How do we define success? More specifically, how do the Calgary Flames define it, and how does it affect their plan for this year’s team?
To understand the course the team has taken this year, we need to look to the past.
In the late 90s, the Flames weren’t really going anywhere. Their last playoff appearance had been in 1996, a year that saw the trade of Joe Nieuwendyk to the Stars for soon-to-be-franchise-cornerstone Jarome Iginla (among others). They weren’t successful, ticket sales plunged, and revenue went down, which mean they couldn’t keep what little talent they had. You couldn’t give away Flames tickets in Calgary. A declining Canadian dollar didn’t help matters (for them or any other Canadian team at that time). Bad drafting meant that the pipeline of cheap, young talent wasn’t bearing fruit. When names like Rico Fata, Andrei Medvedev and Daniel Tkaczuk top your draft board, you haven’t really been hitting the jackpot.
Late in ’03, Darryl Sutter took over as head coach, and later as general manager. He came in with the reputation of a turnaround specialist- all his teams made the playoffs after he joined them. He was a defensive minded coach who wore on his teams after a few years, but that wasn’t really a concern for a mediocre Flames franchise.
Under Sutter, the Flames did turn around. With his coaching for maximum effort from his gritty players, the trade for Miikka Kiprusoff, and the other acquisitions he made to tweak the team around the edges, the Flames made the postseason, and had a run to the Stanley Cup final that re-ignited (pun somewhat intended) a mostly dormant fanbase, and captivated a city.
It was incredible to behold, being in Calgary. Frantic, breathless updates on radios and televisions everywhere during the games, and parties on “the Red Mile” on 17th Avenue after. You knew when we won- honking horns in celebration became normal, hearing parties outside, yelling “Go Flames!” from apartment windows (which this writer may or may not have done). Flames flags appeared on cars, and wearing the red C around town became fashionable again. It was cool to be a Flames fan. Maybe you were always a fan, maybe you jumped in when the craze swept the city, or maybe you were someone learning about hockey for the first time- if you were in Calgary, you probably knew what was going on.
We know how it ended. The Flames lost, and the fans were spent, exhausted, disappointed. But we remembered the rush of having OUR team be successful again.
That run changed the Flames for the better. Success became the norm, not the exception. The team began to build around Iginla and Kiprusoff, emboldened with the knowledge that yes, this team COULD win, if everything broke right. We had before, we could do it again. They were a contender now, and expectations were raised. There was a fanbase. Discussions around the water cooler at work. Flags and jerseys. Sellouts most every night, and a loud arena. There was a buzz around the team, that hadn’t existed for quite some time.
But it’s been hard to recreate the magic. The Flames may even have had better teams at points since then, but none that have come close to the success that the ’04 team did. There are several reasons why this is: Bad breaks in playoff series’, Puzzling coaching and personnel decisions, a refusal to acknowledge how the game was evolving, and continued terrible drafting- any and all of those things, perhaps others.
Last year, under Darryl’s brother Brent, the Flames missed the playoffs. Those that observed the team could see a change in where things were going. There was some admitting (at least on the fan side of things) that the team as currently constructed had run it’s course. That it was time to rebuild, to trade Jarome, Kipper, the whole lot, and start over. It was a veteran team (which the front office has historically liked). It was also, to be fair, an underachieving team.
The makeover that some anticipated didn’t happen in the offseason- a few tweaks around the edges (goodbye, Robyn Regehr, hello, Scott Hannan, etc. etc.), but the team was similar to the one that didn’t make the postseason last year. Which, on an initial review, is a puzzling thought: Why not rebuild? Why bring back a mostly veteran team that didn’t make it to the dance the year before?
It should be noted that this writer doesn’t agree with the logic, having long been an advocate of the team getting younger/faster/more in tune with the game as it’s played now. But there’s a line of thinking that supports the current strategy, and we can trace it back to that ’04 team, and the expectation of success it brought on.
The Flames still sell out most every game, despite a team in obvious decline, and an aging core, still led by Iginla and Kiprusoff. Though they missed the playoffs last year, one could argue that with a few breaks in a tough conference, they could have snuck in. And once you get to the playoffs, who knows? That’s the lesson that the Flames’ magical run, and others like it, teaches us: In the playoffs, anything can happen.
If the Flames traded everyone, got younger, we’d be like the Oilers: Hope, youth, a little excitement, and potential for the future. But absolutely nothing right now- no chance for success, for the taste of the playoffs that keep this city’s fans hoping. Would the Flames continue to sell out every game if they were rebuilding? Look at the history. The team wasn’t drawing well in the ’90s, or early ’00s, when they were “rebuilding”. Many youngsters came and went through the Flames locker room, and not many stuck around, save for that young forward they acquired from Dallas. Given how dreary those years were, one could see why ownership would want to stave off the rebuild, inevitable as it may be.
So we know what the Flames’ brass thinks: For the team to be successful, they need the playoffs, or even just the hope of them. They need to sustain the appearance of success, that they’re trying for it, or else they’ll end up in the pre-’04 dark days.
Are they right? We’ll get to see about that.