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Calgary Flames

A professional hockey team in the Western Conference of the NHL.

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Hot as Fire, Cool as Ice

  • Mar 27, 2013
Fire and ice. A greater contrast between two elements doesn't exist. It's difficult to fathom any situation where the two of them might be peanut butter and jelly, two great flavors that terse great together. But in the National Hockey League, the two of them came together and won the Stanley Cup.

The Calgary Flames were a result of the NHL's quick attempt to strike at the World Hockey Association before it could get off the ground. In fact, the Flames were a secondhand attempt to strike. The primary strike was taking place in New York City. Well, not New York City itself, but the Nassau County in the New York City metropolitan area. Since the WHA was declaring itself a major league, it HAD to have a team in the New York City area, and the team they were planning to place there, the Raiders, had accepted relegation to the new arena built in Nassau County. Unfortunately, Nassau County decided it was too good (read: Had that air of New York City arrogance and privilege) to host a WHA team. Nassau just didn't accept the WHA as a major league, or the Raiders as a major league team. So the county wanted to keep the WHA out of its spanking new arena. Unfortunately, it had little legal recourse to do that with, so it resorted to begging for an expansion NHL team, which the NHL gave them since it didn't have much choice. The team the NHL created was the New York Islanders.

That left the NHL with a problem. The creation of the Islanders brought the number of teams up to 15, and the league knew it would probably need a 16th team in order to even out the schedule. In haste, the other location chosen by the NHL was Atlanta, where Tom Cousins, the owner of the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, basically had the team thrown at him as if it were a hot potato. In homage to the burning of Atlanta during the Civil War, Cousins decided to name his team the Atlanta Flames. Also, it helped that Atlanta is often called Hotlanta because it's, you know, actually pretty hot down there sometimes. In their first drafts, general manager Cliff Fletcher decided to focus on shoring up the net: His first two selections, Phil Myre and Dan Bouchard, were both goalies. Despite this odd GM move, the roster was decent enough, and the Flames were also decent enough through a good chunk of their first season. They were 20-19-8 by mid-January, but after that, every other team in the league appeared to pick up on the fact that the Flames were still an expansion team. The Flames only won five more games from then on out.

Grabbing Tom Lysiak for their second year, the Flames made their first playoff appearance. They were quickly swept by the Philadelphia Flyers, who went on to win the Stanley Cup. The following year, the Flames got Eric Vail, who scored 39 goals, but they missed the playoffs again. Three seasons, missed the playoffs in two of them in a league where playoff standing is determined by games of punch buggy, and you know what that means: Time to lop the coach! Coach Bernie Geoffrion was replaced by Fred Creighton, who coached Atlanta's minor league team. Creighton got RESULTS! That is, he produced a team which was good enough to win two or three more games than they lost every year, qualifying for the playoffs each time, only to be first round practice for a team much better than the Flames. Also, those first two goalies that were the first two draft picks in team history were now fighting with each other for playing time. Trades were made, stars were sent packing, but it did pay off on the ice. With Guy Chouinard and Bob MacMillan, the Atlanta Flames of 1979 posted their best record: 41-31-8. They were knocked from the first round again, though, by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Aside from playing stagnation, the Flames were also missing another important component of hockey teams: FANS! Concerns about low attendance figures had starting crawling up by the 1976. Politicians seemed to like the team - or perhaps the votes from the all-important puckhead demographic, anyway - and players seemed to love playing in Atlanta, which would explain why they were always buying tickets themselves in an effort to stabilize the Flames. In 1980 the team signed goalie Jim Craig, whom hockey fans may know as the goalie who stood between the pipes during the Miracle on Ice Olympic victory that year. It was strictly an asses-in-seats move, and it didn't work. It was as if the people of Atlanta, well, just didn't care about hockey. The team lost money, Cousins sold it, and even though the NHL was pretty much invisible in 1980, Dallas and Houston somehow emerged as good relocation candidates. And the Flames ultimately DID end up relocating to the wild west in 1980. It's just that with the Hollywood version of wild west mythology, we tend to forget there was also a west in Canada that was just as wild as the west here. And so it went that the Flames ended up in Canada's wild west: The city of Calgary, Alberta, to make them the Calgary Flames. Don't cry for Atlanta, though - they got a brand new team, the Atlanta Thrashers, in 1999…. Which lasted for twelve years before relocating to Canada's wild west to be the Winnipeg Jets.

The Flames were welcomed immediately in Calgary, and they responded by going 39-27-14, and beating the Chicago Black Hawks and Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs before losing in the conference finals to the Minnesota North Stars. Unfortunately, they were also faced with a tougher hockey environment. The teams in Canada could PLAY, and the fans were turning up in large numbers to watch hockey, not stagnation. And the Flames were sharing their division with the Edmonton Oilers, who weren't quite in their juggernaut phase just yet, but were showing definite signs of what they would be throughout the rest of the 80's. That being the case, the Flames started to fizzle out the following season, forcing them to axe a lot of the holdovers from Atlanta who couldn't respond to a hockey environment which sells out every night. The roster was rebuilt almost from scratch, and the team started looking at some unconventional places in order to find talent: US colleges, Europe, the Soviet Union…. It worked, and over the next few seasons, the Flames developed a core of players good enough to match the Oilers: Lanny McDonald, Doug Risebrough, Al MacInnis, and Mike Vernon. In 1986, the Flames went to the playoffs, swept the Winnipeg Jets (the old version, of course), and got locked into an old west-style showdown with Edmonton. Edmonton was the clear favorite here - Calgary finished the year with 89 points, Edmonton with a whopping 119 and a heavy Vegas line which saw them bring home their third Cup in a row. Calgary was able to upset the Oilers in seven, with the series-winning goal coming when Oilers rookie Steve Smith, in a freak accident, shot the puck off the leg of his own goaltender, ricocheting it into the Oiler net. After taking the series, the Flames then dueled the St. Louis Blues to the death in a seven-game Campbell Conference Final. This was the Monday Night Miracle series, where the Blues were down 5-2 in game six with ten minutes to go in the third. They overcame the three-goal deficit, sent the game into overtime, and won. But Calgary won the seventh game, so they got to visit the Finals and get killed by the Montreal Canadiens.

The next season began with a major tragedy when Calgary's first round draft pick, George Pelawa, was killed in a car crash before the season even started. They also made a bad personnel decision when they let St. Louis fleece them for an extraordinarily talented but unrefined player named Brett Hull. New additions Joe Nieuwendyk and Doug Gilmour shored up a run of power, though, and through the second half of the 80's Calgary was the only team really capable of challenging the Oilers. They won the Presidents' Trophy two years in a row, but usually met disappointment in the playoffs. That finally changed in 1989, when the Flames won a furious seventh game in overtime against the Vancouver Canucks in the first round, swept the Los Angeles Kings, and pounded the Chicago Blackhawks in five games for a Stanley Cup Finals grudge match against Montreal. This time, Calgary prevailed in six games. It was a significant victory because the Cup was clinched at the Montreal Forum. In all the previous years the Habs, an Original Six team founded eight years before the birth of the NHL, had lost in the Finals, they had never seen their opponent hoist the Cup at the Forum itself. It was also significant because it was the beginning of the end of the Edmonton dynamo. Since the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals, where the New York Islanders beat the Oilers, the only two Campbell Conference teams to visit the Finals at all in the 80's were Calgary and Edmonton. While the Oilers proved to have one final Cup in them - AS Oilers, anyway - their dynastic years were clearly nearing the end, and the team was forced to trade its centerpiece, Wayne Gretzky, before the season just to stay afloat.

In 1990, the Flames almost won their third straight Presidents' Trophy. They missed it by two points. They also won their third straight Smythe Division title only to lose to the Kings in the first round. And thus began the first round drought. General manager Cliff Fletcher, who had been GM since the start of the Atlanta Flames, left in 1991. His successor, Doug Risebrough, immediately got to work killing the team. Okay, well, he didn't intend to. His first deal was a blockbuster which looked like a fantastic idea at first. Doug Gilmour was pissed off and wanted a change of scenery, so a blockbuster deal sent him to the Leafs for 50-goal man Gary Leeman. It didn't work out. While Gilmour and the four other players sent to Toronto made the Leafs into a contender overnight, Leeman only scored eleven goals in Calgary. Theoren Fleury became a star, and in 1996 a trade with the Dallas Stars yielded Jarome Iginla, but that didn't keep Calgary from missing the playoffs for the first time since 1975. They rebounded in the mid-90's to return to the playoffs the next four years and won two division titles in the meantime, but kept losing in the first round. By 1997, they were out of the playoffs completely.

Also, the NHL started expanding again, and the value of the Canadian dollar was sinking. That made it hard for teams to compete in Canada's small markets, and Calgary is considered one of Canada's small markets. How bad were Calgary's finances? Well, in 1999 Theoren Fleury was traded to the Colorado Avalanche shortly after becoming Calgary's all-time leading scorer. How bad were Calgary's finances, again now? In 1999, the owners got outright asshole-ish, but they did so in a way which at least makes you respect their honesty: They came right out and gave the fans an ultimatum, saying "Buy our season ticket packages or we're fucking moving." The fans decided the team wasn't fucking around and bought tickets. Same thing happened the next year too, with the same result. As for the performance of the Flames, it's not actually as if they weren't trying. They still had Iginla, after all, and after the 2003 season, newly-hired head coach Darryl Sutter was also given the GM spot. One of his first moves was to make a trade for goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, who emerged as the best goalie in the league.

In 2004, the Flames had everything they needed. They returned to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, although they looked like easy first round pickings for the Northwest Division Champion Vancouver Canucks. The Flames beat the Canucks in seven games, which meant they could now move on in the playoffs for the first time since 1989. Then they faced the Detroit Red Wings in the second round. The Red Wings had won not only their division, but the regular season title, but the Flames beat them too. After that, they faced the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Finals. The Sharks had won their division too, but with a history of playoff chokes, the Sharks choked again and the Flames became the first team to beat three division champions in the playoffs. They were also the first Canadian team in the Stanley Cup Finals since the 1994 Canucks. In the Finals, they faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, who were the best team in the Eastern Conference. The Flames damn near made it FOUR division champions en route to a Cup. The Finals ran a hard seven, with four single-goal decisions, two overtime games totaling three overtime periods, and a controversial no-goal in game six. When it settled, though, the Flames just ran out of gas and didn't have the depth to match the Bolts.

After the lockout of 2005 and the installation of a salary cap, the Flames were competing again and putting up solid standings. In 2006, they finished with 103 points, their best since 1989. They bowed out of the first round to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (as they were named than), though. The next year, they put up a solid 96 points, but the Western Conference was a gauntlet that year - the Flames got the final playoff spot, and the other seven teams had all broken 100 points. The next year, they hired coach Mike Keenan, Iginla became the Flames' leader in games played and goals scored, and the Flames posted 94 points on the road to another first round loss. They've been struggling ever since.

Lanny McDonald and Mike Vernon are the only Flames to have their numbers retired. Some of their great players also include Theoren Fleury, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis, and current face Jarome Iginla. This was a team that was stacked back in the 80's. They needed to have great players in order to have a real shot at Edmonton, and in that respect they succeeded and excelled. Like I said above, the Flames were the team which broke up a Finals run by Edmonton that could easily have gone eight years in a row and ended with a 7-1 record had Calgary not been there.

There's a natural territorial rivalry between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers. Both are small markets in the province of Alberta. The rivalry between them is frequently known as the Battle of Alberta. Their Finals appearances and Stanley Cups frequently came at each others' expenses. And to add to it, after the Flames made a run to the Finals in 2004, the Oilers responded the following season with their own fight to the Finals. Both lost to southern teams in non-traditional hockey markets: The Flames to the Lightning, and the Oilers to the Carolina Hurricanes, both in seven-game Finals series. If the Battle of Alberta is a war of similarities, the rivalry between the Flames and the Vancouver Canucks is based on polar differences. Vancouver has had some outstanding years and is soaring at the moment, but the Canucks are generally on the lower end of the NHL standings historically. They've been to the Finals three times but never won the Stanley Cup, and the cities of Calgary and Vancouver are pretty much exact opposites in geographical, political, and economic differences.

One of the most famous moments in Calgary Flames history is from the 1989 playoffs, in the seventh game of the first round against Vancouver. Vancouver's Stan Smyl had a breakaway in the overtime period, which Mike Vernon stopped with his glove. The Monday Night Miracle is another defining moment in Calgary's history, and of course the Stanley Cup runs of 1986 and 2004 are there with Calgary hoisting The Holy Grail in 1989. In the 2004 playoffs, fans in Calgary celebrated the Flames on what people began calling the Red Mile, where thousands of fans gathered on a stretch of several blocks. Even though there were so many people, there weren't any bad incidents. (On the other hand, Vancouver fans rioted.) Since this is hockey, lots of people wear team colors, but that took a special prominence during the 1986 playoffs. At the time, Oilers fans were wearing hats that said "Hat Trick Fever" while the Oilers battled for their third straight Cup. The Flames responded by encouraging their fans to wear red, creating the Sea of Red, which is what games at the Saddledome have basically been called ever since. And in a cool little tribute to their heritage, the Alternate Captain for the Flames wears a letter A which is a small version of the sweater logo the Flames wore in Atlanta.

The Calgary Flames have a long and proud history with rabid and knowledgeable fans. I think they'll be waiting awhile for that next Stanley Cup, though, unless they can rely on a Cinderella run like last season's Los Angeles Kings going all the way.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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Conference: Western
Division: Northwest
Stadium: Pengrowth Saddledome
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