Before there was hockey in Tampa, Nashville, Miami, or Dallas, Atlanta had a love affair with its first NHL team, the Flames.
Please understand that when the National Hockey League awarded an expansion franchise to Atlanta Hockey, Inc. on November 9, 1971, ice hockey was an unknown entity in the land of Bulldawg football and Braves baseball. The mere mention of ice sends panic rippling through Southern minds—rightfully so. The thought of someone actually skating on that surface while attempting to play a game that seemed the combination of basketball, soccer, and roller derby provoked extreme skepticism. When Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion was signed as Head Coach of the new franchise in May 1972, the news received little notice in Atlanta. The naming of a coach for a nameless hockey team meant little to those in the South.
That was soon to change.
Two weeks later Atlanta Hockey, Inc. became the Atlanta Flames, and in less than six months Boom Boom
Geoffrion immediately bonded with the South. His gruff, authoritative disposition, wonderful French accent, and the flair for success impressed a town conditioned to mediocrity in its professional sports. The native of Montréal, Quebec, promised excitement on the ice, at the very least.
And so it was that a first-year expansion team, whom experts had predicted to win just three games all season, set a league record for points earned by an expansion club and impudently challenged and demolished traditional NHL powerhouses. When the experts questioned the reasons behind this unprecedented success, the finger always pointed towards Bernie Geoffrion.
Geoffrion maintained that he was not surprised the team won games. Rather, he was surprised that the collection of veterans and young players quickly coalesced into a team. Geoffrion liked to brag that there were “no superstars on my hockey club. My boys stick together.”
The transition from French Canadian to Southerner found favor with Geoffrion, whose omnipresent French accent contrasted sharply with the Southern drawl. Atlantans adopted Geoffrion as a hero, commonly greeting him with ten-minute standing ovations at speaking engagements. He was accorded respect, and—inconceivable in Atlanta—little second-guessing by local media.
In its very first season, Geoffrion’s Flames competed for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in contention until the final games of the season. Club officials had hoped to sell 2,000 season tickets that first season. 10,000 season tickets were scooped up by the novice hockey fans, leaving just 5,000 seats available for single game tickets.
“Get your tickets before the freeze,
“ atag line before the inaugural season had begun, turned into a prophecy as fans were turned away by the thousands.
Geoffrion saw his role as coach as instilling confidence in his players. Confidence was key to his—and his Flames’—success. Would that formula work today—the ability to command respect, dish out humility when necessary, and ensure the players’ confidence in themselves and their coach? Perhaps. This much is certain: Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and his first-year expansion team made believers of the NHL and ignited hockey fever in the South that memorable season 46 years ago.
A final note: In those days, sell-out games did not guarantee financial success. There was no national—or even regional—television revenue, there were no NHL-wide promotions, no Winter Classics. There were just teams like the Flames with a loyal base of fans who would pack the arena game after game, and still lose money. The Flames had no Ted Turner to rescue the team and keep it in the South. Many hearts were broken the day the Flames left the Omni for Calgary. Geoffrion and many of the original Flames made their homes in Atlanta, staying long after their coaching and playing careers were over.
When The Boomer lost his final match—with cancer—on March 11, 2006, those same hearts broke again. Atlanta had lost a legend and more importantly, a beloved friend.