Hockey

CANADA’S TEAM

Speed and hard work have fanned these Flames

BRIAN BERGMAN May 17 2004
Hockey

CANADA’S TEAM

Speed and hard work have fanned these Flames

BRIAN BERGMAN May 17 2004

CANADA’S TEAM

Hockey

Speed and hard work have fanned these Flames

BRIAN BERGMAN

AT MORNING RECESS, Jeremy Jones can be seen in his Calgary Flames jersey and goalie mask, brandishing a huge Flames flag as he runs laps around the playground at Ecole Banff Trail elementary school. By the end of the break, the Grade 5 French immersion teacher has dozens of children trailing behind him as if he’s some Pied Piper, joining in Flames chants. Back in the classroom, Jones, 31, uses the team’s dramatic run for the Stanley Cup as a teaching tool. Game stats become mathematical exercises. The location of opposing teams provides a geography lesson. And the morning newspaper offers up examples of how journalists employ metaphors, similes and curious expressions (“the Flames finally got the monkey off their back”) to describe the previous night’s action. “Since the playoffs began, it’s all the kids talk about,” says Jones, an avid Flames fan for more than 20 years. “I figure, why not take advantage?”

That’s what Calgary is like these days. Flames boosters line up outside local watering holes hours before game time, hoping to get the best TV vantage point. When the national anthem comes on, the patrons stand up, beer in hand, and sing along with gusto. At home, some long-suffering hockey widows find themselves drawn in, letting the evening meal go uncooked as they check out the latest score. Even the criminals seem preoccupied. At least one major home security company is reporting that alarm calls decline markedly after the opening puck drops, only to return to normal levels about two hours after the game ends.

Last week, when the Flames eliminated the heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings in six games to advance to the Western Conference final against San Jose, a casual observer might have thought Calgary had already snapped up the Cup. Gino Bruni, 18, was in the nosebleed section of the Pengrowth Saddledome when Martin Gelinas scored the series-winning goal with less than a minute left in the first overtime period. “Everyone was so excited and hugging each other,” says Bruni. He and his friends spilled out of the Saddledome and raced several blocks to 17th Avenue SW, where a series of trendy bars and cafés have become party central during the playoffs. For nearly four hours—until 3 a.m. on a Tuesday morningmore than 10,000 Flames fanatics shut down the street. “My hand hurt from so much high-fiving,” says Bruni. “It was amazing.”

THE team’s success is especially sweet, given the long drought. Calgary had missed the playoffs the past seven seasons.

The team’s success is especially sweet given the long drought that preceded it. The Flames missed the playoffs for the past seven seasons; the last time they advanced beyond the first round was 1989, when they won the Cup. With Montreal and then Toronto bowing out, the Flames are the only Canadian team still skating. “The whole country has to get behind them now,” says Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier, who toasted the victory over Detroit in a Houston bar while on a business trip. “This is a team with great spirit and heart which has really put this city on the map.”

The Flames are, in fact, the perfect Cinderella squad. A relatively low-paid, smallmarket franchise, the team boasts only one bona fide superstar, captain Jarome Iginla. But Iginla’s teammates are young, fast, hardworking and expertly coached, and fans have a tough time choosing their hero of the moment. Is it Iginla, the playoff scoring leader with the killer wrist shot? Or Mikka Kiprusoff, the cool Finnish goaltender? Then there’s Gelinas, 33, a canny veteran whose overtime goals sent Detroit and, before that, the Vancouver Canucks into playoff oblivion. For his efforts, Gelinas was invited to lunch in Calgary with fellow Shawinigan native Jean Chrétien, one of many instant converts to the Flames’ cause.

All this, of course, could still come unhinged against the favoured Sharks. But even in the grip of Cup fever, that’s something many Flames fans seem pretty sanguine about. “If they don’t get past the next round, I think everyone in Calgary will still be proud of them,” says Bruni. “That’s why we want to celebrate every step, because you never know when it all will end.” PÎ1