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Former Flames recall hot times in Atlanta

by John McGourty

Going to the Flames in the expansion draft in 1967 allowed Dan Bouchard to realize his goal of becoming a starting NHL goaltender.
Before the Thrashers called Atlanta home for the 1999-2000, hockey had come to the American South through the Atlanta Flames, a franchise that gave Cliff Fletcher, David Poile their starts and a team that created plenty of excitement before heading to Calgary. As you might expect, hockey in the South spawned some pretty interesting stories.

Despite some amazing obstacles, the Atlanta Flames' inaugural season, 1972-73, was one of the most successful of any NHL expansion team. Although the Flames missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their first and third years, the team advanced to the postseason in six of eight seasons before moving to Calgary.

Hockey Hall of Famer Cliff Fletcher, in his first stint as an NHL general manager, gets a great deal of credit for the Flames' on-ice success, as does the team's first coach, Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion. Fletcher also is quick to give credit to his assistant general manager, David Poile, pro scout Al Arbour, scouting director Don Graham, and scouts Aldo "Bep" Guidolin and Les Moore. It's amazing what they accomplished, given the limited time and talent available.

The NHL expanded from six to 12 teams in 1967, and then added two more clubs, the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks, in 1970, so there wasn't a lot of top-flight, expendable talent left under contract to the existing 14 teams when the Flames and the New York Islanders went to the 1972 NHL Expansion Draft.

"Things happened pretty fast," Fletcher recalled. "I don't think the NHL had planned to expand that quickly again, but when the World Hockey Association, the competitive league, was announced in the fall of 1971 -- it had been mentioned before but poo-pooed -- the NHL decided to put a team in New York, to block them there, and then a team in the South. The franchises were granted in mid-December 1971, to start up eight months later.”

Fletcher had gotten his start as a scout with the Montreal Canadiens in 1956 and had advanced to assistant general manager of the St. Louis Blues. He was seen as the savviest person not currently running an NHL team. He already had turned down an unfavorable offer from the Flames, but then got a surprise phone call.

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"I interviewed Jan. 2, 1972, with Bill Putnam, who had been a Flyers executive," Fletcher recalled. "He wanted me to put together a staff for the expansion and entry drafts that summer and then he was going to hire a general manager when the regular-season ended. I told him it wouldn't work, that I couldn't hire people and promise them roles and entice them to leave teams in midseason, when they were already under contract, only to have someone else take over in June and possibly want to bring in his own people. So I said no.

"Putnam went to Montreal for a meeting with NHL President Clarence Campbell and Canadiens GM Sam Pollack, and three days later offered me the general manager's job. My first hire was David Poile, who had just graduated from Northeastern University, went to the Canucks' training camp, and was looking for a job. I'd known his dad, Bud, for a long time, and Bud knew Bill Putnam from Philadelphia.

"We started working in a trailer parked on Peachtree Street. The Omni was under construction and we were playing our first game in October. We had to play our first five games on the road. Our first home game was on a Saturday night and they were still screwing in the seats at 4 p.m.

"My next hire was Boom Boom Geoffrion. He'd been coaching the Rangers, stepped down for health reasons -- the job got to him -- and was working in the front office," Fletcher said. "I was smart enough to realize I was a young assistant GM turned GM, coming into a virgin hockey market. I thought it was of paramount importance to bring in a coach with a good personality. Boom Boom couldn't have had a better personality for the job. He captured the imagination of the sporting public in Atlanta. He was one of, if not the most important reasons hockey was able to make such an impact. We had a lot of competition with the NBA, NFL, MLB, University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, but our biggest competition was Friday nights in the early part of the hockey season when the local high school football games would draw, combined, about 250,000 people.

"Bernie became such a big personality that the day after Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's record -- a day before we had a playoff game -- the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a three-quarters picture of Hank, naturally, but the rest of the page was a picture of Bernie. Not the sports page, the front page."

The Flames had a strong start to their first season, 20-19-8, but lost 19 of 31 to miss the playoffs. They made the playoffs the second year, but struggled in the third season and midway through Geoffrion resigned, giving way to Fred Creighton, a completely different kind of coach.

"It caught up to us that first year," Fletcher said. "We were getting by on defensive hockey and our goaltending was out of sight. We had no business being where we were in early February. As teams cranked it up down the stretch, we tried to stay with them, but reality set in. We couldn't sustain that level of play because we had trouble scoring goals. In close games, the teams with talent came through. It confirms that there's no substitute for talent.”

"The thing that hurt the club the most was Boomer stepping down as coach in February of the third season," Fletcher continued. "He wore the game on his sleeve and it took its toll. There's no doubt he was the primary reason Atlanta paid attention to hockey at the start of the franchise. Fred Creighton was a much more technical coach. There were no assistant coaches through the mid-1970s, and then Mike Nykoluk joined Fred Shero's staff in Philadelphia. In Fred's 4 1/2 years, hockey coaching became much more complex and sophisticated. He had coached our Central Hockey League farm team in Omaha and won the CHL championship the first year.”

"Fred was a totally different personality and different kind of coach," said Flames defenseman Pat Quinn, who would go on to manage and coach several teams in the NHL, most recently the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He was very much a student of the game and much more technical. He was the start, along with Fred Shero, of the technical people that emerged in the coaching ranks. Boomer was the kind of coach I had had previously. They weren't so much teachers who taught skills in practice; Boomer could appeal to you on a mental side to get ready. He expected you knew how to play. Fred gave us systems of play when ‘system’ wasn't a word in hockey. Fred was a good coach to bring into Atlanta at that time because we were moving toward younger guys in the lineup."

Fletcher laughs when he thinks how much the NHL has changed since then.

"Bill Torrey, the Islanders GM, and I met in a hotel room in Boston and flipped a coin to see who would go first in the draft of goalies and first among the players. Bill beat me so he went first with the players and I went first with the goaltenders. Nowadays, they'd put that ceremony on television, make it a big event. We took Phil Myre, who by all accounts was the best of the available goaltenders, and Dan Bouchard. Bill took Gerry Desjardins and Billy Smith. The Canadiens weren't going to expose Myre so I made a deal with Pollack to take one of his skaters and he made Myre available. Sam was able to hold onto a different player that he wanted to keep and we got the top goalie."

Bouchard eventually would outplay Myre and demand an end to the platoon system. He had been the AHL Goalie of the Year going into the draft, the No. 3 goalie for the Boston Bruins the year they won the Stanley Cup.

Bruins starter Gerry Cheevers would sign with a WHA team a few weeks after the expansion draft. Bouchard was asked if he regretted going to an expansion team when one of the top NHL jobs was so close.

"Not really, because after they won the Stanley Cup, Boston GM Milt Schmidt was up front with me and said he was sticking with Cheevers and Eddie Johnston. They thought they'd re-sign everyone. I got drafted and Cheevers jumped, but I looked at Atlanta as the biggest opportunity of my career. My goal was to play in the NHL and it didn't matter if it was Boston or Atlanta. I turned down WHA offers. I played eight years in Atlanta and Calgary and could have made more money in the WHA, but I had a dream and that was to play in the NHL."

Fletcher said he had a simple formula for picking skaters.

"What's available?" he said with a laugh. "There wasn't much among the forwards. The whole group, about 40 players, had less than 70 NHL goals. Each team had lost 20 players in 1967, three more in 1970 and we had the WHA siphoning off players. It didn't leave a hell of a lot of talent. We went for character players like Rey Comeau and Keith McCreary, real heart-and-soul guys. Boomer got the most out of them and we were competitive, finishing ahead of the Islanders and two existing teams.

"Pat Quinn had NHL experience and brought toughness. We thought the market would like a physical team. Pat was another character player and became the second captain after Keith. We picked Randy Manery out of the Red Wings organization. He had no NHL experience, but he was a good puck-moving defenseman. I got big Noel Price from Montreal after the draft. We were just piecing together as best we could.

"We got lucky with our draft picks in our second year. Both Tom Lysiak and Eric Vail walked right into our lineup. We made a trade to get Curt Bennett from New York (Rangers) and he gave us two 30-goal seasons. Jacques Richard, from our first draft, came up and played well. It started coming together."

Bill Clement still feels that the best years of his career came after he was traded to Atlanta, where he spent seven seasons in the Flames' organizations.

The Flames were a very competitive team in the mid-1970s, but they had a fatal penchant for going out quickly in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"We always found a way to lose in the playoffs," Fletcher said. "The opening round was best-of-three for four or five years there. Our last year in Atlanta we lost in the first round, in four games of a five-game series, to the Rangers, their first year with Anders Hedberg and Kent Nilsson. We found strange ways to lose the prior years to Detroit and Los Angeles. We were struggling on defense because we used first-round picks in the mid-1970s to take defensemen that never played up to the level we expected. We had exciting forwards.

"We had skilled players like Bob MacMillan and Guy Chouinard, Lysiak and Vail, and big, strong guys like Willi Plett and Ken Houston. Vail and Plett won the Calder Memorial Trophy two years apart. We thought offense would be one of the big appeals to the fans. Not only were we big and strong, we could put on a show and score goals."

"We had size," emphasized Quinn. "The era was the advent of emptying the benches for big fights that Boston introduced, and Philly decided they wanted to play that style. We had as many tough guys as they did and we could go with them. Ken Houston broke Dave Schultz's jaw and Butch Deadmarsh took him on all the time and beat him. That wasn't our style. We responded to them and didn't instigate."

Center Bill Clement was acquired in 1976 from Washington, where he had played part of a season after being a member of two consecutive Stanley Cup championships with the Flyers. He was asked if that was a comedown.

"Without a doubt, my best years were in Atlanta," Clement said. "We had good players and good teams but we couldn't win a playoff game, so no one remembers us. We played a playoff game against the Kings and the Triple Crown line of Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer that was 0-0, late in the game. It was Myre against Rogie Vachon in one of the great standoffs in NHL history. If memory serves, Bob Berry scored on a wrap-around stuff with 58 seconds remaining. We were as good as they were but we lost that game at home, lost in Los Angeles and the season was over."

Clement felt he thrived under Creighton's coaching style.

"He did a lot of teaching and I had great respect for him," Clement said. "I'd already had a technical coach in Shero in Philadelphia. Fred respected his players. One game I made the cardinal sin of the cross-ice diagonal pass in our zone. It got intercepted by Bert Marshall who scored. It was two days before Fred came up to me, quietly, in practice and said he wanted to give me a couple of days to cool off after my mistake. He let me decompress on my own and it was the last time I ever made that pass."

In short, the Atlanta Flames had an impressive first season, made the playoffs the next year, struggled in their third season and then matured into a big, rugged, skilled team that could outscore you or outmuscle you, but weakness on defense limited them to brief playoff appearances.

Then came the sale rumors. Tom Cousins, the principal owner, was a real-estate speculator and that market struggled in the late 1970s. He also had operating losses and other financial concerns. The team held a season-ticket drive and worried Atlantans committed to 13,000 of the Omni's 15,000 seats. It might have worked because Cousins was looking at a $2 million offer from Houston that would have left him a net loser after owning the Flames for eight years.

"Then Nelson Skalbania offered him $16 million so they could move the team to Calgary," Fletcher said. "It was the biggest price for an NHL team to that time. I was very disappointed about leaving Atlanta. Personally, they were some of the best years of my life. The unfortunate thing was the Omni was out-of-date when it opened. It was a great building in which to watch hockey and the atmosphere was second to none in the NHL, but it had only 15,000 seats, no standing room and no private boxes. It was the second-to-last arena of its type to be built in North America.

"Sports franchises realized how much they were leaving on the table without private suites, restaurants and extra clubs, revenues necessary to be competitive. Atlanta was behind the eight-ball before it started. We were also the only market getting more money for our radio rights than TV. The fan support was good but the team was sold for a very big price."

"When I came to Atlanta, there weren't even a half-million people here," Bouchard said. "I was just married and I went home to Toronto where my wife was finishing nursing school and I told her, ‘Baby, this is where we are going to retire,’ and here we are. The people are great here. Atlanta is the best thing that ever happened to me and I've never changed my mind or looked back."

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