|The late Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion was the first coach in Atlanta hockey history when he took the helm of the expansion Flames in 1972.
Atlanta and Birmingham were considered equal rivals during Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency, but Atlanta's hockey roots may have been planted a little more than a half century ago when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decided that the Georgia city was better suited than Birmingham to become the Southeastern United States International Airport.
If Montreal Canadiens ownership wanted to play a game in Atlanta in 1957, there would have been a problem finding ice, but getting a non-stop flight to Atlanta would not have been a problem. Bernard “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and the rest of the Canadiens might have been pioneers, because the first international flights to the Atlanta airport came from Montreal.
The FAA's international airport designation catapulted Atlanta into becoming the southeast's fastest growing and most important business center, and by 1964, Atlanta officials decided to become a big-league city by building a multi-purpose stadium to attract a Major League Baseball team and either an American or National Football League franchise. The city got the Milwaukee Braves to agree to move to the new stadium in 1965, but a series of league battles delayed the move for one year. The National Football League beat the American Football League and signed a deal to put an expansion team in Atlanta in 1966. The NBA's St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner sold his franchise to Atlanta businessman Tom Cousins in 1968.
Atlanta was not on the radar as an NHL city when the league expanded in 1967 and 1970, but that quickly changed by 1971.
Evan Weiner is a radio and TV commentator, a columnist, an author and a college lecturer. Between 1988 and 1992, he was part of the Minnesota North Stars radio broadcasts with Al Shaver, doing the pre and post game show and in-between period interviews on all North Stars New York area games.
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Atlanta needed a new arena for the Hawks, and Cousins was able to get the Omni Center built. The new arena was scheduled to open in 1972, and Cousins decided he wanted an NHL team, along with his NBA team, in the new building. In the fall of 1971 the NHL expanded, partially in a response to the World Hockey Association, which was still looking for cities as it was in the planning stages of a 1972 start-up, to Nassau County to put a second team in the New York City area and to Atlanta, a town that had absolutely no hockey history.
Atlanta had minor-league baseball for a long time, college football was big, The Masters golf tournament was played in nearby Augusta, Ga., automobile racing went back to 1909 and there was some basketball, but Cousins' new hockey team would start from scratch as his first coach, “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, recalled some 20 years after he arrived in Atlanta.
"One day (Atlanta General Manager) Cliff Fletcher asked me to move to Atlanta," the Hockey Hall of Famer recalled. "I was kind of surprised. I said; ‘Down south, they don't know nothing about hockey or a puck or what have you.’ But you know what, you would be very surprised. The first game we opened against Buffalo we had 11,000 people and every time we (the Flames) were shooting at the goaltender, there was a standing ovation. Just shows you how much they knew the game.
"When we were in Atlanta, we didn't worry about the northern people, New York, Montreal, Boston all those people. I would say that (in the Omni watching hockey), it was 25 percent southern people, they really wanted to learn the game."
Geoffrion was part of hockey royalty. He married former Canadien Howie Morenz’s daughter, he was the second player to score 50 goals in a season and was part of the Montreal Canadiens teams that won five straight Stanley Cups between 1956-60. But in Atlanta he was just another guy looking to break into the Atlanta business community.
"The first year I was there, I used to take the movie machine with the Stanley Cup and I used to go to colleges, high schools, what have you, and we sold 10,500 season tickets," he said. "There was a lot of things you had to explain. Those kids in college ask you all kinds of questions about hockey. They had never seen hockey, the southern people. But if you take your time and you stop the machine and you explain to them what it is, they'd just love it because there was fighting. You know (in) football, you hit the guy the play stops. You take football out of the four quarters you have about eight or nine minutes of playing time, that's it, the rest was piled up."
Geoffrion got used to living in a non-hockey community, but the Flames didn't get players until June 1972, and goaltender Phil Myre was shocked when he got to Atlanta.
"It was strange but at the same time it was such a good opportunity for me," said Myre. "You know we went there in ’72 and it was the first time the League went south. It was quite an experience. It was not a hockey market, it was a great market. The fans at the beginning were not knowledgeable for the most part. We could even see some fans would come down and try to touch the ice. We are talking 35 years ago, people were not so familiar with artificial ice down south, so it was great educating these people.
|Phil Myre was the first goaltender in Atlanta Flames'
history, and enjoyed his six years playing there.
"I am not sure what their thought process was. They knew it was ice, but I don't know if they wanted to know if it was cold or hard or what their thought process was, but many of them wanted to touch the ice and see what it felt like."
Myre thought Geoffrion was the perfect coach in Atlanta to get people interested in hockey, and coaching a team made up of players that no one else wanted.
"Boom Boom Geoffrion for the first three years did an outstanding job with our teams because we had a bunch of players who were hard workers, but not very talented. Boomer did a great job giving us confidence,” Myre said. “If you picture Boomer with the three-piece suit and his demeanor, a debonair type of person, he always projected a lot of confidence and projected the aura of the Montreal Canadiens. He was great for us, he was giving us that feeling we could win."
Geoffrion became an Atlanta resident and remained there after Cousins sold the Flames to Calgary businessmen who moved them to the Alberta city. He also made some public relations appearances for the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, a franchise which started play in 1999. Geoffrion even spoke with a southern drawl although he pointed out he could speak "New Yawk" as well because of his years as Rangers coach.
"I could speak French, so I could make out most of it," laughed Myre, recalling Geoffrion's mixed accents of Quebec French-Canadian, English, New York and U.S. South. ”The Boomer was always able to get his point across no matter what language it was in. You know Boomer remained in Atlanta all these years, he never moved out of there and after a few years he was able to pick up the drawl. He was always able to get his point across, he was a man of conviction, he believed in himself and he was always straight to the point."
Atlanta in 1972 was a vastly different city than it is 36 years later. Hartsfield-Jackson Airport remains one of the busiest airports in the United States, and the city has a much larger population and a bigger business base. Ted Turner's cable TV holdings along with the Weather Channel, helped make Atlanta a global hub.
It was Turner, who put Atlanta Flames games on his national WTBS station in the late 1970s, and who brought the NHL back to Atlanta when he was awarded an NHL expansion team in 1997.
"I tried to enjoy it as much as possible," said Myre of his Atlanta experiences. "It was quite enjoyable and I was there for six years and I must say it was one of my favorite cities. Atlanta has grown quite a bit since the 1970s. When we were there, it was a small city in the south. It was a very busy city, but now in the 2000s, it is a big metropolitan area, it's grown considerably."
The airport remains the major reason that Atlanta is a major United States Southeastern city. Most flights to the south go to Atlanta and connect elsewhere. The construction of a new terminal in 1957, combined with getting an International designation made Atlanta a big-league city. The city has hosted Super Bowls, World Series, the 1996 Summer Olympics and now the NHL All-Star Game.