Al's future shock

DAN TOTH -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 4:11 PM ET


 Is Al MacNeil surprised by the Calgary Flames' playoff success?

 "When I went to Atlanta (in 1979), I thought we'd be (in Georgia) long-term," recalls the Flames special assistant to the GM. "The next year we're up in Calgary, back in Canada, so don't ask me to project the future."

 MacNeil is still here, the original Flame, transported from Atlanta in 1980 as head coach when the expansion team failed in the south and was purchased by a Calgary ownership group, led by Nelson Skalbania.

 Although the club has seen some tough times over the past quarter-century in Cowtown, MacNeil argues the franchise has always been stable because of sound ownership and a sturdy fan base.

 "This club here for the first 15 years of its existence, there was no question it was staying here in Calgary," says MacNeil, positioned near a photo of the Flames at the Montreal Forum in 1989 after the club won its only Stanley Cup.

 "That was one of the premier things that happened to this community. The owners who brought it in had that in mind. The guys who originally brought this club here were under the idea this city needed another major sports franchise to set the tone, that's what it's done and has done for a long time."

 MacNeil says turmoil surrounding coaching and management changes, including his stint as interim head coach 18 months ago prior to Darryl Sutter's hiring, has now given way to clear sailing.

 "I knew we were going to get there again but I didn't think -- I don't think anybody thought -- we were going to get there this quick," offered MacNeil, in his 48th season of professional hockey.

 "But there was no question that was the path we were going to go on. That was the idea three years earlier when we were only three or four games out of a playoff spot then. But they decided to change everything to turn it around and, three years later, they decided to change it again and they hit the right guy this time.

 "The job is going to get done now."

 After 10 seasons as an NHL defenceman, MacNeil turned to coaching and eventually led the 1970 Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup championship.

 During his first season in Calgary, he led the Flames to a surprising appearance in the Cup semifinal. Now he's back and who knows what the club will do against Tampa Bay to astound the critics?

 "This team here was still, in everybody's thoughts and purposes, being rebuilt," MacNeil says of this spring's playoff success.

 "This was not a club that was going to get the whole job done in 2004. This was a club that was going to get better this year and get very interesting in '05 and then in '06. But, hey, this acceleration was immense.

 "There are some things you can look ahead and project but anybody who sat down last September and said this club was going to be playing at the end of May in the Stanley Cup final would have been smoking funny tobacco. It just wasn't there."

 MacNeil credits Sutter and his coaching staff for getting the most out of the team's current collection of talent, tweaked by the key additions of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff and forwards Chris Simon, Ville Nieminen and Marcus Nilson.

 "What drives it is the cohesiveness and the togetherness of the operation," MacNeil says.

 "In the other clubs we beat, there was a surplus of talent -- a lot of skill and a lot more talent to play hockey than what we had but we were still able to beat them because we played as a unit."


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