The 5 Greatest Hockey Minds In Flames History

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.

  • al rain

    “His descent into hockey ops madness notwithstanding”

    I don’t think there’s any realistic way to judge Sutter except by looking at his whole body of work, including the madness. Which then puts him well out of the top 1,000.

    • Greg

      Problem is a) almost nobody leaves a hockey ops job until things have gotten pretty dismal and b) looking at whole body of work, the bias is always to judge it by how it ends.

      Was Sutter nucking futs at the end? Yup. But did he resign Iggy to what was percieved as a bargain long term contract, acquire Kipper for a song, draft Brodie in the 4th round, invent back diving contracts to get a great cap hit on Kipper, pull off the first “trade for rights and sign big name UFA” on bouwmeester in cap era… There was a time when “in Daryl we trust” was a common slogan in Calgary, and it’s hard to keep that in proper balance when he remembering how badly he lost his marbles at the end.

      He was brilliant and brutal. On balance, he’s well within top 1000 🙂

      • al rain

        “He was brilliant and brutal. On balance, he’s well within top 1000 :)”

        I have, on occasion, been accused of hyperbole. You’re correct, I put one too many zeros there.

  • ChinookArchYYC

    Cliff Fletcher is the clear number 1 on Calgary’s list and it’s a distant number 2 behind him. He might well have earned a high nomination in Toronto as well, by virtual of (stealing err) trading for Gilmour.

    Sutter was a brilliant coach, but his GM abilities were poor overall. His constant preference of OLD vets to rookies was his undoing as a GM. Ironic since the 2004 team he had so much success with was largely due to the exceptional play of his young players.

  • Greg

    I like the Al Coates mention. During a time when smaller-market teams were being shopped to non-traditional hockey markets, Coates helped keep the team reasonably competitive (i.e. not gawd-awful) And, thus, keep the fans coming out to games. He definitely didn’t have the market conditions to compete against he big spenders, and did the best he could. I’m not sure how another GM would have been able to manage his circumstances.

  • Greg

    I would break this category down further into two: GM and coach.

    That said, absolute best GM would be Fletcher. He built through the draft (i.e. MacInnis, Suter, Roberts), he tinkered and fine tuned through trades (i.e. Mullen, Tonelli, Mcdonald). He also listened to Badger Bob and was one of the early entrants into scouting and recruiting out of NCAA (i.e. Otto, Cavallini, Berezan, Sheehy). On his watch and under his direction, the Flames became one of the two best teams in hockey in the mid- to late- 80s. He took a different route than the Oilers (reluctantly, I will admit they are the other) who relied heavily on the draft, but got as much mileage.

    As for the best coach, in my book, it would be the aforementioned Badger Bob (“its a great day for hockey”) Johnson. He was a solid teacher and tactitian who took the team from mediocre to contender.

    I have to emphasize that I did not include in my thought process the current regime. But I have to admit, the current tandem of Treliving and Hartley have done some pretty good things in their respective tenures putting them on a favorable track. In this part of the game, measure against your predecessors can only be done with time, so I will wait to pass comparative judgement.

  • Greg

    This might not be the “right” list but Peter Maher deserves recognition somewhere on these lists…hockey hall of famer and one of, if not the most associated names with the Flames over his 30 years here.

    An absolute class act and worthy of recognition