The Story of the Atlanta Flames as Told by Owner Thomas G. Cousins ©, 2018, Jim Weathersby, All Rights Reserved

Photo Courtesy of Rick Dikeman

Atlanta icon Tom Cousins owned the National Hockey League’s Atlanta Flames from 1971 to 1980, brought the National Basketball Association’s Hawks from St. Louis in 1968, and purchased the North American Soccer League’s Atlanta Chiefs from the Atlanta Braves in 1973. He also purchased and restored the East Lake Golf Club in 1995.  However, Mr. Cousins will always be remembered for his work in Atlanta outside of sports.

Through his company, Cousins Properties Incorporated, Mr. Cousins spent over four decades developing such Atlanta landmarks as the CNN Center, the 191 Peachtree Tower, the Bank of America Plaza, and the Wildwood Office Park in Cobb County.  His company also built the now-defunct Omni Coliseum for the Hawks and Flames.

Numerous philanthropic projects in Atlanta over the years received funds from Mr. Cousins, including those associated with the arts, education and religious organizations.  The Association of Fundraising Professionals, Greater Atlanta Chapter, named him 2015 Philanthropist of the Year.

Mr. Cousins graciously agreed to speak with me on the topic of his time as owner of the Flames.  Following is the transcription of that interview. Questions and answers have been edited or paraphrased for brevity and clarity.


Q:        How did the idea first surface to obtain a National Hockey League team?

A:        Well, my partners, at the time and I had a coliseum (the Omni) and the Decks (a 1,000 car, two-level deck near the Omni).  I bought the Hawks from the St. Louis owners in 1968, moved them to Atlanta and they played at Georgia Tech.  When the Omni was completed in 1972, I moved the Hawks into it.

Q:        How did the hockey team materialize?

A:        At the time (early 1970s), there were 14 hockey teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) and the League wanted to expand to two more.  We got an expansion team along with New York (the Islanders).  I think the League was worried about the World Hockey Association (WHA) and we took advantage of that.  The reason I wanted a team was because of the coliseum.  There were other cities that wanted a franchise but the NHL chose us.  I think they saw the opportunity to increase revenue and interest in the sport by adding a team in the Southeast.  I believe we paid $6.5 million for the team.

Q.        Did you think Atlanta was ready to support an ice hockey team?

A:        We thought that Atlanta was ready to support an NHL team, and it would have if the players’ salaries had stayed where they were.  It never occurred to us that that would be a problem.  We were profitable the first year or two but that was before the WHA came into being and player contracts went through the roof.

Q.     How did the name “Flames” come about?

A.      We had a contest to name the team.  It was a public contest. The name “Flames” was picked.

Q.      How did you choose the people to run the team?

A.       Cliff Fletcher was recommended by a consultant (Bill Putnam) for the General Manager position.  Cliff recommended Boom Boom (Bernie Geoffrion) to be the coach.  (Geoffrion) had been a great player for Montreal and New York.

Q.      How involved were you with the team as an owner?

A.    I didn’t plan to be involved with the Flames.  I wanted an arena.  Ivan Allen Jr. was the Atlanta mayor at the time and I wanted the city to build the arena.  However, I wound up having to build it and pay for it.  Allen and his people indicated they would build the arena if I got a basketball team to come to town, and the arena would be built where I wanted it (the site where the Omni stood).  So I started pursuing a team and Allen agreed to build an arena only after a team was in town.

Georgia Tech, at the time, had this little field house that had 5,400 seats.  St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner, one of the original owners in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the NHL, had many chips to call on and he got the other NBA owners to approve the sale of the Hawks to me and to approve the move to Atlanta and Georgia Tech based on a letter from the city stating that if the Hawks moved to Atlanta the city would immediately build an arena.

However, Allen then decided to build the arena next to the Civic Center, which was not where I wanted it.  I wanted it over there at the air rights (In 1966, attorney Bob Troutman owned the air rights over the Western and Atlantic Railroad yard.  He approached Cousins about an inexpensive lease of the air rights for a commercial development.  In order for Cousins to receive a low cost 80-year lease on the air rights he would have to commit to a $5 million commercial property by the end of the year.  Cousins agreed to build the parking garage (the Decks) with future plans for a 40-story office building on top.  Because few people would park in the Decks, Cousins built the Omni–broke ground in 1971 and completed in 1972–in hopes of increasing traffic to the area.  The Hawks and Flames were part of that plan.).

When Allen told me his plans for the arena, I became angry and told him that I would move the Hawks back to St. Louis or somewhere else before I would allow the team to play in an arena next to the Civic Center.  He got mad at me. We had a handshake agreement (to build the arena over the air rights) and he welshed (Cousins built the Omni and the infrastructure around it with the help of city bonds from Mayor Sam Massell’s administration, which succeeded Allen’s in 1970).

Q.        Thinking back on the operations of the team under your ownership, how did you feel about the revenue generated from the Omni, your marketing efforts, ticket sales, parking, television and radio?

A.        Well, we had a great advertising agency, McDonald & Little, and big billboards.  The “Ice Age” campaign was great.  We sold a lot of tickets in those early years.  As for the Omni, the Flames were a great tenant and we made profits in the early years.  We started losing money because of that competing league (WHA). Unfortunately, we only had three luxury suites in the Omni.  That was inadequate.  I would certainly have liked to have had more, but that was the way it (the Omni) was built.

We made money on parking, concessions and ticket sales those early years.  Everything fell off in the later years.  We tried to raise ticket prices when player salaries went up, but sales fell off and we went back to the original ticket prices.  Those prices weren’t adequate to cover the cost of the operations.

We had an okay radio deal with WSB but our television revenue was inadequate.  We didn’t have near what other (NHL) cities had because ice and skating in the Southeast…that did not make for a good television show.  We had a deal with Ted Turner’s station, but I don’t remember getting anything (revenue) from television for the Flames.

Q.         Attendance was good for the first three years of operation then it declined.  Why?

A.          The team really wasn’t that good.  People were disappointed in the performance and the economy was off a little bit.  That impacted it.

Q.         The team made the playoffs six out of its eight years in Atlanta but never won a playoff series.  

A.          We needed more outstanding players.  Being an expansion team, we didn’t get very good players from the other teams.  We just needed more time.

Q.          Let’s talk about what forced you to sell the Flames.  In the mid to late 1970s the economy was down.  You mentioned the poor economy, falling attendance and operations losses as problems during this period.  Are these the reasons that led to your thoughts of selling the team?

A.          Yes.  We were losing money.  I liked the team.  I liked the players.  They were raised in Canada and were fine gentlemen.  I would have continued to own the team after the move to Calgary but Canada had a law at the time called FIRA (Foreign Investment Review Act) that said that any business doing business in Canada had to be majority owned by Canadians—had to be at least 51 percent.  Well, I wasn’t going to have a bunch of partners—majority partners—in such a thing.  That’s why I decided to sell it.

Q.         Ted Turner bought the Hawks in 1977.  Did he ask you about buying the Flames as well?

A.          I offered to give them to him.  I also offered them to Delta (Airlines) and Coca-Cola, who were advertisers for me.  They wouldn’t have them (the Flames).  Nobody wanted them.  The reason was that the Flames were losing money.  They (Turner, Delta and Coca-Cola) didn’t think they could make any money off the Flames.  Turner wouldn’t take the gift because it wasn’t a good television sport.

Q.         Turner was instrumental in securing the Thrashers, Atlanta’s second NHL expansion team.

A.         Right.  I needled him at the time because he paid, I think, $78 million for the Thrashers.  I said, “I tried to give you the Flames.” Turner said, ‘Oh gosh. I forgot that.’   I said, “Well, don’t feel too bad.  You probably would have lost millions by now if you had owned the Flames.”  He felt kind of relieved after I said that.

Q.         A story came out in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 18, 2015 about Dan Bouchard, the former goalie with the Flames.  In that story, Bouchard states that some of the other NHL owners were skimming from the players’ pension fund and those owners were putting pressure on you to sell the Flames because they feared you would report their activity to the authorities.  Is this true?

A.         I don’t know about that.  Certainly, I wouldn’t have participated in that.  I don’t remember that.  I think that’s all imagination.

Q.        You sold the team in 1980.  Was there an opportunity to sell the team sooner?  

A.        We were making money at first, but then the arena, the Hawks and Flames all began to lose money.  My partners wanted to shut it down and were thinking about defaulting on the city bonds that we used for construction, which I was always concerned about protecting because by reputation I was involved in it.  I didn’t want to be a part of any kind of failure.  So, I let the other partners out of the ownership deal and took over everything myself, losses at that point.  The league (NHL) had already taken over a team or two that were going to declare bankruptcy.  I made a deal with the league.

Q.        So your partners wanted to default on the bonds and you did not because you didn’t want to damage your reputation.

A.        Right. I took over their interest.  They were going to bankrupt the team, give it up. So, I took it over and made a commitment to the league.  It took a unanimous vote (from NHL officials) to not only approve a new expansion but to approve a transfer.  And you would never get a unanimous vote on whether it was Saturday or not.  But I made a deal with them (in 1978) that I would try to operate for two more years and if we couldn’t make it (the franchise) break even then I was free to move it to some other city.  So after two years of four or five million dollars more in losses, I was ready to move the team out.  That’s the only reason I would sell it.  As I said, I loved it.  I would have moved it and owned it in Calgary if I could have.

Q.         Once it was clear that you were going to sell the team, did anyone or any group, like the city, step forward and offer to help you financially in order to keep the team in Atlanta?

A.           No.  Nobody would.  I didn’t ask them (the city) for help.  As I said, I offered to give it to Turner, Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to keep it in Atlanta.  No one thought the Flames could be profitable.  No way to turn it around, to keep it from losing money.  Player salaries kept rising because of the competition from the other league (WHA).

Q.         I read where actor Glenn Ford made an offer for the team.

A.         That was a sham.  He never made an offer.  The press announced it and made something of it, but it never was.  The joke was played on him by some of his friends.

Q.         You struck a deal with Canadian businessman Nelson Skalbania to relocate the team to Calgary.  Was the deal for just the Flames or was the Omni or any of your other real estate holdings involved?

A.          He bought the Flames only. He offered to pay 16 million in Canadian dollars, but I told him I wanted 16 million in US dollars because I knew Skalbania would pay that and more. He agreed to $16 million US.

Q.        What kind of feedback were you receiving when you were going through the process of selling the team?  

A.         I think we had some negative press.  Nobody wants to lose a sports team, whether they were supporting it or not.

Q.        Any kind of feedback after the sale was final?

A.         Not really.  I guess there wasn’t much anyone could say.  I offered to give it away if they would agree to keep it in Atlanta.  My oldest daughter married one of the players, a great guy named Brad Marsh.  As much for that than any other reason I wanted to keep the Flames in Atlanta.  I respected the players.  Several of them moved to or kept their homes in Atlanta–Tom Lysiak and Willi Plett. Of course, Dan Bouchard. Tim Ecclestone.

Q.        Do you have any regrets associated with the Flames?

A.        I would say none really.  Like I said, I liked the players and I liked the game and I would have been happy to have owned them in Canada. But they wouldn’t let me do it because of that law (FIRA).

Q.        Would you have done anything differently?

A.        You know, the circumstances at the time…that was the best thing that I could do.

Q.        What do you think about the Thrashers’ situation?  

A.         The group (Atlanta Spirit Group) that he (Ted Turner) sold them to was a bunch of sports nuts, but they were lousy managers.

Q.        Both the Flames and Thrashers left for Canada. Were the factors that led to the moves similar or different in your opinion?  

A.        Completely different.

Q.        Atlanta grew dramatically between the early 1970s and 2000.  It became much more of an international city in the 1990s.  Do you think that if the Thrashers had better owners the franchise would have survived in Atlanta?

A.         Yes. I think they could have.

Q.        Will Atlanta ever get another NHL team?

A.         That’s a good question.  Your guess is as good as mine.  We have a lot of people who have moved here from traditional hockey areas and more and more are coming.  So maybe somewhere in the distant future the city will get another team.




Muhammad Ali and Atlanta: A Love Affair for the Ages


The 1960s may arguably be the most tumultuous decade in American history.  The Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the challenge of established cultural norms and mores converged to produce an explosion that changed America forever.  One man and one city epitomized this convergence in 1970 and afterwards a bond formed between the two that would last for decades.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, an 18 year-old from Louisville, Kentucky, won the gold medal in boxing’s light heavyweight class representing the United States in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.  Four years later, Clay defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.  Secretly, Clay had converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali 18 days before the fight. When drafted by the United States government in 1967 to fight in the Vietnam War, Ali refused his induction into the army declaring himself as a conscientious objector on the basis of his religious beliefs. The United States government arrested Ali, found him guilty of draft evasion, and sentenced him to five years in prison.  This conviction compelled the-then powerful New York State Athletic Commission and the World Boxing Association to strip Ali of his boxing title.  Ali appealed the draft evasion verdict that would eventually be overturned by the United States Supreme Court in 1971.  However for three years no city in the United States would sanction a fight involving Ali, and he could not fight abroad because the government would not let Ali leave while the case worked its way through the court system.  Ali’s fortunes would begin to change in 1970 when a New York corporate attorney, his father-in-law in Atlanta and a Georgia state senator conspired to set up a fight for Ali in Atlanta.

In a 2011 article in The Georgia Historical Quarterly by Paul Stephen Hudson and Lora Pond Mirza, the authors detail how the fight in Atlanta became a reality. Robert Kassell graduated from Emory University Law School and embarked on a career as a corporate attorney in New York. He also had an interest in promoting a fight for Ali.   Kassell consulted with his father-in-law, Harry Pett, who owned a spice business in Atlanta and a small sports promotion enterprise.  Pett knew he needed political help to get the fight sanctioned in Atlanta and had previously met Leroy Johnson, a Georgia state senator.  Johnson promised Pett that he would obtain a license for Ali to fight in Atlanta.

Although Johnson did not have the fame of other African-American legislators at the time, such as Julian Bond, he was “without peer in Southern black politics,” according to New York Times Magazine writer Stephen Lesher.  Johnson became the first African-American to serve in the Georgia legislature since the Reconstruction Era and earned a reputation for his ability to achieve political initiatives while in office.  In the late 1960s, Johnson assumed more political clout as a leader in the Atlanta Negro Voters League and worked closely with African-American businessman Jesse Hill, then vice president and chief actuary of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company.  The two invested their money in a venture called the House of Sports, Inc., which promoted the fight.  Johnson later stated that his goal with the Ali fight was “to beat the system and say to the world that you cannot do this to a man just because of his color” (Hudson and Mirza, p. 44).

Johnson helped Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, the city’s first Jewish mayor, win the mayoral election by urging African-American voters to cast their ballots for Massell.  Johnson knew the mayor would support him in his efforts to secure the fight.  Massell had served on local draft boards and understood the laws protecting the rights of conscientious objectors.  Massell also believed in the notion that blacks and whites could work together to further the socioeconomic and political viability of the city.  The state of Georgia had no boxing commission at that time, so politics would decide the fate of an Ali fight in Atlanta.  Johnson secured Massell’s support by pledging $50,000 to fund a program that would pay people for giving information that led to drug arrests and convictions, a pet project of Massell.  With the city’s support, Johnson needed to obtain state support before the fight could be arranged.

Governor Lester Maddox had a reputation as a fierce segregationist.  Johnson met with Maddox and told him that Ali deserved another chance.  This appeal struck a nerve with Maddox.  Maddox’s son, Lester Maddox Jr. had recently been arrested and charged with burglary.  The judge in the case gave the governor’s son a second chance by allowing him to avoid jail time.  Maddox acquiesced to Johnson’s desire to stage an Ali fight in Atlanta.

With the fight officially set for October 26, 1970, the promoters for Ali initially approached current heavyweight champion Joe Frazier to be Ali’s opponent, but Frazier had a conflict.  However, Jerry Quarry, Ring magazine’s number one heavyweight contender, agreed to take on the rusty Ali.  Ali trained at Morehouse College to prepare for the contest with Quarry and worked his way to a trim, rock hard 213.5 pounds.

The fight took place with much fanfare on that fateful October evening at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium (now known as Georgia State University’s Dahlberg Hall), where both black and white patrons filled the facility.  African-American celebrities came to watch the re-birth of Ali’s career. The audience included Diana Ross, Hank Aaron, Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, and the Temptations.  Let the record state that Ali scored a technical knockout of Quarry after nine minutes of the third round, but the more important result from the evening was the formation of a bond between Muhammad Ali and the city of Atlanta.

The defeat of Quarry and the Supreme Court decision enabled Ali to return to a boxing career that would last into 1981, when he officially retired.  Ali returned to Atlanta in 1975 to help Mayor Maynard Jackson promote businesses owned by African-Americans in Atlanta.  The two squared off in a charity boxing match that ended when the mayor “knocked out” the reigning heavyweight champion.

When the city suffered through a string of child murders from 1979-1981, Ali offered his help.  The pressure was mounting for the capture of the serial killer. In 1981, Mayor Jackson held a news conference pleading for information from the public that would lead to an arrest.  The mayor offered a reward of $100,000.  Days passed with no new leads.  Ali noticed and called Jackson in the middle of the night and pledged another $400,000 of reward money.  A month later, Atlanta police found and arrested the killer.  While Ali’s money did not lead to the arrest, his magnanimous offer further demonstrated his love and appreciation for the city.

Before a fight in 1980 against Larry Holmes, Ali began showing signs of Parkinson’s syndrome.  He began experiencing vocal stutters and trembling hands.  Ali lost the fight by knock out, and according to Mike Hale in a 2009 article in The New York Times, the beating led to the further development of the disease.  Ali fought once more in 1981 losing a decision to Trevor Berbick.  In 1984, doctors officially diagnosed Ali with Parkinson’s, but it would be 1996 before Atlanta and Ali would share the headlines again.

Preparation for the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta was entering the final stages.  Billy Payne, CEO of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, needed to decide on someone to light the Olympic flame to begin the Games officially.  Evander Holyfield, former heavyweight boxing champion and local home-town hero, came to mind quickly.  When Payne suggested Holyfield to NBC executive Dick Ebersol, Ebersol countered with Muhammad Ali.  NBC held the television rights to the 1996 Games and Ebersol wanted someone with global appeal.

Ebersol gave Payne a convincing argument, stating that “…Ali may be, outside of perhaps the pope, the most beloved figure in the world.  In the third world he’s a hero.  In the Muslim world, he’s a hero and a fellow traveler.  To anybody young—just about—in the United States, he’s a man of great moral principle who was willing to go to prison” (Sports Business Journal, by Josh Ourand, May 18, 2015, p. 30).

In Payne’s mind, at the time, Ali was a draft dodger.  Ebersol countered that Ali was a man of conviction, not a draft dodger.  The decision process took about five months before Payne finally agreed that Ali was indeed the best person to light the flame.

On July 19, 1996, Holyfield ran the Olympic torch into Centennial Olympic Stadium and handed it to Janet Evans, an American Olympic swimmer.  Evans eventually handed the torch to…Muhammad Ali.  Ali’s appearance had been a heavily guarded secret between Payne and Ebersol.  Even NBC announcers Dick Enberg and Bob Costas did not know until Ali appeared on screen.  When the spotlight shone on Ali holding the torch, people were in awe: “You could almost hear a global gasp,” according to Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer Steve Hummer.

Ali stood with the torch in his right hand, with his left hand clinched and shaking because of the Parkinson’s disease.  For a few anxious moments, Ali held the flaming torch next to the small plug that would send the flame up the long wire to the Olympic cauldron. The plug would not light.  Ali remained steadfast, undaunted.  Finally, the plug lit and the cauldron burst ablaze.  Ali had once again stood victorious before thousands of fans in Atlanta and millions more across the world.  Payne would later state that while he and Ebersol had put Ali back on the world stage, Ali helped put Atlanta on the world stage.  Ali and Atlanta had once again benefited the other.

From the fight with Quarry in 1970, to the charity fight with Mayor Jackson in 1975, to the reward money in the child murder cases in 1981, to the 1996 Olympics, Ali and Atlanta forged a symbiotic relationship and love affair that lasted until Ali’s death.  From all of us in Atlanta, rest in peace, Champ.