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GREATEST FLAMES DRAFT EVER?

Your Flames Authority George Johnson argues it's hard to top 1984, when a half-dozen of the players picked went on to play for the club, including stars Gary Roberts and Gary Suter

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

With the 12th selection of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, the Flames chose an abrasive left-winger who'd recently completed a 27-goal, 57-point second season for the OHL's Ottawa 67's.

Lacking a couple coats of pro-level varnish, surely, and a touch cherubic, undoubtedly (particularly compared to now, at 51, when he could pose for Marvel Comics superhero creator Stan Lee).

Old CP photos of the time show a beaming Gary Roberts executing the customary grip-'n-grin with the white-thatched general manager who'd minutes earlier conscripted him to the cause on consecrated ground, ice level at the fabled Montreal Forum.

"Sure thing?'' muses the GM that day, Cliff Fletcher, on the long-distance line from Arizona 33 years later. "There aren't many of those.

"We knew Gary Roberts was going back to junior for two years but we were willing to wait. Because he really was everything you wanted in a player. A skilled guy who played physical. He could score, makes plays, hit, would fight if need be.

"Teams were looking for that type of player back then."

A pause.

"Still are today, as a matter of fact."

If 1981 might've reaped the richest top-end reward, pulling both Conn Smythe Trophy-winning Al MacInnis 15th overall and touchstone goaltender Mike Vernon in the third round into the fold, from a depth standpoint married to quality the '84 talent haul represents arguably the most successful windfall for the Flames' franchise.

The '81 draft proved highly profitable, as well, netting Dan Quinn, Brian Bradley, Perry Berezan and, in the 12th round, the eyebrow-raising selection of Soviet legend Sergei Makarov. 

Others drafts yielded a Joe Nieuwendyk here, a Theo Fleury there.

How the most recent drafts pan out are yet to be determined, naturally.

But if any of them of can equal the '84 haul …

A half dozen of the 12 players selected that year went on to play for the organization. Two of them - Roberts and defenceman Gary Suter - developed into bonafide stars. Three - Roberts, Suter and Jiri Hrdina - were part of the '89 Stanley Cup-winning team.

A sixth-round steal out of the B.C. junior league's Penticton Knights, right-winger Brett Hull, is today enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame (albeit for his exploits after being dealt to St. Louis).

Both speedy penalty-killer Paul Ranheim - second-round, 38th overall - and, later, revered Czech national team and Sparta Prague stalwart Hrdina - eighth round, 159th - proved to be solid choices, good pros, dependable contributors.

Defenceman Ken Sabourin, that summer's second-round selection, 33rd overall, played only 27 times for the Flames before being shipped to Washington, and has to be considered somewhat of a disappointment.

Drafts, though, are notoriously fickle things. If one, maybe two, selections actually wind up contributing factors in the big leagues, then you're playing with house money.

The six gentlemen from '84 combined for 1,797 regular-season games in Calgary togs and nearly 5,000 throughout their NHL careers, all stops included.

"Yes, that's a pretty good rate of return, alright,'' agrees Fletcher.

"When you look back, our scouts in the '80s did a helluva job. Remember, we were never in a position to draft early.

"Gary Roberts was, I think, the earliest we ever selected during my time in Calgary. I mean, we got Al MacInnis, Roberts, Vernon, Fleury, Nieuwendyk. Suter in the ninth round. Hakan Loob in the ninth round. Brett Hull in the sixth round.

"Our scouts deserve all the credit in the world for that period of time.

"When you're actually going through it, you don't realize but looking back you say to yourself: 'Holy cow!' We had a great scouting staff. Jack Ferreira became a NHL general manager. Ian McKenzie was as good a scout as you could possibly find. Lou Reycroft, (Joe) Niewuendyk's former coach at Cornell. Tom Thompson …

"Just a really solid staff."

Today, the draft is analyzed and dissected into minutia, every prospect x-rayed and studied. By all 30 teams. There aren't any secrets anymore.

"Our coverage back then was, I think it's fair to say, more comprehensive than most teams. I think we definitely turned over more stones,'' says Fletcher. "But unless you have people who can identify talent, what you need as an organization, that really doesn't matter much."

The '84 draft, of course, turned into the Mario Draft, the peerless Mario Lemieux going first over-all to the Pittsburgh Penguins from the QMJHL Laval Voisins.

Among the other first-round selections before the Flames stepped to the microphone and snagged Roberts were long-time NHLers Kirk Muller, Al Iafrate, Eddie Olczyk, Shayne Corson and J.J. Daigneault.

Roberts, of course, more than justified the faith put him as the 12th selection.

Over 585 career regular-season games as a Flame, he scored 257 goals - including 53 in '91-92, the second-highest single-season total in franchise history - and 505 points while amassing 1,736 penalty minutes.

From a Calgary standpoint, the real find, the hidden gem, though, turned out to be Suter, a virtual unknown when chosen. The 1986 Calder Trophy winner piled up 565 points in 617 games as a Flame.

Mighty impressive, for such a late selection.

"In drafting, you have to be lucky enough or good enough - I'd think it's more luck than anything - to have success with later round picks,'' says Fletcher.

"Suter's a perfect example. The story there is that we drafted him after his freshman year at Wisconsin. He wasn't seeing hardly any ice at all at the time. That's the way the college system was - seniors got the most minutes and it went down from there.

 "So our scouts recommended him by watching Wisconsin practice. We figured in the later rounds, we could take a chance and select him. Obviously, they liked the potential they saw in him, just in practices, and they were right.

"Boy, were they ever."

 

 

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