On October 7, 1972, the Atlanta Flames played their first game in the National Hockey League. They ventured onto Long Island to tangle with the debuting New York Islanders at Uniondale Arena. The Flames won 3-2.
Four decades later, the latest NHL lockout nullified any plans for celebrating the 40th anniversary of the first Flames game. However, here’s a brief look at the 1972-73 expansion season of the Atlanta Flames.
THE ORIGINAL FLAMES
The inaugural Atlanta Flames were a plucky bunch of upstarts, brought together by general manager Cliff Fletcher – himself in his first stint as a fully-fledged GM. Two major events crafted the club; the 1972 Amateur Draft and the subsequent Expansion Draft that crafted the Flames and Islanders.
Following those drafts, the Flames looked like this.
- Goaltenders Dan Bouchard and Phil Myre
- Defensemen Randy Manery, Pat Quinn, Noel Price, Bill Plager, Bob Paradise, Ron Harris and Kerry Ketter
- Forwards Bob Leiter, Larry Romanchych, Rey Comeau, Keith McCreary, Ernie Hicke, John Stewart, Jacques Richard, Bill MacMillan, Lew Morrison, Norm Gratton, Morris Stefaniw and Bill Hogaboam
Richard was the only pick from the 1972 draft that jumped straight into the NHL.
Lucien Grenier, Larry Hale, Bill Heindl, Frank Hughes and Rod Zaine were also chosen in the Expansion Draft but never suited up for Atlanta. Heindl was traded after the expansion draft to the New York Rangers for Bill Hogaboam. Grenier missed the season then dwelled in the minors, while Hale, Hughes and Zaine headed to the World Hockey Association rather than play for the Flames.
While this hardly looks like a Murderer’s Row of offensive or defensive juggernauts, most of these players gelled together bizarrely well under the tutelage of head coach (and Montreal Canadiens legend) Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion.
The expansion Atlanta Flames started off a tad slow. They beat the Islanders on opening night, then didn’t win again for another two weeks.
- October: 4-6-1 (9 of a possible 22 points)
- November: 6-6-3 (15 of a possible 30 points)
- December: 5-6-2 (12 of a possible 26 points)
- January: 6-4-3 (15 of a possible 26 points)
- February: 2-6-3 (7 of a possible 22 points)
- March: 2-10-2 (6 of a possible 28 points)
- April: 0-0-1 (1 of a possible 2 points)
The team’s sputtering-out from February onwards – during which they won four games and captured a mind-boggling 14 of a possible 52 points – extinguished the club’s faint playoff hopes.
The inaugural Atlanta Flames campaign was a tale of two seasons. Against the NHL’s non-playoff teams (Detroit, Toronto, Vancouver, the Islanders, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and California), the Flames went 17-11-7 overall. Against the league’s 8 playoff teams (Montreal, Boston, the Rangers, Buffalo, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minnesota
and St. Louis), they went 8-27-8. In short, their roster was good enough make them a slightly below average team that struggled against the league’s good teams.
WHEELING AND DEALING
In retrospect, that Cliff Fletcher wouldn’t accept mediocrity is rather obvious. However, even before the bottom fell out on the first Atlanta Flames season, the neophyte GM began to tinker with his roster – a trait that would continue even as his team became a consistent playoff club (and even when it won President’s Trophies following the move to Calgary).
In November, Ron Harris was sent to the Rangers in exchange for Curt Bennett. Later that month, Bill Hogaboam was traded for the second time in six months, this time sent by Atlanta to the Detroit Red Wings for Leon Rochefort. In February, Ernie Hicke and future considerations (that turned out to be Bill MacMillan) were shipped to the Islanders for Arnie Brown. Norm Gratton was traded to Long Island on Valentine’s Day for Butch Deadmarsh. Heck, Fletcher traded his first round pick in the 1974 Amateur Draft to the Montreal Canadiens for Chuck Arnason at the trade deadline.
The result? The Atlanta Flames were a decent, if uneven club in 1972-73. They had few, if any stars. Their best players were their goaltending tandem of Phil Myre and Dan Bouchard. But Fletcher used them as a foundation to build around and the expansion team missed the playoffs just twice during their eight-season stint in Georgia.
While they failed to break through into larger playoff success, the foundation laid in Atlanta allowed the franchise to make the leap to become one of the premier teams of the 1980s following their move to the Stampede City following the 1979-80 season.
Despite the team’s move to Calgary in 1980, the Atlanta Flames aren’t entirely forgotten.
Original Atlanta Flame (and eventual team captain) Pat Quinn remains one of the foremost hockey minds in the game and has had a huge influence in the NHL through his tenures as head coach for the Philadelphia Flyers, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers, as well as his gold medal performances as coach of the 2002 Canadian Olympic Team and the 2009 Canadian World Junior Team.
All but two original Atlanta Flames remain alive to this day. Jacques Richard, the Flames first-ever draft pick, passed away in a car accident in 2002. Keith McCreary, a former Flames captain, passed away in 2003 following a fight with cancer. Goaltender Dan Bouchard was the last active original Flame in the NHL, retiring in 1986.
Finally, the famed Flaming A logo of the Atlanta Flames lives on to this day as the Alternate Captain marker of the Calgary Flames.