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Team and League History

April 11, 2003
Dr. Nick Vaccaro and Allan Howell announce they will be creating a new professional hockey league to rival the National Hockey League. The new league would be called the World Hockey Association, after the league that played in the 1970's. Birmingham was named, along with 28 other cities, as potential sites for franchises.

     World Hockey Association 2 logo
Vaccaro and Howell are heavily involved with the Anaheim Roadrunners of the American Basketball Association and claim to have been working on this idea since 2000. "There is no doubt in my mind that now is the time to aggressively move forward in every way and take complete advantage of this wonderful opportunity. The timing could not be better. The preliminary responses we have solicited could not be more encouraging. Yes, now is the time," Dr. Vaccaro said.

However, many feel that the hockey's narrow main-stream appeal can't support another major hockey league. Very few of the minor league hockey teams are making money and the current economy isn't showing signs of growth. All of these factors could play a major role in the success of the new league.

Birmingham had a franchise in the old WHA, when John Bassett moved his Toronto Toros in 1976 and renamed them the Birmingham Bulls. In March of 1979, the NHL agreed to take in four of the WHA's more successful teams and the WHA ceased operations. Unfortunately, the Birmingham franchise was not one of those teams.

A minor league farm system is also planned, named the WHA2, which will be a training ground for players, coaches, office staff, and officials.

May 12, 2003
WHA2 officials state that Birmingham has been awarded a franchise in their proposed minor league.

WHA president of hockey operations Peter Young said the league was attracted to Birmingham and the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex. "What we're looking for are major markets with NHL-sized buildings. You don't have to do the math to realize Birmingham has an NHL-caliber facility, so Birmingham is in line for the WHA. Birmingham has got the population base and the building and that's the two most important criteria."

However, Frank Poe, BJCC executive director, said he would not sign a contract with either the WHA2 or the Atlantic Coast Hockey League until both leagues notify him that they have worked out their differences. The two leagues are in heated discussions regarding Florida developer David Waronker pulling his three teams out of the ACHL so they could join the WHA2. Waronker owns the Miami Manatees, Jacksonville Barracudas, Orlando Seals, and Macon Trax.

According to Young, the Birmingham team won't have local ownership initially, but will have local involvement.

Birmingham is the sixth city to be added to the WHA2. Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville, Lakeland (FL), and Macon have already been granted franchises.

Each team in the league will operate under an $8 million salary cap. Each team will also be able to sign one high-profile player that doesn't fall under the salary cap. "We're not going to get into a bidding war like the first WHA," Young said.

The WHA2 will begin play in October 2003 while the WHA will wait until October 2004 to get started.

Rumors are that WHA teams will compete in the WHA2 for the first year to better prepare themselves for the WHA the following year. If that method proves successful, future teams that join the league could face the same one year WHA2 membership trial before being allowed to join the WHA.

May 14, 2003
The WHA2 and the ACHL issue press releases stating they've reached an agreement to their dispute.

The resolution signed today ends all legal issues surrounding the withdrawal of the Miami Manatees, Jacksonville Barracudas, Orlando Seals, and Macon Trax from the ACHL and their entry along with the Lakeland Loggerheads in the WHA2. The ACHL will continue operation of its league and will respect the rights of WHA2 to operate exclusively in Miami, Lakeland, Orlando, Macon, and Jacksonville.

Also, the WHA2 will not attempt to field expansion teams in Knoxville, Fayetteville, or Winston-Salem.

Waronker pulled his four teams from the ACHL at the end of 2002-03 season citing player insurance issues.

"In the end we got want we wanted," Waronker said. "We realize freedom to separate from the direction of the ACHL and to make sure that the health and safety of all our players, including their outstanding medical bills, were being taken care of by the ACHL. As we owned or had a significant interest in four of the six ACHL teams, I had a huge investment and interest to make sure that the league followed the directive of developing hockey talent. At the end of last season, I saw us leaving that mission and that scared me as an owner and as a fan of the sport. Our new league will not only develop hockey players into professionals looking to go to the highest level of competition, but will also provide for the development of the entire franchise, including coaches, trainers, and all office staff."

May 20, 2003
The ACHL announces they are close to finalizing a lease at the BJCC. The ACHL's plans came as a surprise to the WHA2.

"That's news to me," said Taylor Hall, president of the local WHA2 team. "I met with the BJCC today and no one mentioned they were putting a team there. But we're not really worried about what the ACHL is doing as far as their league and teams. We're forging ahead."

May 21, 2003
Hall, president of Alabama Professional Hockey, announces that Birmingham is officially a part of the WHA2.

Hall also has completed negotiations for the team to play their home games in the 3,500-seat Pelham Civic Complex arena. "Playing in this building is a wonderful start for us. At some point in time, we hope we outgrow this facility. But for right now, it's going to be an absolutely great home," Hall said.

WHA2 franchises will operate with an annual budget of $1 million, which will include a $6,400 a week cap on players' salaries. Also, each team will play a 60-game regular season schedule, instead of the 70 to 80-game seasons typical for most hockey leagues.

Because of such constraints, Hall said the new team can easily be financially successful in a 3,500-seat facility. "We really only need about 1,000 people (per game) to make it work. If we get 3,500 that's great. But we don't need 3,500."

"We’re going to have a VIP room where the players will be going after each and every game to sign autographs and mingle with the fans, which I think is something that is very important. Fans who do buy merchandise and memorabilia will be able to personalize it by having their favorite player sign it for them," Hall said.

The ownership group is sponsoring a 'name the team' contest but the franchise's name will probably begin with "Central Alabama".

June 9, 2003
The league announces they are exploring the possibility of having a Canadian Division this season. Of the seven potential cities named, four believe they could be operational in time for the upcoming season.

"If the Canadian Division played in 2003-04, each team would make two trips south to play the American Division teams. American Division teams would make one trip north to play all four Canadian teams," said Young. "For the balance of the season, the teams will play teams in their own division. At playoff time the top two teams in the north would be given the last two seeds in the Southern playoffs, with a guarantee of a home date if they made it past the first round."

"Although it will be a challenge to get this division ready for the inaugural season of the WHA2, we have set a deadline of June 30th to make it happen," Waronker said.

June 10, 2003
  Head coach Garry Unger
At a press conference, Hall introduces Garry Unger as the team's head coach. Unger has spent the last seven years as the head coach of the Central Hockey League's Tulsa Oilers. Under Unger's direction, the Oilers won the CHL championship during their 1992-93 season.

"I'm excited about the new league. It's kind of exciting to start something new," Unger said. He currently holds the CHL record for most games coached at 568 and is second in number of wins with 292.

"To be able to get someone with as much experience in the hockey world as Garry is a tremendous step forward for us," Hall said. The two have known each other for years and Hall was an assistant to Unger at Tulsa for several seasons.

Unger played in the NHL for sixteen years where he earned the nickname "Ironman" for playing in 914 consecutive games. The bulk of his playing career was with the St. Louis Blues, where he also made seven NHL All-Star teams.

July 29, 2003
Team officials announce the local WHA2 franchise will be named the Alabama Slammers. The name was picked from a list that included Freeze, Vulcans, and Hammers.

"We couldn't be happier with the team's new look and identity. Our team will be built to reflect the hard-working and aggressive nature the name implies," Hall said.

November 2003

World Hockey Association 2 logo 2003-04                            
World Hockey Association 2                            
xxx   xxx   xxx   xxx   xxx   xxx
  Alabama Slammers logo   Jacksonville Barracudas logo   Lakeland Loggerheads logo   Macon Trax logo   Miami Manatees logo  
  Alabama Slammers   Jacksonville Barracudas
  Lakeland Loggerheads   Macon Trax   Miami Manatees  
  Orlando Seals logo                  
  Orlando Seals                  

March 8, 2004
The WHA2 announces the Miami Manatees will finish out the season as a traveling team. League officials said last week that the Manatees would be relocating to the Orlando suburb of Maitland because of poor attendance. The Manatees were averaging 1,061 in Miami Arena.

Instead, the team is scheduled to be sold Thursday, April 15 to Miami businessman Al Harper, who said he plans to keep the team in Miami for the 2004-05 season.

Because the Manatees will play only road games to finish this season, the four teams with the best winning percentage will make the playoffs, regardless of points accumulated.

April 9, 2004
At the Pelham Civic Center, the second playoff game between the Slammers and the Macon Trax was halted with 3:11 remaining in the 2nd period. An official had noticed a hole in the ice which created a safety hazard for the players.

After an extended intermission, the officials determined the ice was unsafe to resume play and the game was moved to the auxiliary practice rink at the Pelham Civic Center for its conclusion. The change of venue seemed to suit the Trax just fine as they completed a playoff sweep of the Slammers.

April 21, 2004
     Eastern Hockey League logo
At a press conference, the World Hockey Association 2 announced that its member teams will be leaving the league to align with the reincarnated Eastern Hockey League. The league just completed its first season with the league championship being won by the Jacksonville Barracudas.

Franchises include the Orlando Seals, Jacksonville Barracudas, Asheville Aces, Lakeland Loggerheads, Macon Trax, and Alabama Slammers. The Miami Manatees have agreed to follow the former WHA2 member teams to the new league and has been granted a temporary one year suspension of operations while it looks to relocate for the 2005-06 season.

Speculation is high that there will also be teams located in Huntsville and Winston-Salem, both of which field teams in the South East Hockey League. SEHL president John Cherney has said that the original four SEHL franchises, the Cape Fear Fire Antz, Huntsville Channel Cats, Knoxville Ice Bears, and Winston-Salem T-Birds have sent letters of commitment to play in the SEHL for the upcoming 2004-05 season. Each team is in the process of finalizing lease agreements with their respective arenas.

In addition, Cherney says he has letters of commitment from ownership groups in two new additional cities, possibly bringing SEHL membership to six for the coming year. In addition, Columbus has ended its affiliation with the East Coast Hockey League and has yet to commit to another league for next season. "I had conversations with the building (management) before I realized (Columbus ownership) still had the lease. I think they know we would love for them to join. I think they're interested. I think they're waiting to see who is left standing," Waronker said.

The Eastern Hockey League has existed twice before, from 1954 to 1973 and then again in 1979 through 1981. The original EHL started with five teams, growing to two divisions in 1959-1960, to a maximum of twelve teams and in their final season to three divisions. In 1973 the league folded, splitting into two parts; the North American Hockey League and the Southern Hockey League.

The decision to leave the WHA2, and ultimately the fledgling World Hockey Association, was agreed to by the league's Board of Governors on March 3, 2004. Citing a lack of support, direction, leadership, and proven ability to see the WHA materialize into a self proclaimed major professional hockey league was the major determining factors as to why the WHA2 member teams decided to align with the EHL. "Promises of financial support, guidance, and the possibility of the WHA2 member teams having a future as a developmental league for the WHA never materialized, and it is not likely they ever will materialize", said Hall.

"The WHA failed to provide the committed ownership groups it assured us it would have, and it turns out they wanted me to invest my money and several of my franchises, including Jacksonville and Orlando into their league, and I was just not going to do that", said Waronker. "Once the WHA started to go behind my back and approach our own buildings, and our own staff members, where we have current offices and lease deals in place, enough was enough. We could not continue to share the same name with a league so desperate for franchises that it would try to undermine the franchises of a supposed business partner. We just had to break away and leave the WHA name a part of its failed history."

Waronker claims he owns the rights to the names "WHA2" and "World Hockey Association 2", and he plans on donating league memorabilia to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada.

Waronker states that he invested over $2 million in the WHA2 and several of its member teams, but will walk away with no bitterness. "You sure learn from your mistakes, and you learn that in this business it is very important to align with good, honest people. People with integrity. Also, it is important to align with people who have their own money at risk," said Waronker.

Waronker's involvement with the new league will be purely as owner of the Orlando franchise. The league will be run by a Board of Governors, who will pick a commissioner. Waronker, who co-owns Macon and Jacksonville, said he would sell his interests in both by the end of the summer.

The EHL will start operations this fall and expects to start the season with ten to twelve franchises throughout the Southeastern United States.

May 24, 2004
The Slammers lease with the Pelham Civic Complex will run out in less than a week and the two sides have not ironed out their differences, prompting many to speculate that the Slammers will not return for a second season.

The major issue is the deadline that the Slammers must settle their debts. They city is standing firm to not negotiate an extension until all debts are paid in full before the current lease expires. The Slammers have new investors ready to go but they insist a new lease must in place before they will pay off the debts.

Pelham Mayor Bobby Hayes says the city will not negotiate an extension to the current lease, which will expire on May 31, until the Slammers have paid their outstanding debts to various businesses in the community. "I'm not interested in negotiating with people who haven't paid their debts to the community," Hayes said.

Slammers officials see things a little differently. While they do admit the team currently owes $5,604.84 to the city in taxes, and other amounts to other local businesses, they believe that they can't move forward with new investors in the team until a lease extension is granted. Hall said high startup costs and low attendance figures contributed to the additional debts. "It was a tough year financially for us. We lost a lot more money than we thought we were going to. We just expected to draw more fans," Hall said.

Hayes says the Slammers were warned at a meeting in May that they must settle their debts. "They were warned two months ago that they needed to get their debts straight with all the businesses in the community. The city was told that all their debts would be taken care of."

Rumors of another hockey team moving into the city have been around for weeks but Hayes says the city will not negotiate with anyone other than the Slammers until their lease expires. After that, the city will entertain other offers.

The Slammers have no plans to play anywhere else in the Birmingham area. "At this point in time, we believe the Pelham Civic Center is the best place for us. We want to be back," Hall said.

May 27, 2004
     Southern Hockey League logo
The Eastern Hockey League announces it will immediately be known as the Southern Hockey League. The league claims the move was made to appease the East Coast Hockey League, which said the EHL was too similar to the ECHL, which officially goes by their initials only.

Speaking on behalf of the new Southern Hockey League, Waronker said, "As we try to establish our own identity and the ECHL raised its concerns about the similarity of the names, we looked at the situation and agreed. So a new name is the best way for us to differentiate ourselves and keep our fans focused on our teams."

The move is questioned by many, considering their name is now similar to the South East Hockey League (SEHL), another direct competitor.

June 7, 2004
Hall continues to try and negotiate a lease renewal with the city of Pelham. "We're still very hopeful that we're going to be playing in the Pelham Civic Complex this year," Hall said.

That prospect looks dim, however, as the team is currently not able to pay its employees. Slammers head coach Garry Unger is one of those employees. "I've gotten to the point where I've hung in as long as I can, and I've got to find something I can do. We don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. I've got to get a job," Unger said.

June 25, 2004
Hall denies that he has taken a permanent position with the Winston-Salem Polar Twins, a new addition to the Southern Hockey League for 2004-05. Hall claims he is temporarily working with the franchise as a favor to personal friend David Waronker, who owns the team.

With the announcement that a signed lease is imminent between the city of Pelham and the South East Hockey League, the Slammers future appears dim. Their only hope would be for the lease negotiations to fail or the SEHL not securing enough teams to void the contract.

"I still don't think the door is completely closed on the Slammers. The Slammers still want to be in Pelham," Hall said.

July 1, 2004
     Southern Professional Hockey League logo
The formation of the Southern Professional Hockey League is announced. The teams will be a combination of franchises from the Southern Hockey League (Orlando, Jacksonville, Huntsville, Asheville, and Winston-Salem) and the South East Hockey League (Cape Fear and Knoxville). Columbus and Macon are two other cities expected to receive teams.

Keith Jeffries, president of the Huntsville Havoc, said the SPHL is open to adding the Bulls or the Alabama Slammers to the league as its Pelham franchise. "We're hoping the (Bulls) ownership group there or the Alabama Slammers will get something done in Pelham."

The SEHL will certainly increase its efforts to secure a team in Pelham but there is no chance, according to SEHL president John Cherney, that the leagues will combine. "Our model is totally different (from the SPHL's model). We believe in our model because we can make money," Cherney said.

The SEHL is in fact debt-free. Its players have received paychecks, insurance coverage is in place, and the league even made a profit last year, according to Cherney. The same can't be said of other minor leagues. "Look what happened to Waronker's (league)," Cherney said.

July 24, 2004
As the weeks continue to go by, it appears that the Slammers will not be part of the SPHL, at least for the upcoming season. "We would love to have Pelham in (the SPHL), but we don't have an ownership group identified," said Jeffries.

Hayes says that the Slammers debt to area businesses is still a stumbling block to lease negotiations. Hayes considers Waronker to be directly connected to the franchise, a connection Waronker adamantly denies. Waronker claims he only loaned the local franchise money to get them off the ground and later helped pay off some taxes owed to the city of Pelham. Waronker is currently co-owner and team president of the SPHL's Winston-Salem Polar Twins.

"If the mayor is willing to have a business meeting this week and agree to a guarantee of all unpaid debts, a reasonable lease consistent with the past one and a reasonable security deposit, the Alabama Slammers will be back in Pelham," Waronker said.

August 3, 2004
The Alabama Slammers announce that the franchise will suspend operations, effective immediately. The press release claims the suspension of the franchise comes as a result of the Slammers being unable to secure a lease at the Pelham Civic Complex for the upcoming 2004-05 season.

The Alabama Slammers never returned to the ice, but hockey eventually returned to Birmingham in 2017 when Art Clarkson formed his Birmingham Bulls as members of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Contact Gene Crowley
Last update: July 30, 2021