A not-so-funny thing has happened to Boom Boom Geoffrion and the Atlanta Flames, something called initial shock. Remember last season when the Flames introduced Georgians to hockey? Those Southerners were so naive they used to cheer defensemen whenever they touched the puck for a routine icing call. The Flames managed to play a complete 39-game home schedule without reading or hearing a single word of complaint. "It was a paradise," admits Goaltender Danny Bouchard. Well, a fortnight ago it was paradise lost. The Flames were booed for the first time in their arena, the Omni.
This momentous event occurred in a losing game against Buffalo when Don Luce and Craig Ramsay of the Sabres played a private game of keepaway with the puck while the Flames supposedly were on their power play. For almost two minutes the Flames futilely chased Luce and Ramsay around the ice. The roar started in the upper reaches of the stands. Some people booed, some stomped their feet and then others booed and stomped their feet. Even Tommy Nobis, the middle linebacker of the Falcons, who likes watching hockey almost as much as he enjoys mashing quarterbacks, booed the Flames. The sudden jeers carried a clear message. As one fan said, "I didn't know the difference between the power play and the blue line last year, but now I know a good power play when I see one—and that was an awful power play, y'know."
After the game Geoffrion, the squire of Peachtree Street with his avant-garde clothes and fluorescent shoes, confronted his new critics, but he did not challenge their vocal judgment. In fact, in a masterful exhibition of public relations, Geoffrion seconded their comments and left them all convinced that they were indeed true experts.
"The power play was pretty bad, Boom," observed one fan.
"I guarantee you dat," Geoffrion said in his rapid Gallic monotone.
"They didn't skate, did they?" somebody noted.
"Dat's right. Absolutely. I agree with you 100% on dat," Geoffrion said.
"What about the boos, Boomer?" asked another.
"I have to agree with you people and all da fans," Geoffrion said. "We deserved them, to be sure."
Since that initial encounter with a hostile audience, however, Geoffrion and the Flames have kept the boos and the stomping to a minimum by winning last week's rematch against Buffalo 3-2 and then defeating the Vancouver Canucks 4-1 to remain bunched with the leaders in the NHL's West Division. In many ways the Flames can blame only themselves for any sudden outbursts of disfavor. The Flames have pampered and spoiled the people of Atlanta by giving them a legitimate playoff contender and a rinkful of promising young stars in only their second year of operation. So far this season the Flames have already defeated Boston, Montreal and hated Philadelphia. Thus the fans now expect the heroic in every game. "When we all yell 'Melt 'em, Flames, ' " drawled one Atlanta lovely, "we mean it."
With due credit to Geoffrion's charismatic presence and superior coaching, the man most responsible for Atlanta's instant success is General Manager Cliff Fletcher, who obviously took copious notes during the 10 years he worked for shrewd Sam Pollock in Montreal and the five years he helped Scotty Bowman in St. Louis. The 38-year-old Fletcher travels 10,000 miles and accumulates almost $1,500 in telephone bills every month, and, not surprisingly, many of his trips and calls are to Montreal. Six of Fletcher's top players, including Goaltender Phil Myre, who teams with Bouchard to give the Flames the best pair of young goalies in hockey, and Center Tom Lysiak, who has been the NHL's top rookie this season, have a Canadien connection, prompting one rival general manager to call Atlanta "Montreal South." There is reason enough for jealousy; Fletcher has created the model expansion franchise in record time.
Never a good hockey player himself, Fletcher switched to coaching when he was barely 18 years old, handling several peewee teams around his native Montreal. Four years later the Canadiens needed a manager for their amateur affiliate in suburban Verdun, and they hired Fletcher for $200 a season. That team folded after one year, Fletcher recalls. He remained with Montreal for the next decade, handling administrative and scouting duties for Pollock, and then joined Bowman, who had been another of Pollock's junior aides, in St. Louis in 1966. Suddenly, in 1971, after four highly successful seasons with the Blues, Bowman and Fletcher were victims of a purge of knowledgeable hockey men in St. Louis as the owners discovered they had all the answers.
Bowman returned to Montreal as coach of the Canadiens. At first Fletcher was jobless, but NHL President Clarence Campbell assured him a major position would be available for him with the next expansion team. Seven months later he was hired by the Flames as their general manager. Fletcher obtained an air travel card and a copy of the official airline guide—and then practically disappeared for five months.
During these intensive scouting trips, Fletcher analyzed the results of the previous expansion drafts. "I studied the Buffalo and Vancouver rosters," he says, "and then decided that, like Buffalo, I'd try to draft the three or four best young players available. At the same time, having been in St. Louis when the Blues won championships because of great goal-tending by Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, I knew I needed at least one top goaltender. After that I wanted to fill the rest of my roster with tough defensemen and some tight-checking forwards."
Fletcher concentrated first on Montreal, understandably. According to the rules, the Canadiens did not have to expose a goaltender in the expansion draft. However, Pollock had a surplus of excellent young goalies in Montreal, and he much preferred to lose one of them rather than a forward. Would Fletcher be interested in Myre, who faced a bleak future as Ken Dryden's backup goalie in Montreal? Fletcher drooled at the prospect of getting Myre for what amounted to a minor concession, and the deal was made. As part of the arrangement, Pollock also permitted Fletcher to purchase two of his minor league players, Rey Comeau and Noel Price, both of whom now play regularly for the Flames.
When Fletcher agreed to draft Myre from Montreal, he had no idea that the Bruins, who had lost young goaltenders Bernie Parent and Doug Favell to Philadelphia in the 1967 expansion, would leave Bouchard on the unprotected list. By all accounts Bouchard had been the best young goalie in the minor leagues that year. But Boston decided not to break up its Stanley Cup tandem of Gerry Cheevers and Ed Johnston and, in what Bruin officials now privately regard as "a terrible blunder," exposed Bouchard to the Flames, who promptly drafted him. Ironically, Cheevers jumped the Bruins and signed with the WHA two weeks later.
Myre, 25, and Bouchard, 22, played sensationally last year and kept the Flames in playoff contention until the last six weeks. "There was always terrible pressure on them because we did not score a lot of goals ourselves," Geoffrion says, "but they never did crack." So far this year Bouchard and Myre have combined to produce the fourth-best defensive record in the NHL. Bouchard has allowed only 21 goals in 11 games, while Myre has given up 27 in his eight starts.
By coincidence, they both grew up in the same Ville La Salle suburb on Montreal's South Side. "My sister Edith always had her eyes on you, do you remember her?" Bouchard asked Myre during lunch one day last week.
"No," said Myre.
"Sure you do," Bouchard insisted. "You used to keep her picture in your souvenir book."
Bouchard shook his head. "They don't like me in the neighborhood anymore. I committed the capital sin of marrying a girl who isn't French, and it didn't go over too good. Well, I can't worry about that."
While Myre is shy and silent, Bouchard is extremely outgoing and likes to dazzle people with the white patent-leather boots he seems to wear everywhere. He talks about building condominiums in Atlanta "because they're good tax shelters" and spends his spare time looking for antique furniture for the condominium he has just bought in suburban Marietta.
"My dad always told me I was born for the big bread," Bouchard said. "You got to believe it, too. When I was 14 I used to make $70 a week delivering orders on my bike. I was tight with my pennies in those days. My dad told me, 'Be like that and you'll succeed.' I don't throw my money around."
Secure in goal with Myre and Bouchard, Fletcher has been able to gamble with untested kids in the Atlanta lineup. Last year there were five rookies playing regularly on the forward lines and three more taking steady shifts on defense. This year the best player on the Atlanta roster is still another rookie, the tall, strong and shifty Lysiak. Thanks are again due to Sam. Montreal owned the No. 2 selection in the amateur draft last spring, but Pollock thought Lysiak would sign with the WHA rather than the Canadiens, who usually send their rookies to Halifax for seasoning. Rather than lose Lysiak for the NHL, Pollock traded the No. 2 pick to Atlanta for "various concessions" and Fletcher immediately drafted and signed Lysiak to a multi-year contract.
Fletcher must be doing something right; even those newly severe critics in Atlanta admit that. The Flames outdraw the NBA Hawks by almost two to one, averaging nearly 14,000 spectators a game compared with 8,000 for Pistol Pete and Sweet Lou. And unlike the Hawks, who need nightly giveaways and other gimmicks to lure customers to the Omni, the Flames do not give away anything. Except occasionally a goal. And, thanks to Myre and Bouchard, they don't give many of those.