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Kent Nilsson's incredible 131-point campaign still stands as the best in franchise history

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

He'll always be thought of as hockey's eternal Peter Pan.

One unparalleled winter, he whisked fans in this town away to Neverland.

Never happened before.

Never happened again.

"There are very, very few players who can totally control a game,'' the rugged Willi Plett once said of enigmatic linemate Kent Nilsson.

"Usually, even very good players need someone else in order to shine. Kent didn't need anyone else to shine.

"And he made everyone around him - no matter who they were - shine, too."

Never more glittering than the first season - 1980-81 - the Flames' franchise relocated from Atlanta to Calgary.

As a Memory/Moment, take it in total.

Think of the impact this way: The 131 points Nilsson stockpiled that year are a full 21 more than any other single individual season by a Flame (Joey Mullen, 110, '88-89). The 82 assists stand 16 better than the next best (Theo Fleury, 66, '92-93).

Finishing third in league scoring behind the inevitable Wayne Gretzky (164 points) and Marcel Dionne (135), the aptly-dubbed Magic Man outpaced the second most prolific Flame, Guy Chouinard, by a gobsmacking 48 points.

Nilsson's assist total trailed Chouinard's point total that season by one.

"Yeah,'' recalls Chouinard, "I finished a ways behind, didn't I?

"I can still remember Kent's hands, like a surgeon's, the way he handled the puck. The way he moved. Most of us had to slow down before we made a play, looking to the left or to the right, but Kent he could do everything full (steam). At that time, it wasn't as common as it is now.

"That year, it seemed everything he touched ended up the net, whether by him or someone he'd given the puck to."

Calgary's coach of that year, Al MacNeil, figures the setting, the moment and the indisputable gifts of a singular player all combined to enthrall the new local fans. 

"I think,'' he reasons, "mainly because it was our first year coming in from Atlanta. Everything was new, fresh. We were playing at the Corral. It held 7,200 and we could've sold 20,000 tickets for every game.

"There was a vibrancy surrounding the hockey club that was infectious.

"Everyone in the organization, from the players to the coaches to the scouts to Cliff (GM Fletcher) to the secretaries had something to prove.

"Everyone had an edge.

"I think Kent responded to that."

Despite his very real achievements and contributions, Nilsson is doomed in the eyes of some to be the perpetual disappointment. A curse, it must be added, that afflicts only the most gifted.

Pre-Mario, Wayne Gretzky called him the greatest talent he'd seen in the game, which is sort of like Mozart calling you a prodigy or Tennessee Williams saying you had an ear for dialogue.

One unforgettable winter, though, the Magic Man scaled the heights.

Leave the final word to Al MacNeil, a first-hand witness.

"You were never sure how much of Kent Nilsson you were getting,'' he said once, looking back on '80-81.

"That year, I think we saw as much as he was willing to let any of us in on."


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