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Top 50 Flames of All Time: #43 Nelson Skalbania

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Photo credit:Graphic by Mike Gould
Ryan Pike
3 months ago
There’s a fantastic line in the 2004 crime drama Layer Cake that stays with you: “The art of good business is being a good middleman.” In the history of the Calgary Flames franchise, there may be no better individual at putting the right people together at the right time than Nelson Skalbania.
A crucial figure in the original Calgary ownership group, Skalbania is #43 on our countdown.
Co-Owner, 1980-81
Originally from Vancouver, Skalbania emerged as a gigantic figure in both real estate and sports ownership – oddly enough, operating with the same “flip it!” mentality in both spheres of business. He famously bought (and sold) CNN Center, bought (and sold) several Eatons stores throughout Canada, and bought (and sold) the Edmonton Oilers during the World Hockey Association’s heyday.
Skalbania also signed a young Wayne Gretzky to a personal services contract – rather than a contract to the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers – and then sold him to Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington in order to keep the Racers solvent. (And that move didn’t work, as the Racers folded the following month anyway.)
A couple years after the Gretzky transactions, Skalbania focused in on a struggling hockey team operating in the National Hockey League: the Atlanta Flames. You see, Flames owner Tom Cousins was hemorrhaging money – both with the Flames and his other business interests. Seeking to stave off bankruptcy, Cousins was exploring his options. And Skalbania, someone who loved making deals happen, was firmly in the mix.
To get the deal done, Skalbania put together a group of Calgary-area businessmen who were interested in chipping in to own a team, but probably couldn’t do it on their own. So Skalbania was joined by Harley Hotchkiss, Daryl Seaman, Byron Seaman, Norman Green, Norman Kwong and Ralph Scurfield, and the group successfully purchased the Atlanta Flames following the 1979-80 season and moved them to Calgary. Skalbania carried a 51% ownership stake, with the other six splitting the remaining 49%.
Skalbania didn’t stick around the Flames’ ownership group for very long, though. Upon the club’s arrival in Calgary, the club’s ownership became embroiled in talks for a permanent new arena for the Flames and those talks dove-tailed with ongoing discussions regarding a bid for the 1988 Winter Olympics. Skalbania’s attention was more on his other business interests than really digging into the Flames and the Olympics, so he sold off his stake in the team following the initial season in Calgary and went on to do other things. According to a chat he had with the New York Times in 1981, he ended up coming out ahead during his acquisition of the Flames because all he put up himself was the initial $1 million deposit to Cousins – the remainder of the $16 million sale price was covered by his new partners (who also reimbursed Skalbania for his deposit, plus $200,000) and a $6 million advance from Molson against the team’s television rights.
Skalbania wasn’t an owner for very long, but he was the guy that was central to putting together the deal that put together the original ownership group and brought the Flames to Calgary. The hockey world could have been very different had he not gotten involved.

Top 50 Flames of All Time

Honourable mentions | #50 Brad Treliving | #49 Sonia Scurfield | #48 Curtis Glencross | #47 Colin Patterson | #46 Jiri Hudler | #45 Jim Peplinski | #44 Jim “Bearcat” Murray | #43 Nelson Skalbania

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