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Fear and Loathing In Calgary

Anthony Patrick

June 8, 2001

 

It's been a tough decade to be associated with the Calgary Flames. The management has watched an organization that many tried to emulate in the 1980's, turn into one that many would point to as what not to do in sustaining a winner. But how did this take place? How could an organization that was a model for success turn around so quickly? What transpired to cause the turn around? It can be traced back to a single event, with a single player, that happened almost a decade ago. That event was the catalyst for the downfall of one of hockey's best-run organizations.

Back in the summer of 1991 the Calgary Flames had just suffered another disappointing first round setback, this one at the hands of the hated Edmonton Oilers. Cliff Fletcher had walked away from the team in favour of an opportunity to run the Toronto Maple Leafs, turning over the reigns to new President, Bill Hay, and new General Manager, Doug Risebrough. Hay was not a hockey man, but an Oil and Gas industry executive. Risebrough had just finished his first year as Assistant GM and coach. To say that Fletcher was turning the organization over to neophytes would probably be a bit of an understatement. This inexperience would be the beginning of the end for the proud organization.

Doug Gilmour's contract was up and the club took the player to arbitration. The situation turned bitter and Gilmour did not get the result he had hoped for. He voiced his displeasure but thought that the two sides could come together on a long-term deal. Unfortunately things did not go as planned and Bill Hay would not approve the nominal sum that it would take to get Gilmour's signature on a long-term contract. Doug Gilmour had played for the team while negotiations were on going. But when the contract impasse hit, Gilmour took the stance that he would no longer play for the team and went to the sidelines. The team panicked and put Gilmour on the market. The ex-Flame President was only too willing to take "troublesome" Doug Gilmour off the hands of Calgary and proposed a deal. Negotiations were quick and ended up bloody for the Flames. What was announced on January 2nd, 1992 was the most devastating trade possible, and arguable one of the worst in NHL History.

Gone from the Calgary Flames was forward Doug Gilmour, defensemen Jamie Macoun and Ric Nattress, goaltender Rick Wamsley and prospect forward Kent Manderville. Coming to Calgary from the Toronto Maple Leafs was forward Gary Leeman, defensemen Michel Petit, goaltender Jeff Reese, tough guy Craig Berube and prospect defenseman Alexander Godynyuk. To say that Calgary got the short end of the stick in this deal is probably the understatement of the decade. Not surprisingly, not a single player from this deal would be in a Flames uniform in two years. This trade, and the resulting negative effect of the deal was the marked beginning of the end. What resulted was an organization gripped by fear.

Over the next nine years the team would trade away the core of its only Stanley Cup team, and get diminishing returns on their best players. The team became locked into a pattern of trading away top level talent for a short-term fix and a prospect that was hoped to be a player. The belief was that the team could remain competitive and not have to worry about a serious rebuild by following this scheme. This belief turned out to be very short sighted and just extended the period for the rebuild. The organization refused to acknowledge the reality of the situation and followed a very conservative approach to finding talent. Risk taking was not allowed. The fear was that the fans would not approve of a rebuild and stay away in droves.

During the years of the Coates administration the fear of losing fan interest was compounded further by the fear on making another "Risebrough-esque" move and setting the organization back even further. A term was coined to describe the trades that followed during Coates' reign. A series of "dufus-for-dufus" deals took place where players that did not fit into the "team concept", that the particular coach had in mind, were dealt away for players who would hopefully be a better fit. These players were considered low risk-high reward acquisitions, primarily because they had not yet fulfilled their potential and could be acquired cheaply. Nothing of serious value was given up, so it was viewed as a good risk. These trades were the only ones the team was willing to pursue for two reasons. They were considered to be the "safe play" with very little fear of them backfiring, and because the organization had been bled dry by previous deals where nothing of serious value was returned. Only once did the club take the sensible approach and trade away established talent for a can't miss prospect or a high draft pick where a future star could be selected. Again, fear of fan reaction held the team back from making a smart move.

As the team approached the new millennium the organization became gripped by this fear. It was as if the team had become Enosiophobic (fear of criticism) or Catagelophobic (fear of being ridiculed). In reality the organization had become gripped by another phobia, Atychiphobia (the fear of failure). The organization was afraid to do anything that could be construed as a risk. They were afraid to make a bold move and over-pay for a player that the organization was obviously lacking. The same needs had been identified for over five seasons, but not one move was ever made to fill these needs. The owners were never prepared to risk investing more dollars with the Coates administration. They were afraid of incurring more loses, not thinking that by spending more money those expenditures would pay for themselves. Finally the organization blinked and the Coates administration was jettisoned because of a feared fan backlash.

When it came to hiring the new administration the team took as small a risk as possible and brought in a man well known in the hockey industry. Craig Button was brought in as the new General Manager. To compound matters Mr. Button proved to be as inexperienced as Doug Risebrough. He was not prepared to deal with contract negotiations or engineering trades. It was an on-the-job-experience situation for the new General Manager. It also appeared he suffered from a phobia of his own, Decidophobia (fear of making decisions). A season of a lot of promises, a lot of words, went by with little action. Again, the team was gripped in fear and was unable to make a serious move. It is ironic that the team should turn over the reigns to another neophyte, and hope he can lead this once proud organization out of the woods, as that is how this vicious cycle began.

Almost a decade has passed since the events that led to the demise of the Calgary Flames organization. It is time for the team to forget the past and think about the future. It is time for the team to face its inner demons and strive to become a winner again. This team must face the fear that has gripped it for the better part of ten years and be bold in their attempts to regain the stature they once had. The fans are behind the team. As long as action is taken to improve the team, and it follows a logical plan that fills obvious needs, they will support the team. They will be there to buy tickets and cheer for the team no matter the outcome of the future moves. There is no need for apprehension. For this team, there is nothing to fear, but fear itself.