With due credit to Geoffrion's charismatic presence and superior coaching, the man most responsible for Atlanta's instant success is General Manager Cliff Fletcher, who obviously took copious notes during the 10 years he worked for shrewd Sam Pollock in Montreal and the five years he helped Scotty Bowman in St. Louis. The 38-year-old Fletcher travels 10,000 miles and accumulates almost $1,500 in telephone bills every month, and, not surprisingly, many of his trips and calls are to Montreal. Six of Fletcher's top players, including Goaltender Phil Myre, who teams with Bouchard to give the Flames the best pair of young goalies in hockey, and Center Tom Lysiak, who has been the NHL's top rookie this season, have a Canadien connection, prompting one rival general manager to call Atlanta " Montreal South." There is reason enough for jealousy; Fletcher has created the model expansion franchise in record time.
Never a good hockey player himself, Fletcher switched to coaching when he was barely 18 years old, handling several peewee teams around his native Montreal. Four years later the Canadiens needed a manager for their amateur affiliate in suburban Verdun, and they hired Fletcher for $200 a season. That team folded after one year, Fletcher recalls. He remained with Montreal for the next decade, handling administrative and scouting duties for Pollock, and then joined Bowman, who had been another of Pollock's junior aides, in St. Louis in 1966. Suddenly, in 1971, after four highly successful seasons with the Blues, Bowman and Fletcher were victims of a purge of knowledgeable hockey men in St. Louis as the owners discovered they had all the answers.
Bowman returned to Montreal as coach of the Canadiens. At first Fletcher was jobless, but NHL President Clarence Campbell assured him a major position would be available for him with the next expansion team. Seven months later he was hired by the Flames as their general manager. Fletcher obtained an air travel card and a copy of the official airline guide—and then practically disappeared for five months.
During these intensive scouting trips, Fletcher analyzed the results of the previous expansion drafts. "I studied the Buffalo and Vancouver rosters," he says, "and then decided that, like Buffalo, I'd try to draft the three or four best young players available. At the same time, having been in St. Louis when the Blues won championships because of great goal-tending by Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante, I knew I needed at least one top goaltender. After that I wanted to fill the rest of my roster with tough defensemen and some tight-checking forwards."
Fletcher concentrated first on Montreal, understandably. According to the rules, the Canadiens did not have to expose a goaltender in the expansion draft. However, Pollock had a surplus of excellent young goalies in Montreal, and he much preferred to lose one of them rather than a forward. Would Fletcher be interested in Myre, who faced a bleak future as Ken Dryden's backup goalie in Montreal? Fletcher drooled at the prospect of getting Myre for what amounted to a minor concession, and the deal was made. As part of the arrangement, Pollock also permitted Fletcher to purchase two of his minor league players, Rey Comeau and Noel Price, both of whom now play regularly for the Flames.
When Fletcher agreed to draft Myre from Montreal, he had no idea that the Bruins, who had lost young goaltenders Bernie Parent and Doug Favell to Philadelphia in the 1967 expansion, would leave Bouchard on the unprotected list. By all accounts Bouchard had been the best young goalie in the minor leagues that year. But Boston decided not to break up its Stanley Cup tandem of Gerry Cheevers and Ed Johnston and, in what Bruin officials now privately regard as "a terrible blunder," exposed Bouchard to the Flames, who promptly drafted him. Ironically, Cheevers jumped the Bruins and signed with the WHA two weeks later.
Myre, 25, and Bouchard, 22, played sensationally last year and kept the Flames in playoff contention until the last six weeks. "There was always terrible pressure on them because we did not score a lot of goals ourselves," Geoffrion says, "but they never did crack." So far this year Bouchard and Myre have combined to produce the fourth-best defensive record in the NHL. Bouchard has allowed only 21 goals in 11 games, while Myre has given up 27 in his eight starts.
By coincidence, they both grew up in the same Ville La Salle suburb on Montreal's South Side. "My sister Edith always had her eyes on you, do you remember her?" Bouchard asked Myre during lunch one day last week.
"No," said Myre.
"Sure you do," Bouchard insisted. "You used to keep her picture in your souvenir book."