A Brief History of Flames Coaches and GMs

With the success of the Calgary Flames and the progression of the club’s rebuild under current head coach Bob Hartley, a lot of ink has been spent of late discussing the merits of keeping Hartley on as head coach.

Bob Hartley
(Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

Without getting into the specific merits of Hartley and his coaching staff, it’s worth noting that the move would be exceptionally rare in recent Flames history for a few reasons.

First, Hartley would be heading into his fourth season as Flames coach if he were extended past this season; the great “Badger” Bob Johnson was the last head coach to be behind the bench for longer than three seasons – his fourth year behind the bench was 1985-86, which saw the club make its first appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.

Second, Hartley was hired by since-fired general manager Jay Feaster. In the five previous instances of the team changing general manager, the coach from the previous regime never made it past the end of his original contract.

For a bit of context regarding the Flames and their coaching and managerial moves, here is a brief summary of the franchise’s head coaches and general managers.

THE CLIFF FLETCHER ERA [1972-1991]

We all know the Calgary Flames joined the National Hockey League in 1980 with Cliff Fletcher as their general manager. However, he began his tenure back as the original boss of the Atlanta Flames when they joined the NHL as an expansion club in 1972. Fletcher joined the Flames with no experience as an NHL GM, but plenty of experience as a scout and assistant GM. Fletcher and his staff drafted and developed a team from the ground level that had a fair deal of on-ice success in Atlanta – making the playoffs six of their eight years in that market.

In 1980, owner Tom Cousins sold off the Flames to a group of Calgary businessmen, who moved the team north but kept Fletcher as their general manager. In turn, Fletcher kept his previous coaching staff intact.

  • Al MacNeil [1979-82] 240 games, three playoff appearances
    A veteran of the NHL from his playing days, MacNeil spent his coaching career in the Montreal Canadiens organization before joining the Flames organization in 1979-80 as Atlanta’s last head coach. In the club’s first year in Calgary, he helmed the team’s first appearance in the conference finals. He was reassigned when his coaching deal expired and, in fact, he can still be seen around the Saddledome. Word is he’s a consultant with the hockey ops side. He briefly returned behind the bench in short stints in 2001 and 2002 on an interim basis.
  • Bob Johnson [1982-87] 400 games, five playoff appearances (one Stanley Cup Final appearance)
    A college hockey legend, Johnson was recruited from the NCAA’s Wisconsin Badgers to the NHL with the goal of turning a promising (if raw) Flames group into a powerhouse. His tenure saw the Flames amp up their rivalry with the Edmonton Oilers and actually beat them in 1986 en route to the club’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance – albeit in a losing effort against a juggernaut Montreal Canadiens club. Johnson left the Flames to join USA Hockey as president.
  • Terry Crisp [1987-90] 240 games, three playoff appearances (one Stanley Cup win)
    With the departure of the NHL head coach, the Flames did the logical thing and promoted their minor league coach, Terry Crisp, to the show. Crisp had a long resume as a strong junior coach and had success in his two seasons in Moncton with the AHL club. He continued Johnson’s work, winning back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and the Stanley Cup in 1989. After a disappointing 1990 playoffs that saw the Flames upset in the first round, Crisp parted ways with the organization.
  • Doug Risebrough [1990-91] 80 games, one playoff appearance
    Seeking to replace two successive coaches that led the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final, Fletcher went inside one again – hiring his assistant GM, Doug Risebrough. A former Flames player himself (who had also served as an assistant coach), Risebrough was pretty good in his first year behind the bench, though the Flames once again lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Following the 1990-91 season, Fletcher left the Flames organization to join the Toronto Maple Leafs as President, CEO and General Manager. His successor? His loyal lieutenant – and the incumbent head coach – Doug Risebrough.

THE DOUG RISEBROUGH ERA [1991-1995]

It’s not hard to feel for Doug Risebrough. He was only a few years removed from being a player himself and was just cutting his teeth as a coach and executive, and then suddenly was thrust into the big chair as head coach and general manager of a Canadian market that fans felt were still in contention for a second Stanley Cup.

  • Doug Risebrough [1991-92] 64 games, missed playoffs
    Risebrough’s first coach was himself. During his first and only season doing both jobs, the team missed the playoffs for the first time since moving to Calgary – and for the first time since 1976, when the team was still in Atlanta. He also was one participant in arguably the most lopsided mega-deal in National Hockey League history (ironically with his old mentor, Fletcher, in Toronto): Doug Gilmour, Jamie Macoun, Ric Nattress, Kent Manderville and Rick Wamsley for Gary Leeman, Alex Godynyuk, Craig Berube, Michel Petit and Jeff Reese. The trade took place on January 2, 1992 and Risebrough resigned as coach two months later. Guy Charron and Al MacNeil served as interim coaches and finished out the doomed season.
  • Dave King [1992-95] 216 games, three playoff appearances
    Looking for a replacement for himself, Risebrough stayed in town, luring Dave King away from the Canadian national team. The Flames won their division twice under King and made the playoffs each time. However, they perpetually failed to make it out of the first round of the playoffs and King’s contract wasn’t renewed.
  • Pierre Page [1995] 12 games
    Risebrough hired veteran coach Pierre Page, returning to the Flames organization after stints as assistant coach in Calgary and as head coach of their farm team and head coaching gigs in Quebec and Minnesota. The start to his new job was a bit slow.

With the Flames off to a horrendous 1-8-3 start, ownership axed Risebrough. His replacement was his second-in-command, assistant GM Al Coates.

THE AL COATES ERA [1995-2000]

Coates kept Page on as head coach on his existing contract.

  • Pierre Page [1995-97] 152 games, one playoff appearance
    Page turned things around in his first season, with the Flames going on an impressive run and making the playoffs. However, the team finished lower in the standings in his second season and he was fired following the campaign.
  • Brian Sutter [1997-00] 246 games, no playoff appearances
    As economic pressures eroded the roster, the Flames turned to veteran coach Brian Sutter, formerly of the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins. He toiled for three seasons with little success and his deal was not renewed.

Following four seasons overseeing a Flames club that didn’t make the playoffs, Coates was relieved of his duties following the 1999-2000 season. A month before the NHL Draft, the club hired a new general manager.

THE CRAIG BUTTON ERA [2000-2003]

Fresh from the Dallas Stars organization, Button was considered a rising star in the NHL managerial game. He ended up overseeing three of the most disappointing seasons in Flames history.

  • Don Hay [2000-01] 68 games
    Hay was a well-respected junior coach that made the jump to the NHL. He failed to impress and was axed by Button before his first season was done. (He subsequently went back to the juniors and continued to impress.)
  • Greg Gilbert [2001-02] 121 games, no playoff appearances
    Gilbert was an assistant under Hay. He was promoted and finished out the 2000-01 season. He began the next year with a lot of promise, but repeatedly clashed with rising star Marc Savard and the team continued to disappoint. In a bind, Button traded away Savard for a Russian prospect nobody had ever heard of…and then fired Gilbert two weeks later anyway. Al MacNeil served as interim coach.
  • Darryl Sutter [2003] 46 games, no playoff appearances
    Fresh off being fired from the San Jose Sharks just weeks prior, Button snatched Sutter off the free agent market and brought him back to his home province. Learning the nuances of a new team on the fly, Sutter led the Flames to a record around the .500 mark in the remainder of the season.

After three disappointing years at the helm, the Flames opted not to renew Button’s contract. He was replaced, ironically, by the very man he hired as head coach.

THE DARRYL SUTTER ERA [2003-2010]

Deciding that outside options weren’t the best scenario – and likely heartened by the success the Flames had with him as head coach – the Flames hired Sutter as GM, his first managerial role in hockey, in addition to his job as head coach.

  • Darryl Sutter [2003-06] 164 games, two playoff appearances (one Stanley Cup Final appearance)
    In Sutter’s first season as coach and GM, they made the playoffs for the first time since 1996 (and came within a goal of winning the Stanley Cup). After two seasons (and one lock-out) juggling both roles, Sutter (like Doug Risebrough) found that two jobs was too much for one man and promoted his second-in-command to head coach in his place.
  • Jim Playfair [2006-07] 82 games, one playoff appearance
    Playfair was a respected assistant coach. Reportedly he had issues motivating his veteran-heavy roster. The team got rolled in the first round in his only season as coach and he accepted a demotion to associate coach when Sutter decided to bring in a more veteran coach to run the show.
  • Mike Keenan [2007-09] 164 games, two playoff appearances
    Looking for the missing ingredient to return his team to the promised land, Sutter brought in the legendary Keenan, one of the most noteworthy coaches of this era. Unfortunately, his playoff luck was just as bad as Playfair’s and he was fired after two first round exits in two years.
  • Brent Sutter [2009-10] 82 games, no playoff appearances
    Darryl’s brother was brought in to wrangle the veteran club and get them back on track. Unfortunately, the club fell just short of the playoffs.

Rumours swirled about ownership being unhappy with the team’s performance. Many around the organization thought that it would be put to Darryl to fire his own brother (that he had hired the year prior). Darryl ended up resigning just after Christmas in 2010, putting an end to the rampant speculation. He was replaced by his second-in-command.

THE JAY FEASTER ERA [2010-2013]

In keeping with tradition, after Sutter resigned his job passed on to his most loyal lieutenant – who he hired – Jay Feaster. Feaster was best known as the GM of the Tampa Bay team that beat Sutter’s Flames for the Stanley Cup in 2004.

  • Brent Sutter [2010-12] 164 games, no playoff appearances
    With Feaster still in evaluation mode, Sutter was retained to try to get the underachieving Flames to the playoffs. After two more seasons on the outside, Sutter’s contract wasn’t renewed.
  • Bob Hartley [2012-13] 78 games, no playoff appearances
    Likely hoping to salvage his GM tenure, Feaster brought in long-time friend Hartley from Switzerland. The Flames continued to flounder and Feaster pulled the proverbial rip-cord, trading away Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester and finally beginning the team’s rebuild.

Prior to the 2013-14 season, the Flames brought in Brian Burke as President of Hockey Operations. Three months later, Burke concluded his evaluation of the organization by dismissing Feaster from his post.

The Flames went the rest of the season with Burke as interim GM before hiring Brad Treliving prior to the draft. With Hartley on the final year of his existing contract, time will tell if he gets extended. But given Calgary’s performance thus far, his chances for future employment look pretty good.