The 2010-11 season was the 30th season played by the Calgary Flames. As the next season quickly approaches, we present a three-part look back at 30 seasons of the Flames, one decade at a time.
PART TWO: 1990-91 to 1999-2000
The 1980s were quite good to the Calgary Flames. But fortunes changed in the 1990s and what resulted was one of the most tumultuous decades in the history of any franchise.
THE LOST DECADE
During the prior 10 seasons, the Flames made the playoffs every single year. They made it out of the first round half the time, including three trips to the NHL’s final four. Calgary won a grand total of 12 playoff rounds during their first decade. They won zero in their second decade.
Heading into the 1990s, the Flames were mostly the same team that had just won a Stanley Cup. But the team underperformed in the clutch, and it was never quite as evident as it was during the playoffs. The Flames consistently were good enough to set themselves up for playoff success (winning two division titles and actually being the higher-seeded playoff team in all but one of their series), but fell flat. Some of the series were very entertaining, though, particularly the 1991 tilt with the Edmonton Oilers (the most recent playoff Battle of Alberta to date) and their 1994 marathon with the Vancouver Canucks that ended with a thrilling Pavel Bure overtime goal.
But entertaining series don’t pay the bills if they don’t end up with your team winning four games before the other team, and so the Flames were relegated to also-ran status for the first half of the 1990s before dropping off the playoff map altogether after the 1996 playoffs.
THE GREAT DISMANTLING
As the 1990s began, the 1989 Stanley Cup team was largely intact. That changed in the hurry and the results would transform the Flames into a largely forgettable hockey club for the next decade. The moves began in earnest in the 1991-92 season, as long-time general manager Cliff Fletcher left the Flames to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, leaving the team in the hands of former Flames captain Doug Risebrough.
- 1992: Doug Gilmour, Rick Wamsley, Jamie Macoun & Ric Nattress were traded to Toronto.
- 1994: Mike Vernon was traded to Detroit.
- 1994: Al MacInnis was traded to St. Louis.
- 1995: Joe Nieuwendyk was traded to Dallas.
- 1997: Gary Roberts was traded to Carolina.
- 1999: Theoren Fleury was traded to Colorado.
All in all, through a series of trades, waiver claims and free agent moves during the 1990s – in part due to the shaky Canadian dollar – the Flames gradually became a weak sister within the NHL. Not all of that was the fault of the general managers, although in retrospect Risebrough was very much learning on the job and his moves didn’t quite pan out. During Al Coates’ five years in the GM office, he did participate in the Flames fire sale, but his moves tended to get the team more tangible assets (Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, J.S. Giguere & Andrew Cassels) than anyone else’s. The infamous 1992 trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs particularly left a bad taste in fans’ mouths, as Doug Risebrough engaged in a transaction with his old mentor which saw four key pieces of the 1989 Cup team shipped away for a bunch of spare parts.
A TEAM WITHOUT AN IDENTITY
To say the 1990s were a decade of transition is probably a massive understatement. But the constant changes in the team’s roster, coaching staff and front office resulted in the franchise drifting without any clear plan of action.
Well, that’s probably unfair, but it seemed like the “plan” constantly changed from year to year. Witness the ever-rotating captaincy: following the exit of Joe Nieuwendyk, the C traveled from the truculent Theoren Fleury (the face of the franchise, but a bit rough around the edges) to depth defenseman Todd Simpson, ending the decade with former Edmonton Oilers blueliner Steve Smith. The coaching situation was similarly unstable, with Risebrough being replaced by international coach Dave King, who himself got the boot despite winning two division titles because of a lack of playoff success.
Within the decade, the can’t-miss Flames squad of the 1980s became, well, the Young Guns, bottoming out with just 67 points in 1997-98 and making hockey fans wonder if big-league hockey could survive in Cowtown.
A NEW HOPE
Despite the doom and gloom, all was not lost. Quietly, general manager Al Coates pieced together a pile of assets near the end of the decade that provided the building blocks for the team’s eventual resurgence. Jarome Iginla, Cory Stillman, Derek Morris & Robyn Regehr weren’t the answer to the team’s woes quite yet. But given some time, they eventually would be, one way or another.
THE ALL-1990s TEAM:
G: Mike Vernon (110-92-26), Trevor Kidd (77-66-30)
D: Al MacInnis (406 points), Gary Suter (219 points), Phil Housley (204 points) & Derek Morris (101 points)
F: Theoren Fleury (730 points), Robert Reichel (354 points), Gary Roberts (352 points), Joe Nieuwendyk (341 points), German Titov (228 points) & Sergei Makarov (206 points)
TEAM RECORD: 339-333-113 (50.3% of possible points)
PLAYOFFS: Qualified in five of ten seasons. First round losses in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1995 & 1996. The Flames missed the playoffs for the first time since moving to Calgary in 1992. The 1997 post-season was the first of seven straight seasons that the team would not be involved in the playoffs.
CAPTAINS: rotating (1990-91), Joe Nieuwendyk (1991-95), Theoren Fleury (1995-97), Todd Simpson (1997-99), Steve Smith (1999-2000)
GMS: Cliff Fletcher (1990-91), Doug Risebrough (1991-95), Al Coates (1995-2000)
COACHES: Doug Risebrough (1990-92), Guy Charron (1992, interim), Dave King (1992-95), Pierre Page (1995-97), Brian Sutter (1997-2000)
BEST TRADE: Joe Nieuwendyk to Dallas for Corey Millen & Jarome Iginla in December 1995. Nieuwendyk was in the midst of a bitter hold-out and got a fresh start, while Corey Millen provided strong depth during his short tenure in Calgary. Everyone expected young Iginla, inserted into the deal in place of Todd Harvey, to turn into a steady if unspectacular NHLer. A solid return for Nieuwendyk, overall.
WORST TRADE: Doug Gimour, Ric Nattress, Jamie Macoun, Kent Manderville & Rick Wamsley to Toronto for Gary Leeman, Michel Petit, Alexander Godynyuk, Craig Berube & Jeff Reese in January 1992, renowned as one of the biggest and worst trades in NHL history. None of the players the Flames acquired amounted to much of anything and most were gone within two seasons.
Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames and the NHL Draft extensively since 2010 as a Senior Writer for The Hockey Writers and Senior Contributing Editor of FlamesNation.ca. A member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, he lives in Calgary.