Two weeks ago, we took a look at the Atlanta Thrashers, and in that brief glimpse we learned that the Thrashers were not the first team to bring hockey to the Dirrrty South. In fact, that first team was the Atlanta Flames, who later became the Calgary Flames. This means that I have a perfect opportunity to write a post that is a continuation from last week!
This post comes in the wake of Calgary making their playoff push and Jarome Iginla scoring his 1000th NHL point. Iggy himself is a story, but we might get to that at the end. What is really important here is the fact that Calgary has a team called the Flames and we want to know why.
The story actually starts with a different sport. In 1968, businessman Tom Cousins and former Georgia Governor Carl Sanders brought the third major professional sports franchise to Atlanta. They had just purchased the St. Louis Hawks basketball team and turned them into the Atlanta Hawks. You may be asking yourself why this matters, but if you give me some leeway, I will explain it all.
First thing I need to note, and it made me very sad to find this out, is that Carl Sanders is not the man we all know and love as Colonel Sanders. That is actually Harland Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (not even a Georgian company).
The second thing is that the arrival of the Hawks to Atlanta opened the door for hockey to come south because of the Omni Coliseum. The Hawks needed somewhere to play, so the Omni was built. Cousins wanted a hockey team to come to Atlanta, and with this brand new facility, he was able to create a strong backbone for his NHL bid. He was able to convince the NHL that the move was a good idea, and in 1971, the League moved south. Cousins’ team was set to enter the league for the 1972-73 season.
The move was actually done by the NHL to balance out the schedule. They had recently granted New York another team, creating the Islanders in an effort to keep the World Hockey Association out of the Nassau Coliseum. This left the schedule unbalanced, so the NHL gave the team to Cousins to keep things even.
In order to create a team in Atlanta, or anywhere for that matter, you have to have a team name. The south, however, is a different place than most. With their ties to the Civil War, and Civil War history, team names that are based in that history are quite commonplace. In this case, Cousins named his team the Flames as homage to the fire resulting from the March to the Sea by General William Tecumseh Sherman.
The March to the Sea was a push from Atlanta to the port of Savannah. He and the U.S. Army commander, Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant, believed that the Civil War would end only if the Confederacy’s strategic, economic, and psychological capacity for warfare were decisively broken. During the March, Sherman applied the principles of Scorched Earth, burning crops, killing livestock, and consuming supplies. He inflicted significant damage on industry, infrastructure and even civilian property. It was said of Sherman that he
“defied military principles by operating deep within enemy territory and without lines of supply or communication. He destroyed much of the South’s potential and psychology to wage war.”
All in all, if you were a Yankee, Sherman was the biggest badass this side of the Mississippi, but if you were a Confederate, this guy was the devil. When Sherman left Atlanta, on November 15th, 1864, the city was set on fire, and burned to the ground.
In light of these events, Cousins chose a name that represented the ideals of a hockey team from Atlanta. He wanted a name that depicted a destructive force that would destroy its enemies, both physically and psychologically. He added to that in a physical way, when he hired Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion to be the head coach. The Flames made the playoffs in six of their eight seasons, while their expansion buddies, the Islanders, only won 31 games in their first two years combined (is anyone really surprised?).
In 1980, Cousins hit a period of financial difficulty and had to sell the Flames. He had a couple of serious offers from local groups, but ended up selling to Canadian entrepreneur (and former Oilers owner) Nelson Skalbania. Cousins sold the team for $16M, which was a record sale price in the NHL at the time (now it is less than some players make in two years).
On May 21, 1980, Skalbania announced the team would be moving to Calgary. He felt that the name “Flames” would be a good fit for an oil town like Calgary. I don’t know why he felt this was appropriate. Wouldn’t a fire in an oil field be really dangerous, and destroy your product? Isn’t that a bad thing? I guess not in Canada. Skalbania also changed the flaming “A” to a flaming “C,” representing Calgary. Even though the name seems a little misguided, the city loved it, and immediately embraced the team.
I could spend the next few paragraphs talking about the Flames’ successes and failures, but somehow, there are more fun and exciting things to talk about. Oh, and I’m not talking about Jarome Iginla. He is exciting, but if you want to learn about him, click the links.
When I think of Calgary, I don’t think “fun and exciting.” However, during the push to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004, that is exactly what Calgary was. During that run, a seven-block stretch of 17th St. SW became party central. It got its notoriety for both the relative lack of violence and the 55,000+ people celebrating their team’s success in such a small area. On top of that, there was a Mardi Gras atmosphere, with women flashing their breasts. Chants like “Flames in six, show us your tits,” and “Shirts off for Kiprusoff” were among the most common. While the chants’ lack of poeticism could be called into question, the biggest issue was the creation of flamesgirls.com. The site showed hundreds of photos of women flashing the crowd. The site, and the huge group of spectators with cameras intent on getting to take pictures of some Canadian knockers, came under criticism as being little more than exploitation of women. Eventually the website was shut down and people had to pay for porn again.