Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hockey Orphan: Kent from Five Hole Fanatics on the Calgary Flames

Once the Flames traded hockey's Napoleon, things got really ugly

The Calgary Flames organization suffered through a decade of futility- the 1990's. The club's metamorphosis from favorite to bottom-feeder began immediately after they won their first (and only) Cup in '89. The larval stage was one of regular season success, followed by crushing play-off choke jobs. Los Angeles, Vancouver and San Jose -all massive underdogs - all defeated Calgary in the first round during this span. Frequently via sob-inducing, gut-punch OT goals.

For Flames fans at the time, it didn't seem like things could get anyworse. Being repeatedly knocked off the dance floor by teams they dominated in the RS seemed painful enough. Then we entered the pupae stage...

In 1995, the Flames began to bleed talent. Joe Nieuwendyk and Robert Reichel were gone that summer. The lone remaining star on the team - Theoren Fleury - would go on to lead the club in scoring by a full 30 points in 95/96, ahead of journeyman German Titov. Soon-to-be-obvious-bust Trevor Kidd was the Flames #1 goalie. The lone bright spot that season - beside Theo - would be rookie Jarome Iginla making his debut and scoring two goals during the Flames first round loss versus the Backhawks.

You know things are bad when Titov is your second highest scorer.

In 96/97, the Flames managed just 73 points and missed the play-offs entirely. A year later, they did the same - except with 67 points. Fleury would be moved to Colorado at the trade deadline in 98/99 (when it was clear the team was going to miss the post-season again) and the transformation was complete - the Calgary Flames officially sucked. An area of dominance was dead. The terrible Young Guns era was born in its stead. The Canadian dollar was on par with the peso, the Rangers were offering checking centers $9M/season and Calgary's scouting staff was choosing the likes of Rico Fata inside the top 10 at the draft. Hnat Dominicelli, Andrew Cassels, Valeri Bure, Clarke Wilm, Jason Weimer, Rene Corbet and Marty McInnis all took their woeful tours of duty during this stage - many of them at the same time. Hopes were pinned on shoulders ill-fitted to the burden: Rob Niedermayer, for example, was acquired with expectations of becoming a scorer.

Occasionally, diamonds in the rough would surface in the organization, only to be discarded needlessly.A handful of different GMs and coaches would make brief, grim deathmarches through the org, none of them capable of changing the club's role as cannon-fodder before the league's stronger clubs. Attendance started to waiver with the city's hopes of ever being competitive again. Fans stopped expecting wins or even goals due to their infrequency. Instead, bronx cheers followed every mediocre save and every clearing of the puck from the defensive zone. During perhaps the height of frustration in 2002, fans were heard blaming the newest scapegoat Roman Turek for almost anything that went wrong on the ice...even if he wasn't in any way involved with the play.

Ouch and ...

... ouch.

This is why now is a good time to jump aboard the Flames bandwagon. I considered listing the various virtues of the club currently - the competent management, the stable of stars, the improving prospect development, the solid, well-heeled ownership, the team's position in the standings this season. But, in the end, I figured a contrast between now and the dark years would best serve to illustrate the point that it's Calgary's ascendancy back to contender status that is the most compelling reason to cheer for the club these days. The hardwork has already been put in. The fan-base earned this sweet respite after years and years of grueling hardships and seemingly unending failure. The organization and faithful are alive and exuberant again after teetering on the brink of utter despair. The dawn has arrived. We are as parched men who have wandered through the desert and stumbled across an oasis; we are like the starving at a feast; we're paupers who've won the lottery.

Come and join the celebration.

(Thanks, Kent! Make sure to check out Five Hole Fanatics and to follow his other endeavors. He's obviously worth reading.)

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