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.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Noel Price says:

    I can only tell you from a former players perspective that my wife and I with our daughter and son absolutely loved the city of Atlanta and the people of Georgia. They took to us and the team. We still are in contact with friends we made there.
    Cliff Fletcher was the best manager I ever played for and I cannot say enough good things about our coach Boom Boom Geoffrion. We had a great bunch of dedicated players and I was sorry to see the team move from this wonderful city.

    • Hi Noel,

      I remember seeing you play for the Flames! I am so happy you read the article and reached out. I wish the Flames were still here in Atlanta.

      I hope you and your family are doing well and want to thank you for being a part of a special time in Atlanta sports history!

      Take care.

      Jim

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