Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Dawn of a new era: The first Flames games

Kent Nilsson would score
the first goal in Flames'
history in an exhibition
game in Lethbridge.
Recently I attended my first Calgary Flames home game at the Saddledome. It’s odd, because I have seen the Flames play live before, just never at home.

The very first time was a memorable one for me, because it was the first game in the history of the franchise.

North to Calgary
The Atlanta Flames had twice made the playoffs when I started watching hockey. Back then, in the late 1970s, the first round of playoffs was called the elimination round and consisted of a best-of-three series. Awaiting the winners of this elimination round were the four division champions, who received a first-round bye.

One year, the Flames lost to Detroit and the other year to Toronto. They were not that good a team, but obviously good enough to make the playoffs back then. Those games against the Flames were the only ones I ever saw Atlanta play.

A year removed from the NHL merger with World Hockey Association, that saw Edmonton, Winnipeg, Quebec, and Hartford enter the league, rumours began to swirl about the Atlanta Flames moving to Calgary.

It was a strange time because, and few people will admit it now, but after the WHA-NHL merger, there were a lot of Albertans who were Edmonton Oiler fans because they were the closest team. That lasted exactly one year.

I recall rumours that Canadian actor Glen Ford was going to buy the Flames, then a group from Calgary led by the Seaman brothers, and of course Nelson Skalbania, who at the time was a bit of a sports entrepreneur in the same vain as Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington.

Then, one day on CBC Calgary, they announced the rumours were true. The Atlanta Flames were re-locating to Calgary, led by Skalbania and the Seamans. The name was not yet determined, and there would be a contest to decide. Eventually, the Flames' name was retained, and they would play out of the Calgary Corral on the Stampede grounds until a new arena could be constructed.

The Flames also began to transform their roster, making trades primarily to acquire draft picks, that turned into the future of the team.

Making history
Eventually, training camp opened and soon the exhibition season. Much to my surprise, and delight, the Calgary Flames were opening their schedule in Lethbridge, at the Sportsplex, home of the Western Hockey League’s Lethbridge Broncos.

So, the very first game in the history of the Calgary Flames franchise, would be in my own backyard – and I wanted to go.

My parents were game, and my sister had moved back to Southern Alberta. Since she lived right in Lethbridge, she picked up the tickets. We were set.

The game
I am lucky enough to say I saw the Calgary Flames play their first ever game, and the legendary Lanny McDonald play, in the same game. The funny thing was, he wasn’t playing for Calgary.

The Flames’ opponent in that exhibition game was the Colorado Rockies (not the baseball team), led by Lanny McDonald, who had grown up in Southern Alberta and played his junior in Medicine Hat. He had some great seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs until he ran afoul of controversial owner Harold Ballard, who summarily dispatched him to Colorado – the Siberia of the NHL.

Recently, I got some of the details of the game from the Lethbridge Herald on microfiche at the Lethbridge Public Library. The two sports reporters of the time, the incomparable Randy Jensen and Dave Sulz, did a great job of coverage.

The game was in fact the first in the history of the franchise. The two teams faced off on Sunday, Sept. 21, and tickets were $7 for adults, and $5 for children and seniors. They ended up packing 5,292 people into the Sportsplex for the game that night.

There was some local flavour too. The Flames dressed recent Lethbridge Bronco defencemen Ralph Andreesen and Jay Soleway. Already on their roster was Earl Ingarfield Junior, who was from Lethbridge, and whose father was one of the best players to come from Lethbridge. Playing for the Rockies were former Lethbridge Bronco Ron Delorme, and of course Lanny McDonald, who had actually played some of his junior hockey with the Lethbridge Sugar Kings, in addition to the Medicine Hat Tigers.

The biggest cheer was reserved for McDonald when he skated on the ice too.

The game was awesome. Kent Nilsson opened the scoring for the Flames, before Bobby Crawford tied it for the Rockies. Denis Cyr, who had been the Flames top draft pick in the 1980 entry draft, gave Calgary a 2-1 lead, before McDonald set up Paul Gagne for the tying goal. The score stayed 2-2 into the first intermission.

Calgary broke the game open in the second period, as Guy Chouinard scored what proved to be the game winner, followed by Ingarfield, which drew another cheer, and Don Lever, the former Vancouver Canuck, who was set up by Nilsson to make the score 5-2 after two periods.

Bob Gould would score the lone goal of the third period, to make the final score 6-2 for the Flames.

Pat Riggin and Rejean Lemelin split goaltending duties in net. The two would platoon with Daniel Bouchard who was the starter at the beginning of the season, but was traded to Quebec for Jamie Hislop part way through the year.

It was an auspicious start for the NHL’s newest franchise.

Parting thoughts
It’s funny that players such as Kent Nilsson, Willi Plett, Guy Chouinard, Pat Riggin and Rejean Lemelin became household names once the Flames moved to Calgary. But in that first game, they were all unknown, because few of us had seen the Atlanta Flames play more than a handful of games at most.

Yet, that first season was magical for the Flames, beyond just Kent Nilsson being nicknamed the “Magic Man”.

They tied their first official game, 5-5 against the Quebec Nordiques on Oct. 9, 1980 at the Corral . I recall watching it on Channel 7, as Ed Whalen called he action, fresh off a stint announcing "Stampede Wrestling". It took some getting used to listening to him call hockey, then seeing him on Saturday afternoons call wrestling.

Nilsson would lead the Flames in scoring with 49 goals and 82 assists for 131 points, and was the lone Flame to play in the 1980 NHL all-star game. He became the first European player to record 100 or more points, and his 82 assists and 131 points are still franchise records.

The Flames averaged 7,217 fans at the Corral and finished with a record of 39-27-14. They would make the playoffs, finishing third in the Patrick Division with 92 points, and fourth in the Campbell Conference. They ousted Chicago in the first round, sweeping them in three games, then beat Philadelphia in the second round in seven games to advance all the way to the Stanley Cup semi-finals. They would fall in six games to the Minnesota North Stars, who in turn lost the Stanley Cup final to the powerhouse, defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders.

Still, it was an amazing first year in the NHL, and it all began in Lethbridge.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, I heard the news on my car radio that the Flames were coming to Calgary. It was a Friday and I considered that to be one of those 'where were you ' moments when I heard. I was so pumped. The following September when training camp opened, I dropped into their practice rink in northeast Calgary somewhere, Max Bell perhaps, and my first thought was geez these guys are big! That team for it's time had size. My second thought was who are these guys? Information was hard to come by in those days so I still thought that Paul Henderson (my hockey hero), Gary Unger and Tom Lysiak were still with the team but that was not the case. No matter, it did not take long to embrace this team as my own. I was fortunate enough to see a couple of games at the Corral and while small in capacity, sitting so close to the action was superb! I also remember players from visiting teams tripping over the boards as they changed because the Corral's boards were several inches higher than regulation. That always brought a roar from the crowd...those days of the early Flames bring fond memories...