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The Flame is Still Burning Brightly

March 10, 1980
March 10, 1980

Table of Contents
March 10, 1980

The Hoosiers
Jim Craig
Martin
  • Born in the Bay Area 51 years ago, Billy Martin is back in the neighborhood as manager of Charlie Finley's downtrodden Oakland A's, an assignment that, given the personalities of the principals, may not last the season

Heavies
Fillies
Track & Field
Swimming
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The Flame is Still Burning Brightly

Georgians suddenly turned on to the alien sport of hockey last week, giving a lavish welcome to Olympic Goalie Jim Craig, whose pro debut with the Atlanta Flames was a rousing success, on and off the ice

If anytime soon Jim Craig does one of those credit-card TV commercials that begins "Do you know me?" the viewers will drown out the message by yelling "Yes!" loud and clear. Right now Craig, the goaltender who beat the world at Lake Placid, is as familiar as the kid next door and more American than a Chevrolet full of apple pies. Most recently seen draped in Old Glory and a gold medal, Craig made his NHL debut last Saturday night in Atlanta in a blaze of publicity. And it was fitting that Craig, whose week had been one parade and one standing ovation after another, wore No. 1 for the Flames and beat the Colorado Rockies 4-1 before Atlanta's first sellout crowd (15,156) of the season.

This is an article from the March 10, 1980 issue Original Layout

"I'm more at home on the ice than with all of this," Craig said after the game, gesturing at a locker room full of media people. "At first I wasn't keen on the idea of beginning in the NHL so soon, but now I'm glad I did. That's one 'W beside my name." En route to getting the W, Craig stopped 24 shots, including more than a few of the high, hard ones that tend to stun the uninitiated. But Craig clutched, scrambled and hung on, and each save was greeted by approving roars from flag-waving fans and a few bars of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious on the organ.

Craig hoped the game in Atlanta marked the end of a three-week-long whirlwind that left him gasping for air—though, in several ways, richer for the experience. During the days preceding his auspicious entry into the NHL, he had been pelted with the equivalent of 300 shots on goal a minute, and he handled the barrage with great poise. "After we beat Finland to win the gold medal, we were all drained," Craig says. "But how could we relax? We had to be at the White House the next day. So I had four beers and went to bed."

Indeed, it was lunch in the East Room with Jimmy and Rosalynn on Monday and then a quick goodby to Olympic teammates before flying to New York for a Tuesday morning TV appearance. It was on that trip that Craig discovered he was no longer anonymous. "The plane was packed with businessmen, and when I got on, they all stood and applauded," he says. "Then they were offering me limousines to take me around New York. It was unbelievable."

After an interview on Good Morning, America, Craig flew to Massachusetts, where a fleet of limos and motorcycle cops escorted him from Boston's Logan airport to a tumultuous welcome at his home in North Easton. That night Craig and the three other former Boston University players who skated for the Olympic team—Mike Eruzione, Jack O'Callahan and Dave Silk—attended the BU-RPI game and were given gold watches for their Lake Placid heroics. "Nobody paid attention to the game," Craig says. "They just kept coming over to us and getting autographs."

On Wednesday, Craig was perched atop a North Easton fire engine for a homecoming parade that took on the aura of a free Beatles concert. "There were three state troopers with billy clubs around me, trying to keep people away," Craig says. "I never even liked state troopers before." During the parade, Craig had groceries and clothing thrust into his arms and accepted 20 dozen roses—"How much does a dozen roses cost, anyway? $25? And 20 people paid that?"—and, perhaps best of all, a case of Heineken's.

Later, Craig and his family—he is the sixth of eight children—wanted to go out for dinner but were mobbed by well-wishers at every turn. "So some restaurant sent a meal over to our house in a cop car," he says. And through it all, the Craig telephone rang nonstop, as it had for almost a week. "We must've had 10,000 phone calls," says Don Craig, 32, Jim's oldest brother. "I haven't been to work in two weeks."

At that point, Craig hadn't even come to terms with the Flames, who drafted him in the fourth round in 1977, following his sophomore season at BU. But Wednesday evening Craig lost his amateur status when his agent, Bob Murray, struck a deal with Atlanta General Manager Cliff Fletcher. In signing with the Flames through the 1982-83 season, Craig received a contract that called for a $45,000 bonus, an annual salary in the $85,000 range and a guarantee of endorsements.

"For seven years we've been unable to attract the interest of Atlanta's advertising community," Fletcher says, "but now they're knocking down our doors." By that time Coca-Cola had already gone directly to Craig, who received $35,000 for doing a one-shot TV commercial.

Craig may be the savior of the Atlanta franchise. Plagued by poor attendance, Atlanta is resigned to losing at least $2 million this season. Rumors of the Flames' departure from Georgia are rampant; according to the latest ones, the team will play next season in Calgary or Dallas or East Rutherford, N.J. But with Craig in the lineup, there could be a turnabout. His box-office appeal immediately became apparent.

Minutes after the U.S. beat Finland for the gold medal, the Flames sold 500 tickets for the Colorado game. Atlantans just assumed Craig was on his way. When the Flames announced his signing, several thousand more tickets were snatched up. "We never even said he would play," says Fletcher. By the time Craig arrived in town, the game was sold out. "Without Craig, we'd have a crowd of about 7,000 for this game," said one team official. "The kid will be worth 8,000 seats." At an average of $8 per ticket. And, best of all, Craig would be in goal.

"There was some concern about playing him against Colorado," says Fletcher. "If a goalie starts against, say, Montreal and sees 40 shots, the feeling is that he's had a bit of work. But against a Colorado, he might see 20 shots, and if a few go in, he won't be excused, as he could be if he played Montreal. This was a real test."

Before flying south, Craig got in some skating at BU with his old coach, Jackie Parker. Then, armed with a sheepskin coat and four hockey sticks, he tried unsuccessfully to evade crowds at Logan as he left for Atlanta Thursday night. "How can all these people recognize me?" he said in a bewildered tone. Told that his face was constantly beamed into millions of homes during the Olympics, he responded, "Well, I haven't even seen the highlights yet."

When Craig got onto the plane for Atlanta, the passengers greeted him with another ovation. "I wish I could think of new things to say," he said as he settled into his seat. "I'm boring myself."

On Friday he skated with his new teammates for the first time, at a rink in suburban Atlanta. Looking fatigued and wearing his almost permanent five-o'clock shadow, Craig positioned himself in the cage while all the Flames lined up, four pucks apiece, to take target practice. "I was afraid they'd all shoot at once," Craig said.

But the drill was no more than a "Welcome to the NHL, Jimbo." He fended off shots with the quick kick seen so often during the Games and looked almost at ease on the ice. Except for the large turnout of spectators and the cameras that followed Craig's every move, it might have been any Atlanta practice.

Craig worried that the hoopla attending his arrival would cause resentment among the other Flames, most of whom are anonymous even in Atlanta, but he fit right in. "The attention for him is going to generate enthusiasm for us," says Defenseman Paul Reinhart, who bypassed the '80 Canadian Olympic team to sign with the Flames. "Anything that fills the building helps, and he can do that. Personally, I think it's just great for him."

Craig's biggest concern was the team goaltending situation: Atlanta already had a consistent tandem in Dan Bouchard, 29, and Pat Riggin, 20. Three goal-tenders are one too many, but the Flames won't wrestle with that problem until the off-season.

After practice, the other Flames quickly christened Craig "The Savior." Defenseman Brad Marsh quipped, "Wow, he must be good. He stopped me cold." Marsh then invited Craig to unwind over a few beers. But Craig had to stick to his barnstorming schedule and took a rain check. "He's under a lot of pressure," said Reinhart, "but I don't see that we'll have to adjust much to playing in front of him. Maybe we'll mess up once about where he's going to leave a puck after a save. But he'll work out. He's in good shape. And I hear he actually slept last night."

True. Craig had really slept, for the first night in a week, and though he was running on empty, he still fielded questions as deftly as he'd stopped pucks. At his midday press conference Friday, in the hall of a hotel with an ice rink, a six-piece Dixieland band swung from On, Wisconsin to Yankee Doodle. Shoppers lingered near a stage draped in red and blue, and a horde of reporters vied for "exclusive" interviews. Local sports-writers pumped Craig for in-depth analyses of what he thinks of playing in the NHL. "But I haven't played a game yet," he said. Everyone asked if he had a girl friend, mentioning an ABC profile that showed him with a girl. "That was last week," he said. Even a priest with a press pass got into the act, wondering aloud if Craig is Catholic—"because if you're not, my paper can't do this story." Fear not, Father, he is.

Later, back at the Flames' office, Craig chomped on a wad of green bubble gum and answered more questions, taped a two-part between-periods TV interview and fought off losing his voice. When the bouquets of microphones were cleared away late Friday afternoon, Craig asked plaintively, "Is there someplace I can hide?" There wasn't.

Georgia Governor George Busbee had invited Craig to the Capitol. Jim Craig Day was declared, and the state senate recessed briefly to meet the man Busbee called "Georgia's most famous citizen." Female staffers gushed over Craig's Bahstan accent and clung to him as they posed for Instamatic pictures. Craig's throat was getting raspier, but he smiled on, even though he had cracked a tooth on some airline food the previous evening. As he told Busbee how happy he was to be in Atlanta, Craig was hoping to see a dentist. But not just yet, Jim. One more TV appearance.

As he left the Capitol, Craig marveled at the weather: 60° and sunshine. "What a day to play even nine holes," he said, and then he headed for his final appointment of the afternoon.

On his way to the TV station, Craig thumbed through the Atlanta press guide, studying his teammates' mug shots. "I want to be able to recognize these guys," he said. And then he talked a bit about the Olympic team. "Sure, it would've been good to have a few days together, because we were all part of that big thrill. But now, for some of us, it's a business, and if you have a chance to do a commercial or something that will pay you, you'll do that instead of taking the time for yourself."

Craig caught quick glimpses of himself on two different TV channels Friday night, saw highlights of the U.S.-Soviet game—at last—and told a local sportscaster that, yes, it was true, he does shake hands and kiss his father after games. "I know he's proud of me, and a goalie's dad can't enjoy a game until it's over," Craig said. "Besides, it makes him feel good."

Craig's familial bonds are tight. After the U.S. beat Finland, he didn't join the leaping mass of humanity that was his team, but skated, instead, to the side of the rink, scanning the stands for his father.

"During the last few minutes of that game, I was thinking how great it would've been if Mom could've seen it," he said. Peg Craig died three years ago, and Jim knew his father was sharing his thoughts. "I felt if we could just make eye contact, it would be O.K.," Jim says. When he stood apart from his exuberant teammates, counting the rows in a vain search for his dad's seat and asking, "Where's my father?" the scene brought a lump to America's throat. "And ever since then, the first thing people want to know is if I found my father," Jim says. "That impressed me. People really cared."

And how they care in Atlanta. Don Craig—both senior and junior—attended the Saturday game at the Omni, and the Atlanta fans gave them a long loud welcome. They waved to the crowd, and Jim, down on the ice, gave them a little salute with his stick. Between periods the Craigs were approached, but not surrounded, by friendly Atlantans, and they smiled through it all. After the game, Don Craig Sr. told the press, "I feel 25."

By midnight, with the W on his record, Jim seemed refreshed, too, even though his night was far from over; he would have to film his Coke commercial into the wee hours. "During the third period, I felt like like I belonged," he said. "It's been a long season for me already, and I know it's going to be tough. But playing hockey is what I've always wanted to do. And now that I've got the job, I want to do it as long as I can. I think it must have been in the stars for me to be a hockey player."

His No. 1 jersey may have been in the stars, too. When Fletcher presented him with the shirt, Craig wondered if his old No. 30 was available. "That's Bouchard's," Craig was told, "but we could get you 29." Craig wavered and then decided to stick with his numero uno. But, coming down to earth, the big question in Atlanta is: Can Jim Craig stay No. 1 long enough to keep the Flames from becoming the Calgary Broncos?

PHOTOLANE STEWARTCraig, nervelessly reaching up to grab a deflection, stopped the NHL's Colorado Rockies about as easily as he had halted the vaunted Soviets at Lake Placid.PHOTOLANE STEWARTEven before he played his first game in Atlanta, Craig was called "Georgia's most famous citizen."PHOTOLANESTEWARTFor Craig, beating the Rockies was easier than beating the media blitz he faced throughout the week.PHOTOLANE STEWARTFor Morrow, the morrow brought $225,000.

THEN THE GOLD TURNED TO GREEN

Turning Olympic gold into NHL greenbacks was the order of the week, not only for Jim Craig, but also for six other members of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. Center Mark Johnson signed a three-year, $250,000 contract with the Penguins and was given a hero's welcome when he played his first game Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh against the Islanders. One of Johnson's opponents was Ken Morrow, the Olympic defenseman who agreed to a three-year, $225,000 contract with the Islanders. Minnesota signed Forward Steve Christoff to a three-year, $225,000 contract and unveiled him against the Canadiens in the Forum on Thursday night; the North Stars gave Steve Janaszak, Craig's backup in goal, a two-year, $100,000 contract Sunday afternoon, and that night he held high-scoring Buffalo to a 2-2 tie. Winnipeg signed Center Dave Christian to a three-year, $225,000 contract; seven seconds into his first pro game Sunday, he scored a goal against Chicago. Montreal gave Defense-man Bill Baker a three-year, $200,000 contract and plans to send him to Nova Scotia for seasoning. The dollar figures for all contracts include signing bonuses, and each agreement also includes a "two-way" clause providing for a lower salary should the player be sent to the minor leagues.