Hockey headed to Pelham

Professional hockey has made its way to Shelby County with the announcement that Pelham will host a new team in the World Hockey Association’s developmental league, the WHA2.

As many as 4,000 screaming fans could pack the Pelham Civic Complex when the central Alabama franchise takes the ice this October, said Peter Young, president of hockey operations for the WHA2.

&uot;We’re very excited to be in what we feel is the number-one market that doesn’t have professional hockey already,&uot; said Taylor Hall, president and co-owner of the new team. &uot;It’s so exciting for us to go into a market that has educated fans, has supported hockey in the past and wants hockey back in the area.&uot;

The WHA originated in the 1970s to compete with the National Hockey League but folded due to financial problems. The revived league is expected to begin play next year.

The WHA2 team in Pelham will square off against the Orlando Seals, Miami Manatees, Jacksonville Barracudas, Lakeland Loggerheads and Macon Trax when the 2003-2004 season begins this fall. More WHA2 teams are expected to be announced soon.

A &uot;name-the-team contest&uot; will be held to determine a nickname for the franchise, which will likely have &uot;Alabama&uot; in its title, organizers said.

The last professional hockey team in the area was the Birmingham Bulls of the East Coast Hockey League. The Bulls were sold and moved to a different city two years ago.

But the first minor-league hockey team to land in the Birmingham area since the Bulls may soon be joined by another.

A rival league of the WHA, the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, has announced its plans to place a team, also to begin play this fall, at the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center.

Hall said the existing facilities and the potential for upgrade at the Pelham Civic Complex, as well as the open weekend dates there, were the deciding factors for basing the WHA2 team in Pelham as opposed to other locations.

Mayor Bobby Hayes and Civic Complex manager Paul Andrzejewski were also instrumental in bringing professional hockey to Pelham, WHA2 representatives said.

&uot;They just made it so we didn’t have another choice,&uot; Hall said. &uot;We knew after our first meeting we would have a great partnership with the City of Pelham and the Pelham Civic Complex.&uot;

The Pelham Civic Complex has two hockey-sized ice surfaces, banquet facilities and a well-lighted parking lot.

Plans are in the works to add seating along the glass and corporate boxes.

&uot;I expect them to have 3,500 to 4,000 fans in here from time to time. And when they do, this place will be rocking,&uot; Young said.

The team will play around half of its 60-game season at the Pelham Civic Complex and will have a roughly $1 million salary cap except for one NHL or marquee player, Young said.

League founder David Waronker awarded the expansion franchise to Central Alabama at a press conference held at the Pelham Civic Complex last week.

Waronker is the owner of the defending champion Jacksonville Barracudas. He said he welcomed the new franchise, but planned on bringing the championship back to Jacksonville by defeating every team, including the new central Alabama team.

But Mayor Hayes said he had different ideas.

&uot;I wanted to remind him that this is our house and we defend it with pride,&uot; Hayes said.

Regardless of how the team performs, Hayes said the city has already won before the first puck is dropped on the ice.

&uot;It’s a win for our citizens, a win for our facility and I believe a win for the WHA2,&uot; he said.

In addition to the contract for the lease of the Civic Complex, the city of Pelham will also gain revenue if opposing teams are fined by the league when competing there.

If a player from a visiting team is fined for inappropriate behavior during a game the money collected will go straight to the city, Waronker said.

In addition, Waronker announced the first 20 seats were purchased in the name of the WHA charity, Hockey 4 Kids, and donated back to the city of Pelham for their own use