed an impressive group of young players: Rick Vaive, Michel Goulet and Rob Ramage among them.

"Those teams were so good that, had they played in the NHL, I have no doubt they would have won the Stanley Cup," said Eli Gold, former NHL announcer and current Birmingham Bulls voice.

The Bulls competed in the Central Hockey League until 1981 before folding. Hockey was dormant in Alabama until it was revived in an unusual place: the University of Alabama-Huntsville. It had had a thriving club hockey program since the 1970s, but earned varsity status in 1985 and full NCAA Division II status in 1986. Among the Chargers who have gone on to play professional hockey is Cam Talbot, currently an Edmonton Oilers goaltender.

"Hockey kind of got started here because of UAH, the local college team. They started before minor league hockey did," said Ashley Balch, president of the Havoc.

The college spark led to a slew of attempts to bring minor league hockey to Alabama, with varying degrees of awesome nicknames: the Huntsville Blast (ECHL, 1993-94) and Channel Cats (CHL, 1996-2000) and Tornado (CHL, 2000-01) and the Channel Cats again (SEHL, 2003-04) and then the Havoc; the Birmingham Bulls returned as an ECHL team in 1992 through 2001, then were resurrected in 2017; there were also the Alabama Gunners (SEHL, 1998-99), Pelham Prowlers (SEHL, 1999-2000), Alabama Slammers (WHA, 2003-04, and an incredible name) and the Mobile Mysticks (ECHL, 1995-2002, and a terrible name).

Today, it's the Havoc, thriving since 2004 in the SPHL, and the Bulls, just willed back to existence two years ago in the same league. They played each other in a home-and-home series in November during which the highs, lows and quirks of hockey in Alabama were on display.

Friday afternoon, Huntsville

We're in the Havoc coaches' office, a cluttered hovel tucked inside the team's weight room. There's a reusable Tim Hortons coffee cup on Stuart Stefan's desk, allowing him to make everything he drinks in Alabama feel a little more Canadian.

He retired in June at 32 years old, having seen it all in the SPHL. "There are definitely some things I've seen that I never thought I'd see in hockey. In my second year, we had a full bench-clearing brawl," he said. "Well, it sort of was: My team went into the other team's bench. People still remember that here."

"The people down here love the fights and the hitting. The people go nuts," Stefan said. "It's funny. ... We do these charity jersey auctions after games sometimes. The guy who gets a hat trick? He'll sell OK. But not as much as the guy who got into a fight that night."

Who are Havoc fans?

"I'm going to say there's two kinds," said Balch, the team president. "I'm going to say it's your person that grew up watching the game, and they know the game. They're not going to be from here. They're going to be transplants. But they're coming because they know and play the game. And then you have your fan who is from here. Who is coming to see the physical side of it. To see if there's going to be a fight. To experience our entertainment, and our giveaways."

The transplants are here in Huntsville to work aerospace and military jobs. The city is home to Redstone Arsenal, Cummings Research Park and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, whose campus is adorned by large rockets visible from miles away.

The Havoc players are transplants themselves. They're mostly from Canada and the northern United States. All but one of them were born after 1990. They're semi-professional hockey players, meaning they're paid in season (and well enough to get by). In the summer, almost every player has another job. Sometimes they're hockey-related, like coaching. Mostly, they're doing things such as landscaping, like Stefan did, or working back home for family businesses, like Kaiser last summer at Molson Coors with his mother and sister.

Being humble is a time-tested hockey player cliché, but Balch said that's what the Havoc players are, and what they need to be to sell the game to a nontraditional market. Appearances at car dealerships. Postgame autograph sessions. All of it.

"They are willing to go do anything. I worked with Arena football for four years, and it was completely different. Prima donna attitude. It's not a struggle to get these guys to do things in the community," he said. "I think our guys are just happy to be noticed. They're living a little rock star type thing. In the NHL, they're already rock stars. Here, you get to be one."

Which has its perks. Like when dating, for example.

"About half the team will be single guys and half the team will be married. I know that guys have come down here and stayed down here because they met their wives or girlfriends," Stefan said. "It's kind of funny sometimes -- you'll hear people saying, 'Oh you're with the Havoc. You must be a big famous hockey player.' But we're just regular people."

Just ones who happen to pack an arena on a Friday night in Huntsville.

Friday night, Huntsville

The Von Braun Center seats 10,000 and doubles as the performing arts center for Huntsville. It's cavernous, with a second deck that tests one's cardio fitness when walking to the top. It's home to the University of Alabama-Huntsville Chargers and the Havoc. It's also the only arena in professional hockey named after a German scientist who helped invent a way to fly American astronauts to the moon.

It's basically the largest hockey bar in Alabama on Havoc game nights, where all of those transplants in Huntsville wear their colors and congregate. There's a menagerie of sweaters, including the dozens of novelty jerseys the Havoc have worn during games, including from last season's "Emoji Night."

There are many jerseys of the Nashville Predators, a team whose influence on the region's fandom can't be overstated. Boston Bruins jerseys. Tampa Bay Lightning jerseys. A guy in a Hartford Whalers sweatshirt that he purchased for $5 at a thrift store. A guy wearing a backward Crimson Tide football hat with a Doug Glatt jersey from the movie "Goon."

Mike Ryan is wearing a game-worn Scottie Upshall St. Louis Blues jersey, because No. 9 is his favorite sweater digit. His wife, Edie Ryan, is a Washington Capitals fan in a Havoc jersey.

"I usually go out between periods and have a cigar. There's always a bunch of Blackhawks fans out there," he said. (The smoking sections of the Huntsville and Birmingham arenas are very populated.) "These games are entertaining. If you're familiar with minor league sports, minor league baseball, they've got a lot of shenanigans that go on in between periods. That kind of resonates with folks from around here."

Oh, the shenanigans. The dog howls after goals. The strobe lights. The local high school marching bands at every game. The smoke. Boy, they love their smoke in Huntsville: It fills the rink as the players skate out of an inflatable wolf head to start the game. It shoots into the air when the Havoc score a goal, pluming up into a small mushroom cloud. Which, one imagines, is wholly appropriate when your arena is named after the father of the V‐2 rocket.

Everything is sponsored during these games. Icing, offside ... "that's a Charles Pitman puck out of play ... Charles Pitman is the way to go, call 533-5" and the fans chant "oh, oh, oh!" to complete the number of a local personal injury attorney.

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Huntsville Havoc hit the ice

The Huntsville Havoc introductions before their game against Birmingham. Video by Greg Wyshynski

For someone who watches copious amounts of the NHL, the hockey can be rather underwhelming in the SPHL. Odd-man rushes fly by without a scoring attempt. Breakouts look broken. A goal scorer in the first period for Huntsville struggled to get off a rudimentary wrist shot on two open chances during a second-period shift, looking more like he was trying to plunge a toilet than score a goal.

But the hockey is only part of the appeal of Havoc games. Another part is the mascots (there are two of them). Not to mention the "shenanigans" and the giveaways and the gimmicks.

"You try and have something that you're doing that night. It's a struggle sometimes," Balch said. "Tonight, we're doing a thing where for 50 cents you can have cheese added to anything. For a dollar, you can have mac and cheese added to anything. Last year we did bacon. It's just little things like that. It's not something that'll drive people here, but it's something for the people who are here."

Some of the fans are watching the game in a way I'd never seen before: Chairs and bar tables against the glass, with servers bringing over beer and $11 chicken nachos. They're called "ice suites," and other SPHL teams, such as the Fayetteville Marksmen, have them, as well. The tickets run $46, compared with $13 for general admission seats.

"Somebody has to die to get those," said Edie Ryan, a Havoc season-ticket holder. "We're on the list."

For two teams in such close proximity, the Birmingham vs. Huntsville game lacked a rivals' intensity, but it had its share of drama, with the Bulls desperately holding on to a 5-4 lead. Havoc fans loudly tried to rally their team to a fifth goal, which would have meant both a tie score and free Domino's bread twists for all in attendance. (Shenanigans!)

Birmingham held on for the 5-4 win. The Havoc stick-saluted their fans on the ice after the loss while "I Thank You" by Sam and Dave blared on the speakers.

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The Chuck-a-Puck between periods at the Huntsville Havoc game.

The Chuck-a-Puck between periods at the Huntsville Havoc game. Video by Greg Wyshynski

"We always have pretty good support, but the last three years -- man, it's been crazy. We sell out like every other night," said coach Glenn Detulleo. "And even when we don't, when there's like 3,500 people in the building, it's loud, the energy is good."

I'm the only reporter looking for Detulleo after the game.

"What's really hurt this community is that there isn't a local newspaper," Balch said. "The Huntsville Times went away four or five years ago. They might print three or four times a week, but now they're part of a conglomerate. We haven't seen a newspaper reporter in years."

"So we knew we had to create our own content. Three years ago, we hired our own social media person. We decided we have our own platform now. We'd like to have articles about us, but we can post whatever we want about the team. That really changed our attendance. We pulled all of our traditional dollars from advertising in newspapers and radio, and we put it all into Facebook and online. You're advertising to people that already like you. I'm not hoping that 25 percent of the people watching Comcast cable are going to see my commercial. We know we're getting our commercial to people that already like us, because they liked our page. We set an attendance record three years ago, and we broke it last year."

The loss to the Bulls was the type of loss that still left the fans feeling satisfied. The margin was close. The finish was frantic. For $1, they could put mac and cheese on a burger.

It was a fun night. Even if there wasn't a fight.

A brief word about fighting in the SPHL

Fighting and the Southern Professional Hockey League used to be synonymous. Search YouTube, and you fall down a rabbit hole of line brawls and bloody-knuckled bouts. It wasn't just a minor league thing but rather the coin of the realm in the South for hockey: As John Bassett discovered when he moved the Toros, the fights were more popular than the goals.

But today in Alabama, fighting has become an increasing rarity. I watched two SPHL games between geographic rivals in one weekend. I didn't see anything that approached a fight. It was weird.

"It's down. Way down. It's on a multiyear downslope for us, just like in the NHL," Balch said.

How much down? In 2013-14, the SPHL had 500 fighting majors. Last season, it had 302 of them in a 56-game season, the second year it had steeply declined.

There was some worry in Huntsville and Birmingham about what fewer fights would mean for attendance, seeing as how they were a selling point.

"To be completely honest, we were concerned about that in the beginning, because that's what you sell in the South. That's what people know about hockey who are from here: that they let them fight," said Balch, a Huntsville native.

Yet a five-year low in fighting came in a season that saw the SPHL's second-highest average attendance in that span (3,214 fans per game).

"It's working its way out of the game, and it has not had a negative impact on business. I don't really know how to describe that it hasn't. In the very beginning, when we would walk around during the game, that would be one of the questions we'd get: 'Are they gonna fight?' Like, I don't know, man, are they? [Laughs] But I haven't been asked that in like five years. It took some time to train the fans, too, that it's really dangerous," Balch said.

Turns out there's more to hockey than punching.

"They get excited about the fights, but there's nothing like scoring a goal. People go totally ape s---," said Birmingham Bulls owner Art Clarkson. "Brothers kiss brothers. Women kiss their sisters. They just go f---ing out of their minds. And we help them."

Saturday morning, Birmingham

I'm in a Mazda, driving in the outskirts of Birmingham with Art Clarkson, the 77-year-old owner of the SPHL's Bulls and a walking mannequin for the team's gear, from his camouflage hat to his red and black polo shirt. He's the kind of person who manages to dull the edges of his cantankerous wit with a winking charisma, someone who is exasperated by the absurdity of life while at the same time gleefully contributing to it. He is, in a word, a character.

His phone rings. It's the Bulls' front office. There was a problem after last night's win at Huntsville.

"I need the number for the bus company."

"Why?" Clarkson asks.

"Our bus broke down last night, and they had to send a new bus to pick up the team."

"OK, and so what's the problem?"

"Well, the broken bus is still in Huntsville. It's blocking the Havoc's equipment trailer. They can't get their gear for tonight's game if we can't move our bus out of the way."

Clarkson sighs. He begins scrolling through one of the most extensive contact lists I've ever seen, filled with names of athletes, league commissioners and at least two people named Bart Starr. He passes along the number of the bus company. Crisis averted. The Bulls would have an opponent tonight, dressed appropriately.

"This stuff happens," said Bulls coach Jamey Hicks. "We made the most of it, spent some quality time together. Got some card games going in the rink. Guys were watching movies on the bus. It's not like we were broken down on the side of the road."

Bulls forward Josh Harris, however, was perplexed by the situation.

"What, they didn't just have their team push it out of the way?"

Saturday brunch, Birmingham

Clarkson is sitting beside me at brunch, waiting for his lemon ricotta pancakes to arrive, telling me what people don't understand about the San Diego Chicken.

"You have to market the Chicken when the Chicken comes to town. You can't just say [bangs the table] 'Here he is,'" Clarkson said. "After the seventh inning, the Chicken signs autographs for everyone in the building. That's what makes him the Chicken. It's common sense."

Clarkson has used the Chicken to draw crowds during his multi-decade, multisport career in sports marketing and ownership. He has used a stunt man named "Death Wish," whose gimmick was to stand atop an arena catwalk, light himself on fire and then crash down to the ice below. He once promised fans that an F-86 fighter jet would fly through the arena and over the ice during a hockey game, which ended up being the sound of jet engines blasting on the speakers and an announcer saying fans must have just missed it if they didn't catch a glimpse.

He's a salesman, and will make the sale by any means necessary. In 1974, he was running a small real estate insurance business in Beverly Hills, California, when he read in the L.A. Times about something called the World Football League starting, with a franchise in Anaheim called the Southern California Sun. Clarkson got in his car, drove to the team's offices in Newport Beach and vowed he could sell out the arena if they hired him.

"I had never sold a ticket in my life," he said. "But I'm a salesman. People were selling 16 season tickets a week, and I would sell 100. I had a method. I would go to these industrial parks, law offices. I had a secret line: 'My name is Art Clarkson with the Southern California Sun. I just came by to verify that you've been contacted for your charter season tickets.' So the gatekeeper can't stop you. She would be like, 'We're not interested.' And I would say, 'Ma'am, I'm not selling anything. I'm here to verify.'"

In four weeks, they made him the sales manager.

His career took him around the sports world, including a stint running the Memphis Chicks minor league baseball team, where he reveled in stealing the advertising clients of an Alabama marketing agency. That agency was so impressed that it asked him to move to Birmingham to do it there, offering him a minority stake in another baseball team, the Birmingham Barons. He eventually would buy the Barons for $150,000, and sell them for $3.6 million.

In 1991, a decade after the Bulls folded, Clarkson decided he wanted to bring hockey back to Birmingham. So he resurrected the Bulls, relocating the ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones to Birmingham, and owned the team from 1992 to '98 before selling it out of frustration with the way the league was run. Attendance went from 6,500 per game to less than 1,500; the Bulls relocated again in 2001, leaving Birmingham. That is, until Clarkson decided in 2016 to bring them back a second time.

What motivated him?

"You want the honest-to-God truth? I was going to the gym, and I thought, 'Why don't we bring the hockey team back?' That was it. There was no ulterior reason. No feeling like we gotta bring them back. I thought it would be a fun thing to do," he said.

So he did what he always did, which was start selling, seeking investors he knew from previous flights of fancy. "I put it out on the news that we had all these investors, which we didn't, and we just needed two more to make it happen. And we got so many out of nowhere," he said.

Eli Gold has known Clarkson for decades. The voice of Crimson Tide football, he came aboard as the part-time voice of the Bulls, which was a coup for the team. (Imagine Vin Scully doing play-by-play for the Los Angeles Kings in their infancy. It's like that.) A former hockey broadcaster for the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators, he was the least astonished man in Alabama that Clarkson was at it again.

"Knowing Art, I wasn't surprised. He thrives on running sports organizations. That's what he does. He loves these [smaller-]sized markets, and he knows how to do it. He's tremendously successful," Gold said. "I chide him that he's someone caught on the on-ramp of the information superhighway, but he manages to put people in the building. The man can sell anything to anybody."

After his epiphany, Clarkson went downtown and told the current civic center owners that he wanted to bring hockey back. They said they weren't interested. Clarkson was stunned, then asked again, this time with numbers: They weren't interested in $950,000 to $1 million in concessions? Clarkson said they gave him every excuse as to why the team shouldn't return, including the fact that all its equipment had been sold. He then threatened to tell the public the building didn't want hockey back, and the owners told him they'd never work with him if that happened.

"I told them I didn't give a s---. So I went public. And I got a call from [the towns of] Hoover and Pelham saying they were building a hockey stadium, and they wanted us to be a part of it," he said.

Clarkson got his building, the Pelham Civic Complex. And with the Bulls resurrected, it was time to start selling.

"My idol is P.T. Barnum, and let me explain why," Clarkson said as his pancakes arrived. "I was sitting in my den watching a movie about his life, about 20 years ago. He's on his deathbed. His son walks over and asks him what he attributes his success to. And Barnum says, 'I've got two words: common sense.' That's what I go by. What do the people want?"

Clarkson acknowledges that the second-year team doesn't have the crowds of some of its SPHL rivals. But that's not his focus. "My attendance figure may not be as high as it should be, but the money is fantastic. One team in this league wanted to sell out for opening night. So he charged $5 a ticket and got a $35,000 gate. [We had] 2,700 that night and had a $45,000 gate. If you don't put a value on your ticket, people will perceive that you don't put a value on your product," he said.

How did he know the return of hockey to Birmingham would be a success?

"I don't want to get cocky again, but there's no room for failure," he said. "One of the worst things you can do is look back. Your dreams are in your future; my accomplishments are in my past. But this is my last team, I know that."

Saturday night, Birmingham

The Pelham Civic Complex is in the middle of a massive parking lot adjacent to the Oak Mountain Amphitheatre concert venue, lending the building the spatial gravitas of a major arena. It's home to the Bulls, the University of Alabama-Birmingham's club hockey team and the University of Alabama's club team, which counts the sons of former NHL greats Danny Briere and Curtis Joseph among its players. The arena feels distant from Birmingham in a way the Havoc's home ice does not in Huntsville, as it's tucked away in the woods far from the city center.

"They've gained some interest, but unfortunately they play their games at the one ice rink in Birmingham, which is 20 to 30 minutes south of city center in Pelham," said Christopher Weingartner, an NHL fan from Birmingham. "That keeps popularity capped to some extent, and makes going to open skates limited to only more devoted adults and parents."

Devoted would be the word for "Section 1-Oh-Hate" at Bulls games.

It exists in the end zone of the Pelham Civic Complex, in Section 108, behind where the opposing goaltender plies his trade twice per game. It's filled with the most die-hard of die-hard Birmingham Bulls fans, who took inspiration from the Nashville Predators' Cellblock 303 to create a raucous fan section.

"After a hiatus of not having a team, we wanted to have some kind of electricity on the arena. It's taken off. Now we've got banners, merchandise," said Bulls fan Christopher Easter.

"And we wanted to be behind the opposing goalie," said his brother, Todd.

The Havoc drew 4,615 fans on Friday night versus the 2,586 in Birmingham on Saturday, but Section 1-Oh-Hate worked hard to make up the enthusiasm gap. During the game, they lead the crowd in thunderous "it's all your fault!" chants after the Havoc goalie gives up a goal, and an "I believe that we will win" chant as the Bulls take the lead over the Havoc with three first-period goals. They stomp their feet to make the bleachers shake. They get delightfully silly, too: When forward Loren Ulett threw a few solid hits on one shift, they serenaded him with "Ulett the dogs out?"

And cowbells. So, so many cowbells.

Section 1-Oh-Hate is a microcosm of the Bulls fans at the civic center, if not in volume then in aesthetics. Huntsville fans were dressed like it was a hockey bar. Birmingham fans are dressed like it's a Bulls game, with only a scant few NHL jerseys in the crowd of a few thousand.

"Ours are a little more Alabama; theirs is a little more cosmopolitan," Clarkson said.

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Can races at the Birmingham Bulls game

The soda can races at the Birmingham Bulls game. Video by Greg Wyshynski

If you envisioned "hockey in Alabama," the Birmingham game looked more like it, partially because it was Military Appreciation Night. It meant a free ticket for anyone active or uniformed. It meant Scout Troop 4 from Vestavia Hills handing out Bulls camouflage hats to the first 1,500 fans. It meant a gaggle of Army recruits taking their oath on the ice during intermission. It meant the only reference to President Donald Trump heard in either arena in this very red state, as his name was screamed out by a fan during a celebration of the Armed Forces on the video screen. And it meant one-night-only jerseys auctioned off after the game, featuring American flags on the sleeves and player nameplates swapped for military terminology; forward Josh Harris, for example, was known as "F-86 Sabre" for the night. Goalie Mavric Parks, naturally, had "Top Gun."

Parks was outstanding in the 6-2 rout of Huntsville to complete the weekend sweep, making 31 saves. After the final buzzer, he skated over to where the players were exiting the rink and got down on one knee. For a moment, I thought he was injured. Teammate Andrew Darrigo skated over and kneeled next to him.

It wasn't an injury. It was a postgame prayer, on the ice, which isn't seen anywhere in the NHL but is commonplace for the Birmingham Bulls, according to their coach.

"We had six guys do that the other night," said Jamey Hicks, an Ontario native who played for the previous incarnation of the Bulls from 1996 to 2001. "We're in the South. We have a pastor come in every Wednesday to talk about life, and stuff like that. It's interesting: When you listen to [Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike] Babcock talk, he's always talking about mental health and going through that. A lot of these guys are away from home, maybe for the first time. So we try to make it as easy as possible."

Harris, a 30-year-old Bulls forward from Torrance, California, has been away from home since 2013, when he signed to play in Huntsville, making him the rare player who has competed for both SPHL franchises in Alabama.

"[Birmingham] is the bigger city. But [the Havoc] have a bigger arena, they get a lot more fans. It's an awesome place to play. They've been around a little longer than us. But I love Birmingham. Great city," he said. "A couple of people notice you, recognize you. That's why I love it. You're famous in this town."

The Bulls are starting to get more notice in their second season back, but it still feels like a franchise finding its identity. There's the inherent nostalgia of the previous incarnations of the Bulls, including the WHA team. There's the glorious P.T. Barnum act of Art Clarkson. And there's the constant battle for attention with the Crimson Tide, at least until after college bowl season, something that affects both SPHL teams.

"It's an exciting sport. It's a colorful sport. It's a family sport. And it's about two and a half hours, start to finish," said Gold, the voice of the Crimson Tide, who called their win over The Citadel before broadcasting for the Bulls that evening.

"It's still growing," Hicks said. "We're in football country. And that's OK. After Christmas, it picks up. But we have die-hards. We have fans that come out every night and support us. And they're loud, and they're proud. It's a very interesting dynamic, being so far south and having so many people into it."

It's a dynamic that has changed dramatically thanks to the Nashville Predators.

Monday night, Nashville

It was 1997, and David Letterman was being absolutely savage to hockey fans in the South.

Nashville had been awarded an NHL expansion team. On "The Late Show," Letterman was guffawing at the idea of a pro hockey team in Tennessee. "That'll be the only arena in the country where the fans have less teeth than the players," he said.

The team hadn't played a game yet, but it was already a punchline. So the Predators decided to be in on the joke, enlisting country music stars like Garth Brooks, Martina McBride and Vince Gill to smile with blacked-out teeth in a series of ads that spoofed the "Got Milk?" ad campaign retitled "Got Tickets?"

It was one of the first instances of what would come to define the Predators organization and its outreach to other parts of the South: a self-deprecating approach to a stodgy sport, and a wide embrace of its regional roots.

"It used to be the word 'nontraditional' was an insult. But we embraced it. Yeah, we're nontraditional. It's more fun that way," said Predators CEO Sean Henry.

It's a Monday night. The Predators are playing Eastern Conference pacesetter Tampa Bay, and as usual, Bridgestone Arena is packed with Nashville fans. The Predators have averaged more than 17,160 fans per game since 2016. A decade ago, they were at less than 15,000. But a few years ago, the Predators figured it out. They began marketing the experience as much as the hockey. Come for the flying catfish on the ice, the Tim McGraw goal song and the cheeseball chants -- I'm a big fan of the "Monster Block" song imported from pro volleyball for big saves by Nashville goalies -- and stay for one of the most successful teams on NHL ice over the past few seasons.

They cracked the code on how to market hockey in the most nontraditional of nontraditional markets, and Alabama took notice.

"We try to pattern ourselves after what they've done. It's worked for them," said Havoc president Balch. "When you put the entertainment and the winning together, then you really have that home run."

The Predators draw a significant number of fans from Alabama. Henry said 23 percent of the team's business comes from outside of Tennessee, with Alabama and Kentucky each accounting for about 40 percent of that 23 percent chunk. The Predators are the de facto team of the South. Their bright yellow jerseys dot the stands at games in Huntsville, Birmingham and Atlanta, which the ECHL Gladiators call home. In fact, the Predators made a not-so-subtle pitch to Atlanta fans when the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.

"We launched a Thrash-to-Nash weekend plan. It was for fun, gimmicky. We thought we'd sell about 30 or 40 of those packs, and we ended up selling 500. It blew us away. Shocked us," he said.

Part of that plan: Their mascot, Gnash, would "knight" former Thrashers fans during Nashville home games as they turned in their Atlanta jerseys for Nashville ones.

"We've had nice growth over the past handful of years. Now that we own our [market] and do pretty well selling out, ratings, saturation points, we're looking at the next circle. It's always been our broadcast markets: northern Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky," Henry said.

Part of that outreach has been an investment in the grassroots.

The Predators helped the Alabama-Huntsville program when it was in trouble financially. They held a Havoc game in their building during the 2012 lockout and are looking at bringing a preseason game to Birmingham soon.

Then there's the investment in youth hockey.

"The Preds have done some pretty good things to expand their presence into North Alabama," said Daniel Thompson, a fan from Huntsville. "The North Alabama Hockey Association's learn to play is called the Lil' Preds program, which [former Predator] Cody Hodgson is a regular part of. Lil' Preds is great because it is a six-week program that is $120 and the kids get head-to-toe gear to keep. So it provides an affordable way for parents to get their kids into the sport.

"This year, they also started up the Predators G.O.A.L, or Go Out And Learn, which is a Preds-sponsored free program similar to USA Hockey's Try Hockey For Free. They sent down a large assortment of brand-new CCM gear for NAHA to use. With each session, they send down jerseys and sticks for the kids to keep. So that boosts the number of opportunities for kids to try hockey out for free, from two with just USA Hockey, to six times a year including G.O.A.L. The organization also sent new rink dividers down, too. So with these programs, they are providing families an opportunity to explore the sport and create future fans."

Huntsville has a local rink with two sheets of ice, including one the Havoc practice on. The Pelham Civic Complex has two sheets, which are used by youth hockey teams.

Nashville is getting more places to play. There are two sheets of ice under construction in Nashville. A small arena with a sheet of ice is being built in Clarksville, Tennessee. There are YMCA outdoor rinks for deck hockey. Previously, the Predators gave away 5,000 hockey nets during games and followed with a social media campaign in which fans posted videos of themselves dangling in their driveways and scoring into those nets.

"Put a net in someone's driveway and they'll be shooting on it all the time," Henry said. "Just get a stick in the kid's hand. Don't worry if he's playing travel hockey or rec hockey or just in the street."

But playing the game isn't essential to fandom. That's true in Huntsville. That's true in Birmingham. That's true in Nashville.

"In hockey, we always one-up each other as fans. 'I'm from this Northern city, so I know more.' Or, 'I played in this league,'" Henry said. "Go to a football game. How many of those people in the stands do you think have thrown a pass in a game? Most of them have thrown them in their front yard. No one ever asks you if you wore the pads or who you played for. I don't care if you played Div. I college elite hockey or juniors or the NHL ... you can be as passionate."

Anyone can be a fervent hockey fan. Even the head football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Seeing Nick Saban in a Predators jersey is like finding out that chef Thomas Keller is also a huge fan of Taco Bell: a perplexing but welcome endorsement for fans of the latter. In a way, Saban is like so many of the other hockey fans in Alabama I met during this journey: a transplant, having grown up in West Virginia; someone still learning the nuances of the game but infected by the hockey bug.

"That's tough on me, because where I'm from, everybody's a Penguins fan. So they're killing me," said Saban last year, speaking about the Predators at a charity golf tournament.

"One of the things that I found out when I sat down to watch a game down there was ... well, everybody's waving their towels and stuff, and I was like, 'I don't really know what to do.' It's been five years since I've been at a game that's not our game. And I'm never sitting in the stands when it's our game. But I've actually got the fever."

The fever spreads in unexpected ways, in unexpected places. There are only scattered cases in Alabama, but with two thriving pro teams, a few college ones, growing youth programs and an NHL team one state away fueling all of it, the puckheads there are confident others will eventually catch the fever, too.