Last week a scandal of sorts was averted in the National Hockey League when an unannounced saliva test ordered by President John Ziegler revealed that the massive Atlanta Flames had not, in fact, been eating hay at their training meals. A visibly relieved Ziegler stated, "We found some traces of oats and barley, yes, but there was no evidence of hay. Absolutely none."
So, just what has gotten into the Flames? After being ignominiously dispatched from the Stanley Cup playoffs in two straight games by Detroit last spring, Atlanta got off to the third-best start in NHL history this season, tying its first two games and then winning 10 straight before Montreal put out the Flames' flame Saturday night, beating them 4-2 at the Forum with three power-play goals and one empty-net score.
Nonetheless, Atlanta has the best record in hockey. The Flames have not only won, but they have also won convincingly. Four of their 10 victories came against the league's elite—Montreal, the New York Islanders and Philadelphia twice. Seven were decided by three or more goals. None was decided by one goal. And Goaltender Dan Bouchard had back-to-back shutouts against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh last week. For their first 13 games the Flames averaged 4.92 goals while giving up 2.61. Six of those games were played on the road, and in six of the 13 the opposition scored the first goal. The Atlanta Flames, who had the seventh-best record in the 18-team NHL last season, are no fluke.
The Flames are the NHL's youngest and biggest team. This is no accident. "In 1973 we took a look at the success the Flyers were having," says Atlanta General Manager Cliff Fletcher, "and decided right then and there to keep our draft choices—not trade them away—and go with size in the draft. We've stuck to that."
The results make up the heart of the Flames' stable—er, roster—which averages 6'1", 193 pounds per man despite the presence of the league's smallest player, 5'5", 155-pound Center Bobby Lalonde. In 1973 Fletcher drafted forwards Tom Lysiak (6'1", 195), Eric Vail (6'2", 210) and Ken Houston (6'2", 207). The next year he chose 6'4", 210-pound Defenseman Pat Ribble, and in 1975 he picked 6'3", 211-pound Right Wing Willi Plett. In 1976 he found an even bigger forward, 6'3", 220-pound Harold Phillipoff. This year the Flames' preferred monster was a 6'2½", 210-pound Clark Kent look-alike named Brad Marsh, who plays defense.
Marsh and Lysiak came directly to the Flames—no time in the minor leagues—and Lysiak has become the team captain and alltime leading scorer; he scored three goals in Atlanta's four games last week and has nine this season. Vail and Plett became Rookies of the Year. With 13 players who have never skated for another NHL club, the Flames have as good a drafting record as any other team in hockey.
Discussing his team's prowess, Lysiak says, "Our game isn't physical as far as hurting or maiming other players goes, but we try to get in the way of the other team. Intimidation is definitely a part of hockey. This year the other teams are watching our warmups instead of concentrating on their own, thinking, 'Ugh, football club.' "
Atlanta Coach Fred Creighton points out that size is meaningless without strength. During training camp he eliminated hockey's traditional two-a-day sessions—a move many of the Flames credit for their fast start—so his players would have the time and energy to participate in a weight-training program. "It doesn't make sense to work an hour and a half on your lower body and not spend any time from the waist up," Creighton says. "Upper-body strength is very important because hockey is a push-and-shove game. Any good team has got to win the one-on-one situations that come up in the corners, and it stands to reason that the stronger one has the edge."
The line Lysiak centers, with the pugnacious Plett (13 major penalties last season) on one wing and Ken Houston on the other, depends on those corner confrontations for its success. But it has been the finesse-oriented line of Center Guy Chouinard and wings Bob MacMillan and Vail that has been most responsible for the Flames' prolific scoring. At one point last week, MacMillan and Chouinard both had 10-game scoring streaks and ranked 1-2 in the league scoring race. With a third line of Phillipoff, Lalonde and former Penguin Jean Pronovost, who has scored at least 40 goals in four of the last five years, the Flames have as much firepower as anyone.
The rap against the Flames is that their defense—consisting of non-household names like Greg Fox. Ribble, Dave Shand, Richard Mulhern and Marsh—is too young (average age, 22.8), too inexperienced (average time in NHL, one year) and too obscure and certainly will collapse under pressure. However, as Lysiak points out, "When the Flyers won their first Stanley Cup, how many teams would have wanted any one of their defensemen? But they played as a unit and knew what to do with the puck when they got it." So do the young Flames.
Goaltender Bouchard, the last of the original Flames selected by Fletcher in the 1972 expansion draft, is a prime reason for Atlanta's fast start. Bouchard's play and his reputation as a "delightful flake" have endeared him to Atlanta's many newfound fans. "I'm a loose guy," the goalie admits. "Hypertension kills more people than cancer. I don't want to die." When the offense sputtered briefly last week, Bouchard shut out the Flyers 3-0 (he had 40 saves) and the Penguins 2-0. All told, during the unbeaten streak the Flames were outshot 391-345, a statistic Creighton correctly dismisses as misleading. One of the reasons the Flames are scoring more this year, he says, is that they are cutting down on low-percentage shots.
Still, Creighton isn't ready to say Atlanta will be a Stanley Cup finalist. "I'm encouraged with what we've done so far," he says. "We thought we'd be better, and we are. But there's too much hockey ahead of us to say we're great. Hockey is a game that lends itself to streaks, and right now we happen to have the hot hand."
Bouchard, though, promised a bit more to Georgia Governor George Busby and the other 14,168 fans who came to the game against the Penguins at the Omni Friday night in order to support the team they are convinced will bury Atlanta's reputation as "Losersville, U.S.A." Accepting the Player-of-the-Month award, Bouchard said in his best French-Canadian drawl, "Thank you very much. We'll keep winning for y'all."
Pass the hay.