Home > Commentary > When Hockey Invaded the South. A look back at the 1972-73 Atlanta Flames

When Hockey Invaded the South. A look back at the 1972-73 Atlanta Flames


Editor’s Note: I am very pleased to present our very first Guest Blog from one of my favorite sports bloggers here on WordPress.com, Robyn M. Ryan. You may know her from her blog Chicks Dig Sports & Romance, where she writes with authority on all manner of sports, not just hockey. Don’t believe us? Sit back, relax and take a few minutes to read her entry below and then do us a favor and visit her blog when you’re done here. 

~ Jason

When Hockey Invaded the South… A look back at the 1972-73 Atlanta Flames

Robyn M. Ryan

Atlanta Flames

Image via Wikipedia

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—and 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 signed 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.

Two weeks later Atlanta Hockey, Inc. became the Atlanta Flames, and in less than six months Boom Boom Geoffrion became a Southern sports personality equal in stature to Henry Aaron or Pete Maravich.

Geoffrion immediately bonded with the South. His gruff, authoritative disposition and flair for success impressed a town conditioned to mediocrity in its professional sports. The native of Montréal, Québec, 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.”

Boom Boom Geoffrion’s voice left no room for disagreement. He spoke authoritatively, bluntly, assuming there would be no opposing thoughts. “I want you all to come down and see my friends here,” a French-accented Godfather demanded on a local car dealer’s commercial. Not for an instant did one consider not going to see the Boomer’s friends. Not on your life.

“I want you young girls to stay away from my boys!” Boom Boom famously warned at the Flames Fan Club’s first function in 1972. “Most of them are married—and the rest? Well, they’ll take the rope soon enough.” That day, many Southern Chicks gave up designs on Flames bachelors upon hearing the Boomer’s warning.

When it came to ice hockey and the Flames, Geoffrion was satisfied with nothing less than success. At practice, he would be found on skates, standing in the center of the ice, whistle in mouth, regulating the team’s activities by the high-pitched notes.

At the first sound of the whistle, players began to circle the rink slowly, rhythmically, sticks held as a tight-rope walker clutches a baton for balance. Another note increased the speed. Bodies began to bend over, sticks began to move back and forth quickly in front of the players to aid speed. Unemotionally, Geoffrion sounded yet another note. The speed increased dramatically. Skates moved faster and faster and faster until the bodies blended together, encircling the rink and Geoffrion in a red and gold blur.

A final note sounded, and the skates abruptly twisted sideways, spraying ice high into the air, stopping the players in their tracks. And instant later, they headed in the opposite direction, responding to the sound of the whistle. A previous night’s loss always left the Boomer disgruntled, and he would warn his players not to eat before practice.

Pucks were dropped on the ice, and players began taking shots on goal or moving the pucks up and down the ice. Geoffrion was not content to observe. Grabbing a stick, he would join the players. A quick flick of the stick and Keith McCreary found the puck he had guarded so preciously just a moment before moving up the ice with the Boomer. A series of sharp moves faked the skates off Rey Comeau and Boom Boom had his puck. Rookie sensation Jacques Richard was slammed into the boards, wrestling briefly before surrendering rights to his puck. And so Boom Boom continued, methodically defeating star and novice alike, stealing the puck from men twenty years his junior.

Next he turned to the men who guard the nets. “Take me on!” he’d taunt goaltender Phil Myre or Dan Bouchard. Seven pucks lined the blue line, and Geoffrion began to fire in rapid succession. The pucks whistled off the stick, moved at a velocity that gave credence to the claim of 100 miles-per-hour, and flew at Phil Myre, who held the lead in fewest goals allowed most of that season. The first missed the net and slammed into the boards with the resounding boom that many years before had earned Geoffrion his nickname. The second Myre warded off with his glove hand. The other five were in the net before Myre could move.

Watching, many wondered why this man was no longer playing, 42-years-old or not. It was obvious why he was once the most feared man in the league, was fifth on the all-time scoring list in 1972, and why he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in August, 1972.

After a highly successful 16-year career with the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, Geoffrion retired to coach the Rangers. Midway through the first season he was forced to resign when plagued by severe stomach ulcers. Three years later he accepted the post with the Flames after promising his wife Marlene he wouldn’t become sick again.

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 ovation at speaking engagements. He was accorded respect, and—inconceivable in Atanta—little second-guessing by local sportswriters.

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. Ten thousand season tickets were scooped up by mid-season, leaving just 5,000 seats available for single game tickets. “Get your tickets before the freeze,” a tag 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 nearly 40 years ago.

Geoffrion and many of the Flames made their homes in Atlanta, staying long after their coaching and playing careers were over. On March 11, 2006, Atlanta lost a legend and more importantly, a beloved friend. Today, a new generation in the Geoffrion family, the Boomer’s 23-year-old grandson Blake Geoffrion plays for the Nashville Predators. He wears the #5 in honor of his grandfather and has been nicknamed “Boomer” by his teammates.

Robyn M. Ryan is a fourth-generation hockey fan, whose great-grandparents were avid fans of the Chicago Blackhawks from the moment the team joined the NHL in 1926. Currently “teamless” with the departure of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg last summer, Robyn enjoys researching and writing about Atlanta’s initial love affair with hockey in the 1970’s. She writes about sports—from a female point of view—on her blog, www.chicksdigsportsromance.com

 

Related Article:

http://chicksdigsportsromance.com/2012/01/16/bleacher-bums-rock-the-hockey-news/

Advertisements
  1. Nik Burdett
    January 15, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    A great insight into the south’s love and not so love affair with the NHL. It’s too bad lack of management not lack of product has cost Atlanta with the Flames and Thrashers. The Boomer and Skip Carey are the two all time great Atlanta characters.

  2. January 16, 2012 at 7:33 am

    Thanks so much! It’s pretty sad when fans can’t keep their team viable, even with sell-out crowds, as the Flames did year-after-year. Without the big television contracts—or even Ted Tuner’s Superstation back then—the Flames could not make a profit, even if they sold out every game. Sad. You’re right about the Boomer and Skip Carey—the very best!

  1. January 16, 2012 at 7:53 am
  2. January 27, 2012 at 5:01 pm
  3. February 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: