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The Atlanta Flames were a professional ice hockey team of the National Hockey League based in Atlanta, Georgia. Founded in 1972 along with the New York Islanders, the franchise relocated in 1980 to Calgary, Alberta, becoming the Calgary Flames.
The early years - 1968 to 1972Edit
In 1968, businessman Tom Cousins and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders bought the St. Louis Hawks, a National Basketball Association team, to install it in Atlanta. In order to give a proper home to the team, the third major pro sports team in the city, Cousins and his group, the Omni Sports Group Consortium, had the Omni Coliseum built in the city. But the new building was also intended for another purpose than being the Hawks' new home: it was also a key part of the bid submitted by the Omni Sports Group Consortium to acquire a National Hockey League franchise.
The construction of the Omni ended in April 1971; nine months later, in November, the National Hockey League announced that the city of Atlanta had been granted an NHL franchise for the 1972-73 NHL season, allowing ice hockey to take a first step in its attempt to colonize the South of the United States of America. Initially, the league had no expansion plans for that year, but back then, with the league in war against the upstart World Hockey Association, they decided it was best for their interest to prevent the WHA from establishing franchises in the newly built Nassau Coliseum in Long Island, New York; since this addition would leave the league with an uneven number of teams, in order to balance the conferences and the schedule, they also granted Atlanta a team.
Atlanta's arrival in the league was widely criticized by many hockey observers who called the expansion, and especially the inclusion of Atlanta, a ludicrous and foolish move - hockey, they said, was a nordic sport, and repeated expansions, combined with the arrival of the WHA, were diluting the talent pool. But these criticisms in no way halted the arrival of the new team in the league. Named the Atlanta Flames in honor to the Great Atlanta fire of 1917, the team hit the ice in 1972, with the young Cliff Fletcher as general manager and former Montreal Canadiens star Bernie Geoffrion.
The Atlanta Flames, 1972 to 1980Edit
Fall 1972, the Flames began playing in the league. They turned out to be a rather pleasant surprise in their debut year, led by a skilled goaltending tandem made of Phil Myre and Dan Bouchard, some solide defending by Randy Manery and Pat Quinn and a good attack relying on Rey Comeau, captain Keith McCreary, Larry Romanchych and Bobby Leiter. Though a pretty unexperienced team, the Atlanta Flames had a succesful first half of season with a 20-19-8 record, especially thanks to the excellent play of the two goaltenders. Unfortunately for them, 19 defeats in the last 31 games cost them a playoffs spot - the team finished its first season with 65 points, an honorable performance, especially considering the very poor results of their expansion-mates, the New York Islanders, who finished the season with 30 points fewer than Atlanta and offered one of the worst records in NHL history.
While the team fared well on the ice, it did equally well of the ice. The Flames management did an excellent work in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft, selecting forwards Tom Lysiak and Eric Vail. They both quickly established themselves as the team's best forwards - if Vail played only 23 games with the club for the 1973-74 NHL season, Lysiak, on the other hand, did, and led the team in scoring in his Rookie season. The young Flames improved and secured a fourth place finish in the Western Division, accessing ot the playoffs for the first time of their young history. The feat was particularly contrasting with the Islanders, who once again performed very poorly in the East). The Flames adventure in the playoffs was however short lived, as they were swept in the first round by the mighty Philadelphia Flyers who were on their way to their first Stanley Cup.
The Flames' third year was disappointing. After their initial successes, the team stepped back a bit and failed to reach the playoffs. General manager Cliff Fletcher, who had picked players who could (and did) immediately step in and contribute in the 1973 Amateur Draft, did not do as well in 1974, with only Guy Chouinard (the youngest player ever drafted) and Pat Ribble standing out. Injuries plagued key players like veterans Leiter and Romanchych as well as Jacques Richard, their first draft pick ever. The very popular Geoffrion, after finishing as the runner-up for the previous year's coach-of-the-year vote, resigned; Cliff Fletcher replaced him by Fred Creighton, who at the time was coaching the Flames' affiliate club in the Central Hockey League, the Omaha Knights. The season, however, was not a pure disaster, as there were some bright spots worth of mention. Tom Lysiak kept improving and Eric Vail, who had splitted the previous year between the NHL and the Central Hockey League, became an NHL regular and did it with a bang in 1974-75, scoring 39 times and winning the Calder Memorial Trophy.
1975-76 saw the team improve a fair bit. Creighton was a demanding coach, and the Flames reaped the rewards of the new regime with a first winning season and a second playoffs berth in four years. Cliff Fletcher had done a good job bringing in new players to add depth at every position, notably forwards Bill Clement, Claude St. Sauveur and Bill Flett and defensive stalwart Larry Carriere. Eric Vail failed to shine as bright as he did in his rookie season because of injuries. Again, the team was quickly eliminated from the playoffs as the Los Angeles Kings beat them in the first round. Off the ice, the Flames' fire began extinguishing as 1,000 people less attended to home games, on average.
In 1976-77, the Tulsa Oilers, the team's new affiliate, fed the Flames with some very good young players: Guy Chouinard finally evolved into an NHL-caliber player, and both defenceman Ken Houston and forward Willi Plett, two players playing a strong physical game, began terrorizing the opposition. Plett wasn't initially scheduled to make his NHL debuts as a regular, as he bagan the season in Tulsa. However, he earned a call up with the big club, making a totally unexpected impact; he scored 33 times in 64 games. This strong performance was crowned by the Calder Memorial Trophy at the end of the season. While young players established themselves in Atlanta, the older veterans, on the other hand, had all been discarded. The likes of Pat Quinn, Randy Manery, Larry Romanchych, Bobby Leiter and Kerry Ketter all moved to a new address, while the young core of the team, made up of Lysiak, Vail, Plett and Chouinard took all the place. Meanwhile, the team's playoffs struggles continued as they fell once again to the Kings in the first round.
Dan Bouchard, who had been outstanding so far for the Flames, publicly announced his refusal to keep on sharing the duties between the pipes with Phil Myre - he wanted to be the clear number 1 goaltender of the team. Atlanta's management agreed to satisfly Bouchard's demand, and on December 12th 1977, Myre was traded to the St. Louis Blues along with Curt Bennett and Barry Gibbs for Bob MacMillan and Dick Redmond. But off the ice, things changed, but not for the better, as the Flames' attendence kept dwindling. One thing remained unchanged, though - the Flames kept underperforming in the playoffs, again downed in the first round, this time by the Detroit Red Wings.
The Flames strongly began the 1978-79 season with an impressive 12-1-2 record, including 10 straight wins. Of course, the team couldn't keep cruising at that speed for the whole season, but it nevertheless finished with a good 41-31-8 record, good for 90 points, a franchise record. Tom Lysiak was a key contributor to the Flames' successes early in the season, but his first injury in career slowed him down; he was later traded to the Chicago Blackhawks that brought in Atlanta the excellent Yugoslavian center Ivan Boldirev, the fast Darcy Rota and a reliable defenceman in Phil Russell. Guy Chouinard finished the season with 50 goals, becoming the first and only player in the Atlanta Flames history to reach this plateau. Bob MacMillan was awarded the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy. But history repeated itself - although successful in the regular season, the Flames collapsed in the playoffs, swept by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The last season in the history of the team proved to be 1979-80. Creighton's lack of playoffs successes had him fired; Al MacNeil came in to replace him. Cliff Fletcher kept doing a good job in adding talent to his team. The magnificent Swedish forward Kent Nilsson, rookie defenceman Paul Reinhart, finnish defenceman Pekka Rautakallio and veteran forward Don Lever all joined the team and no matter how good the Flames were, they couldn't shake off their playoffs jinx as the New York Rangers beat them three wins to one in the first round.
Sale and aftermathEdit
With the attendence falling season after season and the operation costs rising, financially support the Flames became extremely difficult for the Omni Sports Group, especially since the team lacked a major television contract. Needless to say that when a group of Canadian businessmen, led by Nelson Skalbania, made the Cousins and the consortium an offer, they were very interested. Cousins sold the Atlanta Flames franchise for the sum of sixteen million dollars, a record at the time; the sale marked the end of the Flames in Atlanta, as the new owners moved the team to Calgary, Alberta.
The Atlanta Flames, despite the initial criticism, proved to be a pretty succesful club. They reached the playoffs six times out of their eight years of existance; only the Quebec Nordiques, the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Rangers did better than that in their respective debuts in the history of the league. The team also maintained a winning record for every single season after 1974.
After the Flames relocated to Calgary, a new team in Atlanta would form in 1999, being called the Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers only went to the playoffs 1 time, which was back in 2007, losing to the New York Rangers in a sweep.
Team captains Edit
All-time leaders Edit
- Games played: Rey Comeau, Eric Vail, 469
- Goals: Vail, 174
- Assists: Tom Lysiak, 276
- Points: Lysiak, 431
- Penalty Minutes: Pat Quinn, 555
- Goaltender Games: Dan Bouchard, 384
- Goaltender Wins: Bouchard, 164
- Shutouts: Bouchard, 20
Head coaches Edit
- Bernie Geoffrion 1972-75
- Fred Creighton 1975-79
- Al MacNeil 1979-80 (carried on coaching duties in Calgary)
First round draft picksEdit
Please note that this list excludes draft picks by the Calgary Flames.
- 1972: Jacques Richard (2nd overall)
- 1973: Tom Lysiak (2nd overall)
- 1974: none
- 1975: Richard Mulhern (8th overall)
- 1976: Dave Shand (8th overall)
- 1977: none
- 1978: Brad Marsh (11th overall)
- 1979: Paul Reinhart (12th overall)