Southern Hockey History: Jim Craig wins debut with Atlanta Flames
Olympic hero stopped 24 shots in Flames win over Rockies on March 1, 1980
Less than a week after leading the United States to a stunning gold medal win in the 1980 Winter Olympics, Jim Craig found himself in the NHL, tending goal for the Atlanta Flames after signing a contract with the club that drafted him in the fourth-round of the 1977 Entry Draft.
The night was March 1, 1980 and a capacity crowd of 15,156 filled The Omni in Atlanta as Craig stopped 24 shots to lead the playoff-bound Flames past the lowly Colorado Rockies by a 4-1 count. The sellout was the Flames first of the season.
After inking Craig, Atlanta brass hoped they had a franchise savior on their hands. The team was already rumored to be on its way out of Georgia, with Calgary, Houston, Dallas and East Rutherford, NJ being mentioned as possible destinations. Unfortunately, the exhausted Olympic hero wasn't able to live up to the hype and the franchise did indeed move, to Calgary, the next season.
The win against the Rockies was the only one Craig would post during his short stint in Atlanta.
He got his second career start on March 13 in a 2-2 tie against the Los Angeles Kings. Craig was solid again, making 27 stops in the draw, but did so in front of a home crowd of only 9,253 people.
Craig made his only road start for the Flames five days later against the powerful New York Islanders and got the hook early in the second period after surrendering five goals on eleven shots in a game the Isles went on to win 6-3.
The 22-year-old rookie made his final appearance for Atlanta on March 25 at The Omni. This time, only 7,914 people showed up to see Craig get torched by Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. The Flames held a 4-2 lead after the second period, but the Great One scored twice in the third to tie the game before he combined with Lee Fogolin set up Don Ashby's game-winner.
On June 2, 1980, the Flames traded Craig, a Massachusetts native, to the Boston Bruins for a second-round pick in 1980 (Steve Konroyd) and a third-round pick in 1981 (Mike Vernon). Craig went 9-7-6 for the Bruins in 1980-1981, while Vernon would eventually backstop the Flames to their only Stanley Cup championship in 1989.
Craig spent most of the 1981-82 season injured, appearing in just 13 games for the AHL's Erie Blades. He returned to the U.S. National team for another successful stint, although much-less heralded, leading the Americans to a first place finish in the IIHF Pool B World Championship and was named the tournament's top goaltender.
That performance was good enough to get Craig another shot in the NHL. He finished his career by making three appearances (1-1) for the Minnesota North Stars in 1984 after starting the season with the Central League's Salt Lake City Golden Eagles.