SPORTS

The race for first

Calgary and Chicago are fighting it out

JOHN HOWSE May 15 1989
SPORTS

The race for first

Calgary and Chicago are fighting it out

JOHN HOWSE May 15 1989

The race for first

SPORTS

Calgary and Chicago are fighting it out

It has been the most successful National Hockey League season of all 17 for the Calgary Flames. Last week, the Flames, who again won the President’s Trophy for the best overall record in the 80-game regular season, were battling the gritty Chicago Blackhawks in the western Campbell Conference finals. That would guarantee them a berth against either perennial contenders Montreal Canadiens or the resurgent underdog Philadelphia Flyers of the Prince of Wales

Conference in the Stanley Cup final best-ofseven series. Said Hakan Loob, the Flames’ high-scoring Swedish right winger: “You realize there is no second place. You either win it all or they forget about you. Nobody remembers who gets to the finals—it is who wins the Cup.” Despite repeating as winner in the season, few Flames and their Cup-hungry fans have forgotten the team’s disastrous loss in four straight games to Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers last April in the Smythe Division final— the precursor to the Oilers’ winning of their fourth Stanley Cup. Said Flames president Cliff Fletcher: “There is an unbelievable amount of pressure to win this year. For these playoffs, we are more experienced in how we handle being the league’s top team.” And the team, which lacks a superstar like Gretzky or Mario

Lemieux, is simply a better one, made up of players drawn from hockey’s global village —the Soviet Union, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, the United States and Canada. Its coaches and front-office personnel have all known victory—from Fletcher, 54, who worked for legendary Sam Pollock, under whom, as general manager, the Canadiens won nine Stanley Cups, to head coach Terry Crisp, 45, a twotime Cup winner as a rugged Flyers centre.

Under Crisp, who was named Coach of the

Year by Sporting News last season and is nominated for this year’s NHL Jack Adams Trophy for coaching distinction, are two assistant coaches: Doug Risebrough, a Guelph, Ont., native who played on four Cup-winning teams with the Canadiens before four seasons with the Flames; and Tom Watt, whose lifetime coaching career spans nine All-Canada championships with the University of Toronto Blues, the Canadian Olympic team and the Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets of the NHL. Said Fletcher: “It was always Montreal’s God-given right to win. Being around Sam Pollock for 10 years, some of that wears off. It helps influence what I have done.”

Assistant general manager AÍ McNeil, a veteran of eight NHL seasons as a player, also coached Montreal to a Stanley Cup, in 1970.

And Glenn Hall, the Flames’ goalie coach, starred for Chicago when the Blackhawks last won the Cup, in 1961. Said Fletcher: “The key to any successful organization is always people —hire good ones and let them do the job.” But player depth, despite the lack of an acknowledged superstar, is a major Flames strength. The team has four strong lines, including its current top forward troika —left-winger Colin Patterson, 29, of Rexdale, Ont., and a nominee for the league’s Selke Trophy for top defensive forward; right-winger Joe Mullen, 32, of New York City, nominated for the Lady Byng most-gentlemanly-player trophy; and centre Doug Gilmour, 25, of Kingston, Ont., an expert scorer traded from the St. Louis Blues last September. Said Risebrough: “It is like a breath of fresh air when you have four lines to do the job. This team has pulled quality out of later draft-round picks.”

But the Flames owe much to Fletcher’s ability to deal players, especially obvious in a series of trades with St. Louis. As well as the high-scoring Gilmour and Mullen, ex-Blues

players now with the Flames include tough defencemen Ric Nattress and Rob Ramage and backup goalie Rick Walmsley. Oilers general manager Glen Sather, referring to St. Louis Blues general manager Ron Caron, said that Fletcher “has a hell of a guy in his hip pocket.” Responded Fletcher: “Contrary to what Sather says, it takes two parties to make a trade. We have been fortunate.”

Once moved from Atlanta in 1980, the Flames quickly became Calgary’s dominant sports team. Fletcher changed the team logo from a flaming A, which symbolized the burning of Atlanta by Union troops in 1864, to a flaming C, which acknowledges its fiery presence in Canada’s energy capital. It is also one of the NHL’s most successful marketing images. With record receipts of as much as $500,000 a playoff game and sellout crowds of 20,062 in the Saddledome, newcomers face a 10-year wait for season tickets. Already, the list holds more than 6,200 names, although fans can eliminate the wait by buying offered season-ticket rights advertised in local

newspapers for up to $15,000. Ironically, the Flames cannot cash in on lucrative local television rights—now worth an estimated $3 million annually—because Molson Breweries retains them until 1989-1990.

But success brings fan pressure, or Flames fever as it is locally known. Flaming Cs plaster store and car windows, and fans wearing the team color turn each game at the Saddledome into a sea of red. “The city’s morale is sky-high right now,” said Mayor Donald Hartman during a visit to the Flames’ dressing room. “The whole city is happy.” For his part, Fletcher clearly will be satisfied if it is his team’s name that everyone remembers this time next year.

JOHN HOWSE in Calgary