What Could Have Been
Dream Season That Ran Out of Gas

Rick Charlton
June 7th, 2004

They were almost Amazin'.

Just as the 1969 New York Mets appeared suddenly from a lengthy cloud of obscurity, claiming the ultimate prize seemingly out of nowhere, so the Flames might have emerged from a sunless past to win the unlikeliest of Stanley Cups.

Having come this far, their rabid fans were not so much asking for a Cup as they were demanding it.

Hand it over . . . . or else.

Described by some observers, too exuberantly, as the modern day version of the infamous but successful Broad Street Bullies, the Flames only qualified for the post season in game 80 before confronting an ever increasing series of hurdles that failed to daunt them in the least.

One by one they they took the equivalent of not one but several Hamburger Hills, opponents falling by the wayside in heaps, the Canucks still without a Cup of their own, the Red Wings knocked off their perch as the number one team in the NHL, the upstart and hungry Sharks succumbing and finally, the skilled but slight Lightning standing as the only obstacle in the way of immortality.

All 100 point teams. All division champions. The leading point team in the league. The three top seeds in the West and finally, the number one seed in the East.

One too many.

No team since the advent of the 16 team qualifying schedule in 1979 has stormed so daunting a hill and no team more obscure had succeeded with every challenge.

Until tonight.

Calgary lost players to injury, suspensions, got some back, lost a few more and still they kept coming, taking the long term point of view, physically grinding opponents down through seven game series until the vanquished elected to shutter their windows against the hurricane, cowering in their basements until the storm eventually passed, the whirlwind moving on to greater destruction.

The simple truth in Calgary's near miracle run to the title was there was no team tough enough to face the Flames, either physically or mentally.

Until tonight.

Perhaps they lost too many bodies and too many were hurting too badly to ramp up the effort one last time.

In truth, no one will remember the reasons for failure in the years to come, just as no one remembers Calgary blew a 3-1 series lead to Vancouver in 1994 after Joel Otto and Joe Nieuwendyk went down with leg injures, Gary Roberts couldn't lift his arms and Al MacInnis was playing with a broken hand.

Those are the memories of the vanquished, buried alongside conspiracy theories and the bitterness of a goal that might have been.

They're not Stanley Cup champions. That's what we'll remember, not the reasons why.

Looking back, the ultimate moment in an amazing playoff run might have been in Game 7 on the road against Vancouver, Calgary surrendering a disheartening goal to Matt Cooke with only six seconds remaining in regulation, Flames forced into an overtime with the knowledge the franchise had lost eight straight such encounters since the early 1990's.

But the first of three series-ending goals by Martin Gelinas that would keep pushing the Flames up the ladder settled the matter early in the first extra frame.

The curse had been lifted, the weight of 15 years without a victory in a playoff series finally off their shoulders.

That would have been enough for most . . . . but still they kept pushing.

Team speed was one key. Arriving at their destination in ill humour was the other. They mauled opponents. They hunted them down like the dogs they were and did it so in such a persistent manner that the opposition eventually shuddered and folded.

Until tonight.

And, of course, no team but Calgary had Jarome Iginla or anyone remotely his equivalent, the young captain firmly bursting onto the NHL scene in his first playoff year.

Until Brad Richards.

As we write the epitaph on this remarkable season, it might be more profitable to set aside this night and recognize a miracle, a once in a lifetime thing when we see one.

Several genies were let out of their bottles for this playoff run, the play of The Doors when Toni Lydman and Denis Gauthier went down, winning five straight overtime games, plucking the third string goalie out of San Jose and having him establish modern day NHL records, their 26 playoff games tied an league record, as did their ten wins on the road. . . . . all of it worthy of suspicion when this group gathers again in September to do it all again.

"It's not just about the talent," injured Calgary defenceman Denis Gauthier said in the Globe & Mail a few days ago. "It has to do with personalities and chemistry. You throw 23 guys together and you hope they get along. It doesn't always happen the way it's happened here, but when it does it's something special."

Special indeed and no way to know if that magic can be captured again.

As fans, we assume next year will be the same. Now that we've seen the impossible, we assume its normal. But there was something remarkable happening in Calgary, difficult to quantify and no guarantee it can be captured again.

So we end this season, in spite of the end result, truly amazed anyway, the multitudes, the tens of thousands fleeing the now darkened Saddledome and flooding The Red Mile in a party mood, the "Lower Albertans," as described by one Boston columnist, finally finding reason to come out of the shadows to salute "Canada's Team" for its ride of the ages.


That's what it was.

That's what we'll remember.

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