It’s been a long, hard summer for the Calgary Flames, but they’re just about to kick off the 2013-14 campaign. And after what’s been described by many players as one of the toughest, most strenuous training camps many of them have every been a part of, many around the organization are bristling at the notion that the team just won’t be any good this season.
“We’re not prepared to concede that we’re going to struggle yet,” said President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke at a recent media availability. “We’ll see. These guys have worked their tails off.” At the same availability, General Manager Jay Feaster stressed that the team will be preparing for every game with the expectation that they’ll win (although losses will come).
Now, it’s easy to see where low expectations may come from. The Flames are without Jarome Iginla (off to Boston via Pittsburgh), Jay Bouwmeester (off to St. Louis) and Miikka Kiprusoff (off to retirement), depriving the team of its three biggest stars. The team’s highest-paid remaining player, Mike Cammalleri, will begin the regular season on the injured reserve due to a hand injury. What remains is a group not unlike the Cleveland Indians from the 1989 film Major League – a mish-mash of youngsters, spare parts and a handful of veterans.
But for a team seeking to fully turn the page from an era of under-performing stars, the roster composition may be perfectly suited to the task – a group that will have to buy into Bob Hartley’s pack mentality to be successful on the ice.
Indeed, the team has embraced change both on and off the ice. The organization is refreshing its game presentation, with the new goal song to be unveiled during the home-opener on October 6. Mark Giordano is the team’s new captain. The opening night roster will feature eight players that didn’t play in Calgary at all last year.
More than that, circumstances – and perhaps fate itself – have conspired to give the club a complete fresh start. A flood ravaged southern Alberta in late June, filling the Scotiabank Saddledome with roughly 30 million gallons of water – filling the building to about the ninth row of seats and wiping out everything on the event level, including the locker rooms and team photos.
In any other circumstances, the new-look Flames would be constrained by their physical structures. Media would ask who’s sitting in Jarome Iginla or Miikka Kiprusoff’s old locker room stall. The players would walk to and from the locker room past a line-up of old team photos. And instead of focusing on the present, the team may be dogged by questions about the past. But now? All those questions and pressures were washed away, and now the business of the rebuild can finally begin.
Recently, the Calgary Sun’s Eric Francis discussed Calgary’s rebuild with long-time NHL coach Ken Hitchcock, who’s currently head coach in St. Louis. Francis noted that Hitchcock preached patience.
With that in mind, Hitchcock believes the key to Calgary’s future success is finding a cause for players to rally around.
“You look at a team like Columbus last year,” said Hitchcock who was let go by the Blue Jackets in 2010 after four years of service.
“Nobody played at the start of the year but Columbus was the hardest team to play against at the end of the year because the goalie forced them to play for a cause — him. And I think the same thing can happen here in Calgary.”
Speaking to players over the past few weeks, two major themes appear. First, most of the players aren’t buying the media hype that the team will be dirt-worst in the league. Granted, everyone’s aware of the lack of stars on the team’s roster. But considering that the club hovered around the .500 mark last season with a roster partially comprised of AHL call-ups, there’s a likelihood that Hartley can get the team to at least show up to compete hard most nights.
That said, the second common theme emerges from a very simple place – their recently flooded, miraculously replenished Scotiabank Saddledome – where the Calgary Flames, amidst the chaos of last season, had a 13-9-2 record. This may be the “cause” that Hitchcock alludes to needing for a team to coalesce.
“I think the big thing is winning at home,” said Flames back-up netminder Joey MacDonald during the pre-season. “We’ve got a great atmosphere here and a great city, and I think for what the city went through this summer and came back, and it’s just unbelievable how they got this place back to go. I think we’ve got to take some pride in playing at home and put a little more pressure on ourselves.”
Considering that several Flames live in the city during off-season – and newly-acquired Flames Joe Colborne and T.J. Galiardi grew up in the city – the level of civic pride on the roster runs high. When the puck drops at the home-opener on October 6, local hockey fans will fill the Saddledome merely to cheer at the fact that their community got the big-league rink back up-and-running when the odds were supremely stacked against them.
After that, it’s entirely up to the Calgary Flames to give the fans something else to cheer about.