When General Manager Cliff Fletcher of the Atlanta Flames invited Bernie Geoffrion down for a job interview last spring, he told the former Canadien superstar to travel incognito and use an alias, something like Pierre Jones or Jean-Guy Smith. Geoffrion took Fletcher's advice, in a way. He booked his air passage and his hotel room as one Boom Boom Geoffrion of Montreal, Quebec. "It was the perfect disguise," Geoffrion says. "How many people in Atlanta had ever heard of Boom Boom Geoffrion anyway? Two?" Maybe not then, true, but now when Geoffrion strolls along Peachtree Street, Atlanta's instant hockey experts stop to shake his hand and casually suggest that maybe the coach ought to start using Henry Aaron on the Flames' power play and Pistol Pete Maravich on left wing.
In six weeks Atlanta has become a kind of Montreal of the South as Geoffrion and his upstart NHL expansionists have converted thousands of uninitiated Georgians—most of whom thought that ice was something you dropped into a glass before the bourbon—into genuine hockey nuts. Last month, on the first night hockey was ever played in Atlanta, the Flames sold out the magnificent new Omni and last Friday night another sellout crowd of more than 15,000 came out to see Boston's Bobby Orr—his knees sound once again—singlehandedly douse the Flames in a 4-0 Bruin victory. For their first 11 games in Atlanta the Flames averaged 11,300 paying spectators, almost double the average crowd for the basketball Hawks of the NBA.
Better yet, though, most nights the Flames have been on fire on the ice. As the week ended they were playing near-.500 hockey and were only four points out of first place in the NHL West. "We are not trying to kid anyone," Geoffrion says. "We know we cannot beat the Bostons and the Montreals and the New Yorks, so when we lose to them we don't think about it after the game. But I tell my guys that they can beat the other clubs—and they do it. We have no stars here, no guys who think they're better than their teammates."
There were laughs and snickers in Atlanta last year when the NHL announced that it would expand to the South for this season. After all, Atlanta had only one ice rink, and that was a bandbox called the Igloo with a skating surface about half the size of the standard NHL rink. Another problem was the city's lack of identity with a game played on ice. According to the results of a survey ordered by the nine-man Omni Group, which owns the Flames, the Hawks and The Omni itself, only 2.9% of the people in Atlanta had ever attended a hockey game and just 30% had watched hockey on television.
What these figures meant were: 1) the Flames had to sell hockey to the paying public, and 2) the Flames could draft nobodies and not worry about passing them off as authentic major-leaguers because the people would not know any better. "Actually, we didn't think we would have to win right away in order to gain public acceptance," says Bill Putnam, the Flames' president. "The people in Atlanta supported the Falcons with full houses for six years before they became a winner; at least the city realized that expansion teams were not going to become instant winners."
With that in mind, Putnam hired a local public-relations firm, McDonald and Little, to help sell hockey in Atlanta. "Their campaign here," Putnam says, "was based on convincing Atlantans that there is a scarcity of tickets for hockey games in other cities and there will be a scarcity of tickets in Atlanta before long." The basic theme of the campaign was Get Your Tickets Before the Freeze. Atlanta bought it; so far the Flames have sold more than 7,150 season tickets. Teaching the people what the game is all about presented different problems, but the Flames solved them with primers in the newspapers and on television and with personal appearances by Geoffrion, Fletcher and other club officials at breakfast, lunch and dinner functions in the city all summer.
As a result, when the Flames finally arrived in Atlanta on Oct. 14 for their home opener against the Buffalo Sabres, the people felt they already were experts. "Before the game the spectators around me were telling their friends what would happen and how it would happen," says Warren Agry, a former New Yorker who moved to Atlanta during the summer. "Then the game began and people jumped out of their seats to watch a couple of players battling for the puck at center ice. 'Sit down, sit down,' I told them, 'nothing has happened yet.' "Shortly after the opening face-off some Buffalo player fired a clearing shot from his own blue line that happened to dribble up to Atlanta Goaltender Phil Myre. "I couldn't believe the noise," Myre says. "The fans—all of them—stood up and gave me an ovation." Agry laughs as he recalls the crowd's reaction. "At that time they didn't know any better," he says. "Every game they get smarter, though."
Now the fans know most of the players by their nicknames—like Captain Klink for Keith McCreary, who claims his long trench coat was designed by the same German who outfitted the Wehrmacht in World War II, and Mush for Larry Romanchych, who devoured a full bowl of creamed mushrooms at a "welcome the Flames" cocktail party and then dislocated his knee the next day—and walk around town wearing red windbreakers with the Flames' insignia on them. "People are coming in and asking for pucks, skates, sticks, anything to do with hockey," says Bob McGaughey of the Reeder and McGaughey Sporting Goods store, one of Atlanta's largest. "We just don't know how much to stock until the rinks are finished." The remodeled Igloo will be opening again in a few weeks, and there reportedly are seven applications on file for zoning permits to build rinks in the suburban areas. "I see Atlanta as another St. Louis as far as interest goes," says Fletcher, who was the No. 1 aide to Manager- Coach Scotty Bowman during the glory days of the Blues.
On the ice the Flames have been the most surprising team in the NHL so far this year. Geoffrion has the best young goaltending pair in the league in the 24-year-old Myre, who had been sitting on Montreal's bench, and 21-year-old Danny Bouchard, whom the Bruins let go before they knew Gerry Cheevers was jumping to the WHA. Up front, Bobby Leiter, a little center who failed previously in Boston and Pittsburgh, has been the Flames' top scorer with 11 goals. Top rookie Jacques Richard has yet to prove himself. Geoffrion says: "He is trying to learn the English language, trying to find his way around the city and trying to find his way around the NHL. It will take time, to be sure."
Geoffrion himself has been exceptionally competent—and amazingly calm. Ulcers consumed him when he coached the Rangers. "They took out three-quarters of my stomach in New York," he says. "What do I have to worry about now?"