Thirty-two years and three days ago, the Calgary Flames beat the Montreal Canadiens by a 4–2 score to capture their first—and, to this day, only—Stanley Cup championship.
In the years since, the Flames have won a grand total of four playoff series and have returned to the final just once. The Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation (the ownership group controlling the Flames) has since won championships in the Western Hockey League, Canadian Football League, and National Lacrosse League, but is still searching for its first league title in professional hockey in over three decades… right?
Not quite. Twenty years ago today, the Calgary Flames’ top minor professional affiliate defeated the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in a decisive sixth game to capture the American Hockey League championship: the Calder Cup.
During a decade of operation, New Brunswick’s own Saint John Flames featured a large contingent of future National Hockey League players, destined both for Calgary and elsewhere, as well as a cast of characters almost exclusively its own.
This is the story of their rise to the top of the AHL ranks.
Beginnings in Saint John
The 1993–94 AHL season marked the beginning of the Flames’ affiliation with Canada’s oldest incorporated city. That season, the Saint John Flames boasted the likes of Cory Stillman, Wes Walz, and Jason Muzzatti. They made the playoffs, starting a streak of eight consecutive seasons that would eventually culminate with the Calder Cup win.
Today’s AHL features zero Canadian teams east of Quebec. Most recently, the St. John’s IceCaps served as the affiliate for the Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens before relocating westward in 2017 to become the Laval Rocket.
For much of the 1990s, the “A” in “AHL” might as well have stood for “Atlantic Canada.” The Flames regularly faced off against the Moncton Hawks, P.E.I. Senators, St. John’s Maple Leafs, Fredericton Canadiens, and Cape Breton Oilers, both in regular-season and playoff matchups.
In 1996, as their NHL cousins were being swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, the Saint John Flames defeated the Maple Leafs and the Canadiens before falling to the Maine-based Portland Pirates just one round shy of the Calder Cup final.
Two seasons later, the Flames made it all the way to the final before losing to the Philadelphia Phantoms in six games. Somebody named Martin St. Louis led the Flames with 20 points in 20 games during that run.
Following two more early postseason exits, the 2000–01 season came along with renewed hope for the Flames to become the second New Brunswick-based AHL team—following the 1982 New Brunswick Hawks—to capture the championship.
Marty Murray, another star from the 1998 team, returned to the Flames from a two-year stint playing in Europe. Blair Betts, Calgary’s second-round pick from 1998, had wrapped up his WHL career in Prince George and was set to spend his first professional season in Saint John. Goaltender Martin Brochu signed with the Flames as a free agent in August 2000 and was fresh off winning the Les Cunningham Award as AHL MVP for the 1999–00 season.
Along with this newfound optimism came a fresh voice for the team.
Out of the CBC, into the Flames
In 2000, Andy Campbell was working in Nova Scotia for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The Flames called upon him just a few games into the 2000–01 season to fill their twice-recently-vacated play-by-play commentator position.
“A guy by the name of Aaron Kennedy had done the play-by-play for a number of years,” said Campbell, who now works at the University of New Brunswick as the communications manager for the school’s sports teams. “Then, he took a job with the local paper and worked for the Flames beat writer. So, he was still around the team, but they had had to go out and hire a new play-by-play voice.
“They hired a guy from up in northern New Brunswick: Bathurst, N.B., which, at the time, did not have a Quebec [Major Junior Hockey] League team—they do now—so I’m not too sure what this guy’s background was,” Campbell added. “All I got was a phone call, I guess, five or six games into the AHL season, and they said, ‘We’re sick and tired of hearing “number five passes to number seven—oh wait, no, that’s number eight.”’ He just wasn’t suited for the job.”
Campbell had previously hosted a recurring late-night sports segment on the CBC’s regional broadcasts in Nova Scotia. Prior to that, he worked for multiple different wire services and news outlets in southern Ontario and had covered the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons for the CBC’s outpost in Windsor.
Shortly before Campbell received word of the Flames’ opening, CBC Halifax shifted him away from his typical sports assignment. That, in part, helped open the door for him to make the full-time jump over to the Flames’ commentator position, a spot he would occupy until 2002.
“I had a sports background and I found out the Flames were looking for a new play-by-play person, even though the season had started,” said Campbell. “There just happened to be a Halifax Mooseheads game that night, and I took a cassette recorder—this is how far this is going back, a cassette recorder—and went and sat up in the press box at the Halifax Metro Centre and called two periods of the Mooseheads game.
“I wasn’t doing play-by-play at the time, but I’d always kind of done it in my head and done it to myself when I could, and worked with highlights a lot, obviously, at my job with CBC,” he added. “Put it on the bus the next day and, 48 hours later, I got a call saying, ‘When can you be here?’ So, I think I joined the team about eight games into that season.”
The Backstop from Budapest
The Flames job required Campbell to travel with the team and allowed him to quickly acclimatize himself with the coaching staff and players. He called his first game on the road in Norfolk, Va.
“Getting to know the team and getting to know the other personalities that travel with the team, it was—even though I’d been around OHL teams and, really, covered the Red Wings for three years, so I was around professional hockey in that sense—it was my first time getting on the bus, getting on an airplane with the team and kind of living the life of a pro hockey player, which, obviously, as a kid, I’d dreamed of,” said Campbell. “It was pretty cool.”
After the initial road trip to Virginia, during which Campbell called a Flames goal, scored by Betts, for the first time, the team returned home for Campbell’s first visit as Flames commentator. During that respite in Saint John, Campbell met rookie defenseman Steve Montador during a community outreach visit to the nearby town of Saint Andrews, N.B.
“On the way back on the bus, I sat next to Steve Montador, who, at the time, was getting very little ice-time. Never drafted in the [Ontario Hockey League], never drafted in the NHL, working hard to find a spot on the Flames,” said Campbell. “He and I started talking and found out there were some circles that connected in our lives.”
Montador eventually made the NHL on a full-time basis with Calgary in 2002–03. Most notably, he scored the overtime winner in the Flames’ Game 1 win over the San Jose Sharks in the 2004 Western Conference Final.
He ultimately played 571 NHL games while spending time in Calgary, Florida, Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, and Chicago. In 2015, Montador died suddenly at the age of 35; a posthumous examination of his brain showed he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
“I think we spent the entire trip back talking. Monty was a pretty close guy to me through all that time,” Campbell added. He also noted Montador eventually became close with his brother, Jamie Campbell, who currently hosts Blue Jays Central on Sportsnet. “Our relationship continued in the second season. I think of Steve a lot and what he went through and, ultimately, the tragic end of his life.”
Campbell mentioned Doug Doull, Micki DuPont, Darrel Scoville, and future Buffalo Sabres general manager Jason Botterill as members of the 2000–01 Flames team to whom he became particularly close.
He also singled out backup goaltender Levente Szuper, who joined Saint John that season directly out of the OHL, as somebody with whom he remains in correspondence.
“I have a niece who’s going away to school in Hungary coming up in September. Levente Szuper and I still keep in touch, he lives in Budapest, so he’s doing some groundwork, possibly, for us in terms of looking for a place for my niece to live,” said Campbell. “[Szuper] never really caught on at the NHL level, never really caught on with Calgary, and went and played in Europe.
“I had given him the nickname ‘The Backstop from Budapest’ and that kind of followed him around Europe, too,” Campbell added. “He and I were Facebook messaging just the other day and it came up and I was like, ‘Man, I just pulled that out of thin air.'”
Success beyond Saint John
Szuper, Scoville, Doull, DuPont, and Botterill all played key supporting roles on the 2001 Calder Cup team but combined to play just 164 games in the NHL.
Murray led that year’s Flames with 76 points (24 goals, 52 assists) while playing just 56 out of 80 games. He remained a star at the AHL level for most of his career and only scored three goals in his 26 games with Calgary, eventually topping out with 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists) in 150 games played with the Philadelphia Flyers between 2001 and 2003.
Calgary selected Daniel Tkaczuk and Rico Fata back-to-back at the sixth-overall spot in the 1997 and 1998 NHL Entry Drafts. Fata scored 52 points in 70 games during the 2000–01 AHL season; Tkaczuk added 36 points in 50 contests. Neither ever came close to finding the NHL success expected of players selected that high.
Brochu, fresh off his AHL MVP and Goaltender of the Year distinctions in 1999–00, won 27 of the 55 regular-season games he played in 2000–01 and posted a pedestrian .899 save percentage along the way. He appeared in all 19 of Saint John’s playoff games, winning the necessary 15 and posting a .918 save percentage, but left as a free agent following the season and never appeared in a game with Calgary.
Ukrainian winger Sergei Varlamov led the entire AHL with 15 goals in the 2001 playoffs but only ever suited up for eight games in Calgary and a total of 63 in his NHL career. Betts and Steve Bégin both carved out respectable NHL careers as journeymen bottom-six forwards but spent the majority of their time in markets other than Calgary.
Out of the full-time contributors to the Calder Cup win, only Chris Clark ever established himself as an impact player at the NHL level for any length of time. He spent three full seasons in Calgary, playing every game in the 2004 run to the Stanley Cup final, before eventually becoming a 30-goal scorer and serving as team captain for the Washington Capitals.
The AHL is typically a development league, first and foremost. The 2001 Saint John Flames certainly produced its own crop of NHL graduates, but none of the players on that team ever became stars at the highest level. Very few of them even turned into NHL regulars.
None of this mattered to those in attendance at Harbour Station, the Flames’ home arena, for Game 6 of the 2001 Calder Cup final. For them, that team represented draft pedigree and the future of the Calgary organization far less than it did the last remaining vestiges of the AHL’s Atlantic Canadian empire.
The last taste of Maritime AHL glory
The Saint John Flames eventually ceased operations in 2003, one year after Campbell left the team. The franchise remained dormant until 2005, when it relocated to Nebraska and became known as the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights.
The Moncton Hawks and P.E.I. Senators folded in 1994 and 1996, respectively; the Cape Breton Oilers moved to Hamilton, Ont. in 1996; the Fredericton Canadiens relocated to Quebec City in 1999. The same year the Ak-Sar-Ben Knights debuted, the Toronto Marlies played their first AHL game after moving from St. John’s, N.L.
The Calder Cup has been awarded 18 times since the 2001 season. To this day, the Flames remain the last team from Atlantic Canada to capture the championship.
“6,671 was the attendance, but there had to have been 7,500 in there that night,” said Campbell. “[There was a] parade through the streets of Saint John and a rally outside city hall two days later.”
Appropriate recognition, no doubt, for a team that managed to bring everything together at the right moments.
After winning the AHL’s Canadian Division with a 44-24-7-5 record and 100 points, the Flames sailed through the playoffs. They swept the Portland Pirates in the first round before defeating both the Quebec Citadelles and Providence Bruins in five games.
“The deciding game of the first-round series, best-of-five against Portland, triple-overtime,” said Campbell. “They found a way to win that and advanced. Quebec was supposed to be the Achilles heel for Saint John in the playoffs and they beat them in five games.
“Even though Saint John had a tremendous 100-point regular season, there were some doubters that they could actually get it done,” Campbell added. “A couple of years before, Saint John had reached the final against the Philadelphia Phantoms and came up short and I think people just expected that would happen again.
Playing against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the final, they split the first four games before winning Games 5 and 6 by one-goal margins. Scoville scored the only goal in Saint John’s 1-0 Calder Cup-clinching win.
Talk about a hard-fought, well-earned ending.
“The focus and determination of everyone from Jim right through to the training staff, myself—I pushed myself to be as good as they were on the ice,” said Campbell. “I pushed myself to be as good as I could be on the microphone. That just kind of rippled through the organization and I think that was what pushed that team to accomplish what it was able to accomplish.
“Nobody expected that of that team that year,” Campbell added. “It’s a tremendous moment. Having stayed in New Brunswick since that day, people still talk about that time. I can’t go to Saint John and somebody doesn’t say, ‘Man, those Flames, that was a team.’ I wear that ring every day.”
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