Countless men and women behind the scenes have helped build the Calgary Flames from a fledgling franchise in Atlanta into an organization that’s won a championship and become cemented into Canada’s sporting landscape.
Out of a few hundred possible choices, we boiled it down to five men who have made the largest off-ice impact. Here are the the Flames five best hockey minds ever.
#5: AL MACNEIL
Al MacNeil had a pretty strong resume when he joined the Atlanta Flames in 1979. He’d coached the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup and brought their AHL team to three Calder Cups. He was the last Atlanta head coach and the first Calgary head coach, guiding the Flames to the third round of the playoffs in their first season after relocating.
He moved on from the head coaching gig following the 1981-82 season, settling into a series of management positions that kept him off the bench, but utilized his decades of knowledge. He has his name on the 1989 Cup engraving as assistant general manager. He served as interim head coach in December 2002 after the Flames axed Greg Gilbert and filled in for a couple of weeks before the team hired Darryl Sutter.
And even though he no longer has an “official” position – he’s nowhere to be found on the team directory – you can often find him at the rink, watching the team and offering his advice to Flames management whenever he’s asked.
#4 AL COATES
Al Coates wasn’t originally on my list.
He had a good run with the Flames: he was assistant to the president from 1987 to 1995 and basically helped with every important hockey ops decision during that period – gaining an apprenticeship under both Cliff Fletcher and Doug Risebrough. He eventually succeeded Risebrough as general manager in 1995 and inherited a ton of issues – an aging core, a dwindling Canadian dollar and an inability to retain the team’s best players.
He handled two huge transactions rather deftly. He traded Joe Nieuwendyk to the Dallas Stars for Kamloops Blazers star Jarome Iginla and veteran center Cory Millen. A few years later, he traded Theoren Fleury to the Colorado Avalanche for a package that included Robyn Regehr. Faced with a couple of impossible situations, he managed to get good value for his club. He basically inherited a boat with a hole in it, and he did his level best to keep the water from sinking the ship while he was at the helm.
#3: DARRYL SUTTER
Darryl Sutter was both brilliant and crazy, and both qualities made him a good hockey coach and executive.
Sutter managed to take a 2003-04 Flames club that wasn’t very good on paper, got 23 players on the same page and developed them into a hockey machine that ground out wins in the trenches. His negative aspects where that he couldn’t adapt to the post-lockout NHL as a general manager, but before that point, he managed to buy low on several impressive young players – most notably Miikka Kiprusoff – and he was bold when he wanted to be, notably when trading for Jay Bouwmeester to get his negotiation rights for a couple days (and then signing him).
His descent into hockey ops madness notwithstanding – deals involving Olli Jokinen and Dion Phaneuf were particularly wonky – Sutter had a HUGE impact on the Calgary Flames. When he was brilliant, he was really brilliant.
#2: BOB JOHNSON
In many ways a sentimental choice, “Badger” Bob Johnson is generally considered the best coach in Flames history. Yes, it helps that he was coaching the ’80s Flames on their way up the mountain towards a Stanley Cup. Yes, it helps that he never got the chance to over-stay his welcome like other coaches in Flames history have, but Johnson managed to squeeze as much hockey out of the Flames as he could. His failure to lead them to a Stanley Cup in 1986 basically pointed out all of the team’s flaws to his general manager, which allowed them to make the appropriate tweaks and get them over the hump.
#1: CLIFF FLETCHER
In 1972, St. Louis Blues assistant general manager Cliff Fletcher came to Atlanta for his first shot at the big chair as an NHL general manager. He tinkered and prodded for the next two decades. His team missed the playoffs twice during his tenure. They made the Stanley Cup Final twice and won a Cup. He drafted, developed and otherwise guided a bunch of Hall of Famers.
In short: Cliff Fletcher was a tremendous general manager.