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Flames Top-10 individual seasons: Number 1

by George Johnson / Calgary Flames

Joe Nieuwendyk’s silky-soft set of mitts. Miikka Kiprusoff’s utter aplomb in the face of a tempest. Theo Fleury’s in-your-face indomitability.

From Kent Nilsson to Johnny Gaudreau, Lanny McDonald to Sean Monahan, Al MacInnis to T.J. Brodie, Joe Mullen to Jarome Iginla, over the course of over three and a half decades in this town, there have been no end of stellar turns in aid of the Flaming C cause.

So wrestling selection a Top-10 individual seasons is a chore. Many factors come into play.

Historical ramification. Sheer volume. Significance to the organization.

You’re spoiled for choice, naturally.

Some are non-negotiable.

Others calls are hellish.

The very fine Calder Trophy-calibre campaigns of Gary Suter and Sergei Makarov are absent, for instance. A sprinkling of stellar 50-goal and/or 100-point performances, as well.

More regrettable yet is the omission of the prolific yet edgy 53-goal (second highest seasonal total in franchise history), 207-PIM 1991-92 turn put in by truculent left winger Gary Roberts. A season as dynamic as this could’ve slipped in anywhere in the bottom half of the Top 10 without a word of complaint, and on many such lists would’ve.

But, well, competition being what it is …

Here, then, over the next 10 days, is one list of the 10 Calgary Flames’ seasons to most savour, that best stand the test of time, presented in descending order:

No. 1: Kent Nilsson, 1980-81.
80 GP, 49 G, 131 PTS.

“A little magic can take you a long way.” - Author Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach

That winter, their first in the new city, setting up shop in a cramped water closet of a home that shoehorned in 6,400 souls, a little magic -- or more correctly, Magic -- took them all the way to within hailing distance, one series, of a Stanley Cup finals appearance.

“We used to have what we’d call Yay!ers,’’ Willi Plett reminisced a few years back, somewhat wistfully, of that touchstone time. “Kent would tell me: ‘Willi, you just go to the side of the net, I’ll do the rest, deke the goalie, get you the puck and then you just put your hands up in the air and go ‘Yay!’ OK?’

“I scored 38 goals that year.

“Half of ‘em must have been Yay!ers.”

Through the seasons, the names, the exploits, have become legend around these parts. McDonald. Nieuwendyk. MacInnis. Iginla. Fleury. Kiprusoff.

They are all responsible for wonderful memories, truly memorable years. They’re great. They rate.

But in the final analysis all must bow down to the sheer volume of Kenta Nilsson’s astonishing work that inaugural season after the Atlanta Flames relocated north to Calgary, upset the massively-favoured Philadelphia Flyers and advanced to the Stanley Cup semi-finals.

The 131 regular-season points and 82 assists he collected are franchise records that rank as this town’s, this team’s, equivalent of DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Wilt’s 100-point game.

Untouchable.

Consider the Magic Man finished 48 points ahead of second-place Guy Chouinard in team scoring but, wait for it, only third in the league, behind Wayne Gretzky (164 pts) and Marcel Dionne (135).

Players undoubtedly are bigger, stronger, faster, better prepared. Comparing eras in any sport is inevitably a tricky, often a fruitless enterprise. But watching YouTube highlights, even today, Nilsson’s was a talent so pure, so outlandish, that it would’ve spanned eras, overcome trends, pushed past changes in technology and style.

“He was just so … liquid,’’ says his coach of that year, Al MacNeil, searching for an apt description. “That’s the only way to describe it. He was just as a fluid a guy on skates as I’ve ever seen. He seemed to glide overtop of the ice, like he never touched it.

“Just so, so easy on the blades. Such a graceful athlete. If he’d taken up golf as a primary interest, he’d have won the Masters. If he’d concentrated on tennis, he’d have won Wimbledon.

“But he took up hockey.

“I know I had a lot of guys in my office that year asking to be put on Kent’s line. How good was he? Well, the next season he got hurt and all of us were fired!”

While Nilsson has always been impishly self-deprecating about his achievements, he did realize that his achievements on the ice were noteworthy.

“We're all talented at something," he said once, in a moment of candor. "For some people, it's business. For some, it's barbering. You just have to be lucky enough to find out what your talent is.

"I was one of the lucky ones.’’

That talent was never again in such full flower. The 1980-81 season was as close to the ultimate Nilsson as anyone was lucky enough to witness.

"He was just so dominating,’’ recalled Plett. “Al MacNeil would get mad at us because we'd had a bad period or been out too late drinking too many beers the night before -- it happens, right? -- and he'd bench us. Not for long. Just to make a kind of statement, y’know?

“Well, Kenta would turn to me, smile that little smile of his, and say — just loud enough for Al to hear — 'Well, Willi, I guess Al doesn't want to win tonight.’

“We'd be back out there soon enough.’’

Thirty-five years later, no one has crept closer than to within 21 points of the Magic Man’s astonishing haul of 131.

And best of luck to anyone who’s set his sights on eclipsing it.

“If you’re asking me can I remember one moment, one game, one play, that stands out (from that season) … the answer is no,’’ concedes MacNeil. “When you watched him that year — sounds ridiculous, I know — but it seemed almost routine. You never really connected the actual doing to the greatness that was happening.

“It almost became, I hate to say it, but … mundane.

“Because the game came to him so naturally. His work was so effortless to the person watching that the perception was ‘Oh, yeah, well, that’s just Kenta.’ When, in fact, he had to work. If you’re going to excel in a sport like hockey, I don’t care the skill-set you bring to it — and he had one of the best skill sets there’s ever been — you can’t just lope along.

“But he just did it with such ease that he left that impression.” A soft laugh of reminiscence.

“The old cliché: ‘No pain, no gain’ never really applied to Kenta.

“Such a talented player. And what a season.”

The greatest ever by a Flame, it says here.

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