In part one of my discussion with former Atlanta Flame Tim Ecclestone, he and I discussed his disappointment about the lack of connection between the team that was here in the 70s and the present-day one. I asked him if those involved with Thrashers organization at that time ever considered including members of the old club when constructing the Thrashers organization. Tim told me that the team did in fact interview Atlanta/Calgary Flames general manager, Cliff Fletcher, for the same position with the new club.
“Cliff was here, knows the area…a Hall of Famer…done pretty good. And he was called in by Harvey Schiller to be interviewed”, Tim said.
He and Fletcher had dinner the evening he was in town for the interview and they discussed the situation.
“He was the best man for the job”, said Ecclestone. “He had been through an expansion draft…he knows the city. I asked him how he’d make up the team, if he was hired, and Cliff said to me, ‘one thing hasn’t changed over the years…the physicality. I get the job this will be among the top-three toughest in the league. That will be it’s identity’”.
“Any time you think about the Atlanta Flames”, Tim went on, “You think about toughness. When other teams flew into Hartsfield, they didn’t want to play at the Omni…they know they were going to play a physical team. And that’s what Cliff knew would work today as well…get the biggest, toughest guys, then work in your Kovalchuks”.
Tim explained how you have to know your market. Atlanta fans, and fans in the south, love football because of it’s aggressive, physical play…and that is the kind of play they appreciate. “Cliff had this figured out in the 70s. You don’t fight it…you join it. This is why I can’t figure out why Don Waddell will say things like, ‘Why, when football season is over…then we’ll bring ‘em in’…makes no sense”.
Continuing, “Even when they go through a slump…if the team plays hard, physical hockey the fans will come”.
“I ask you…if they ever had a night down at Philips where they recognized some of the old players, who do you think would get the biggest ovation”?
He then answered his own question. “Willi Plett…that’s who. He was a tough player. This is also why Garnet Exelby is so popular with the fans…he’ll stick his nose in it”.
But Fletcher wasn’t given the job, however Brian Burke factored into the process, didn’t he?
“It was down to he and Waddell, so Schiller had to make a decision… and Burke was also being courted by Vancouver. Burke called him up and said, ‘Listen, I’m not trying to put your feet to the fire…but if I’m still being considered, then fine…if not I need to take this job in Vancouver’”. He then went, “Well, time passed and Schiller called him to ask if he had taken the job and he was told, ‘Yeah, I just took it’”.
And so it down to just Waddell. Why was he brought into the mix?
“I think Detroit had just won a cup and, as you know, they start looking at assistants and other people associated with winning teams…and it doesn’t matter whether it’s football or baseball or hockey…that’s where it is. That’s when Waddell’s name came up, he was a part of a winning team”.
I asked Tim about Pat Quinn…if he’s ever been considered for the job.
“That’s a funny story”, he replied. “Pat Quinn was available…Pat was a part of the Flames. He calls me up and says, ‘what’s going on down there? I just got a call from this guy Harvey Schiller asking me for the phone number of some other guy to interview for the job”.
“And keep in mind, Pat’s out of work at the time…and they call him up looking for the number of someone else to ask for an interview. He told me, ‘That was the most bazaar call I ever had’”.
Either way…Tim firmly believes that Fletcher, Burke or Quinn would have built this team on a foundation of size and toughness. And that would have been their identity.
Moving back to the old Flames and the lack of connection between them and the Thrashers organization…he once again brought up the way Minnesota has handled the same circumstance.
“Going back to the situation in Minnesota…they’ve got a mural…it must spread out 50-feet or so…and has beginning with day one of the Minnesota North Stars history all the way to their end in Minnesota. It’s a tribute to the North Stars. It’s there…it’s recognized…and, I mean, what a nice tribute”.
The he said, “This organization here…they chose not to recognize the past”.
He recalled the time when Dany Heatley had won the Calder Memorial Cup as rookie of the year. “Here we have this young man, great player…at the time one of the faces of the future for this team…he’s out there on the ice being presented with the trophy in front of the Atlanta fans. And there are three other guys here in town who are a part of the city’s hockey history who have also won that award…Eric Vail, Willi Plett and Boom-Boom Geoffrion, who was still with us at the time”.
“And I thought to myself, what a nice thing it would be to have had these guys down there with him…to help present this guy with such a great honor…to welcome him in to the group of players with Atlanta ties into that club made up of Calder winners”.
To Ecclestone, it’s just another example to the new franchise making a conscience decision to keep separate the two teams that have shared the same city and much of it’s fans.
But what if the Thrashers had chosen to embrace the team that first won over a fan base to the sport of professional hockey? Again, in part one of this series, Tim discussed how the alumni was more than willing to do the legwork in the community…but he also feels they could do something for the fans attending games at Philips Arena.
Tim shared with me an idea that he had regarding how the past and the present could come together at Philips Arena…and idea that he first shared with Stan Kasten.
“I’ve known Stan for years”, Tim began. “And I said to him, ‘Ya know, what bothers me more than anything is that there is not one picture of the Flames” in the arena.
“I talked to Stan…and I talked to Bernie Mullins…about what I’d like to do. The bar behind the penalty box…I’d like to see one of the party suits on either side…take it and place on the left side an Atlanta Flames logo…on the right side an Atlanta Thrashers logo…right in the middle an NHL Alumni logo”.
He went on to describe how each team’s general managers, assistant GMs, players…everyone involved with those teams would be given space and attention. Display photos of special moments on either side of the room for both teams…recognize team awards and player’s awards” on their respective side.
He also stated that it would also be a nice idea to have alumni members sitting in the top row of seats just outside of the room who would be accessible to all who cared to join them for a beer and talk hockey.
“All of this would be made available to anyone who paid to get into see the game”, he said. “Eric Vail can entertain them better than anyone…same with Danny Bouchard, Tom Lysiak…let us go down there and mix and be a part of them. And the fans can look in the room and see the history of the sport here from the 70s to the present”.
But aren’t those rooms rented out or sold?
“Listen, I understand that room gets rented out on occasions…if they want to rent it out and get one of the guys to host the party…put it into the package…let them do that”.
Ecclestone even stated that he’d help pay for the cost of this “Atlanta Hockey Museum”…kinda like what they have for the Braves at Turner Field.
And the team’s response?
“They have never gotten back with me”.
But would you still be willing to work with them if they would call?
“If they come to us…but Levenson’s gotta return my call. Michael (Gearon), he’s returned my calls, but he’s got his hands full with the Hawks…he’s fine and he’s been good enough to call me back…but Bruce is the point man for the Thrashers”.
And there is more to what he feels they could do for the team beyond just promoting the product in the area.
There are people in this town…both individuals and corporate…”Who have given up on them”, he said. “These guys are big hitters and these guys will spend and spend and spend. And he (Levenson) needs to get involved here. You’ve got out-of town ownership…but you’ve got a fan base here and they could lean on us…but they don’t do it”.
Ecclestone concluded by reiterating his intent here is to simply offer assistance in promoting the team and the sport in the community that he and the alumni know so well, but is frustrated with the lack of interest from the organization.
“We’re not looking for any money…we just want this thing to succeed. But not getting a phone call back…that just bugs me”.