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Renewed Woes

Rick Charlton

July 16, 2001

The cheque is in the mail?

Probably not.

Veteran prospectors - those with experience ferreting out money in the local area - know full well Calgarians are more likely to say "call me in a couple of weeks" eight times in a row before they'll actually say "no" to your face.

Mostly, they're being polite and hope you'll give up and melt away like a bad winter.

In other words, those same 1,617 people representing over 4000 season tickets whom the Flames can't seem to pin down didn't seem to be on vacation last year at this time when they were enthusiastically swamping the Saddledome looking for ducats.

Another clue? The team will open up those 4000 seats for reassignment today, meaning the potential is there for all those laggards to end up being shoved to a different locale in the building, particularly when the club has its open house on July 28. Historically, fans don't generally like moving around year to year - unless they don't plan on coming back.

Sorry Harley Hotchkiss, but it's probably not a coincidence these folks all decided to leave town for a few months just when you wanted to talk to them.

But this is a franchise still paying the bill of lost political capital for mistakes of the last decade, not just those of the current regime.

That's the hard sell.

Consider this angle. Had the Flames closed out the Vancouver Canucks when they had a 3-1 series lead in 1993-94 then gone on to the Stanley Cup final that year as Rangers coach Mike Keenan said they should have, would fans be giving the franchise more latitude now than we're seeing?

Had the Flames whomped San Jose as they should have in 1994-95 would there be more patience with a current rebuilding effort now getting very long in the tooth?

Are those failures a big part of the current impatience from the ticket buying public? When a team enters a rebuilding phase it is logical to assume the on-ice losses will pile up and also logical to assume a certain percentage of fans will fold their cards before it is all said and done.

But the Flames embarked on that process with seven years of failure already in the books. Twelve consecutive years without post-season success? Five consecutive years missing the playoffs?

The opportunity to wash all that under the bridge was there last year. The team seemed poised to move ahead. But all that came undone with a terrible start which was capped by an 8-0 home ice loss to San Jose.

A more ill-timed face plant would be hard to imagine.

Forget about marquee players. Forget about boring hockey. Just win. Boring, exciting, whatever. Just win. A competitive team. That's all fans are asking for.

Correction. That's all they're demanding.

APPROXIMATE COST PER 26 NHL TEAMS to cover one Canadian small market team for $3.9 million under the Currency Equalization Program? About $150,000. It's just a gut feel on my part, but I think some excuse will be found to fork over the money to the Flames. If you break it down it's a bill no one is going to blink at. The PR headache of pushing a Canadian franchise one step closer to the brink probably isn't worth the cost. Particularly since the Flames seem to be doing well with the province (a new lottery arrangement), the city (a new lease arrangement) and with corporate support. The only element missing is attendance. If the Flames can bump themselves up into the 11,000 area for season tickets they'll probably score the dough. The Senators, meanwhile, bludgeoned by the demise of the local hi-tech sector, did a poll and found that 85% of their season ticket holders plan to renew their ducats, even if only 60% have done it so far. The Sens are in the same pickle as the Flames when it comes to the currency equalization program.

BRETT HULL, NO LONGER ASSURED OF THE $7 MILLION HE PLAYED FOR LAST YEAR, is trying to set up a bidding war for his services by saying anyone in the NHL can make him an offer. This is something of a reversal from what we have seen from other marquee unrestricted free agents. Most in the position of Hull tend to gravitate towards the six or so teams with a legitimate chance to win a Stanley Cup. Pierre Turgeon, as one example, is rumoured to have foregone at least $1 million to pick Dallas over Montreal. Hull, on the other hand, seems to be saying that enough cash would entice him to even consider backwaters like Tampa or Carolina. Or Calgary. All of which sets up an interesting psychological question. Would you rather have a motivated free agent like Turgeon who gave up a higher paycheque to play for a team with a better chance to win or do you respect a player like Hull, who opens himself up to the entire league, cash being the only consideration? Which player do you think will deliver better value on his contract?

WILL JASON ALLISON BE THIS YEAR'S MIKE PECA? Allison has told the Boston media that other teams around the NHL would be willing to meet his $9 million salary demand therefore he expects the Bruins to cough up the dough, thus duplicating the circumstances that set up the Peca holdout in Buffalo. And so we enter another situation where a player who has every right to ask for anything he wants confronts a team, which can exercise its rights under the CBA to refuse to sign a contract it considers unfair. Neither side is wrong. The "right" side will be the one that wins. It is puzzling, however, to see the Bruins attempting the high road in this evolving dispute given the team recently signed Martin Lapointe to one of the most extravagant contracts in NHL history. The Bruins were in the hunt dollar for dollar for Jeremy Roenick as well but lost out to Philadelphia. A plea of poverty at this point seems somewhat lame. Bruin GM Mike O'Connell is not hopeful. ''The numbers that he's talking about are numbers of guys who have won Stanley Cups and been Conn Smythe winners ... who have had unrestricted free agency, who have won many playoff rounds. I think he's a terrific player. When the contract demands are stated the way they've been stated to me, it's pretty easy."

JASON WEIMER, SECOND LINE CENTRE IN FLORIDA? That's what Duane Sutter is hinting at.

CELEBRITY SPOT OF THE WEEK was former Leaf goaltending great and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Johnny Bower at a Calgary wedding a few days ago. Johnny - what else could you call him - had a stack of pictures at his side and ended up signing a bunch for his grand niece, telling her to go into the crowd and shop them for a tooney each. The kid kept the proceeds. Guess Johnny isn't planning on getting rich on the memorabilia circuit.

"THIS'LL BE MY 14TH YEAR and I think when you get to my stage you start looking at what it's all about - and that's having a chance to win. This is a 100 point calibre team and that's really exciting for me." - Trevor Linden on his Washington Capitals.

DANIEL ALFREDSSON AND MAGNUS ARVEDSON have decided to forego their right to arbitration and will continue to attempt to secure deals with the Ottawa Senators. Alfredsson is seeking upwards of $3.5 million per season. If the Flames are intent on adding more scoring at wing then a trade is the most likely route remaining and situations like this represent the best opportunities. If the Senators give Alfredsson what he wants then perhaps Arvedson, 30 years of age and nearing UFA status, is freed up for a trade, as one example. Undoubtedly, there will be other opportunities of this type around the league before the summer is concluded.

"WHAT WE'RE TRYING TO DO IS CREATE A TEAM that's going to be a contender for a long time. There's always pressure to get a player like Jagr, but there is also pressure to retain youth on your team. When you don't have a lot of it, you can't give it all away. We'll see in the future whether that was right or wrong." - Glen Sather in Newsday, answering with his rationale for not meeting the price in prospects surrendered by Washington for Jaromir Jagr.

THEO FLEURY IS STILL IN THE NHL'S SUBSTANCE ABUSE PROGRAM and has not yet been cleared to play, according to a report in the weekend New York Post. Prior to his entry in the program Fleury seemed to be cropping up in numerous trade rumours, specifically going to Phoenix as part of a Keith Tkachuk deal. With his departure from the team last March, however, Glen Sather's hands were tied. There is no presumption Fleury, who has a no-trade clause, will be a Ranger longer than a few hours after getting clearance to play but given Sather's inability to land anyone of any pedigree during the current free agent season Fleury might still have a home in New York. If Fleury is dealt, however, the Rangers will undoubtedly have to pick up a big part of his salary and will probably receive prospects or third liners in return. In other words, Fleury might be right in Craig Button's wheelhouse. The question is, would the Flames want Theo back?

THE PRECISE MOMENT THE BILL COURAGE MORNING SHOW ON THE TEAM 960 lost its Calgary audience can be traced to a morning several weeks ago when Courage breathlessly announced he would be re-living the "great" moment in Canucks history when Kirk MacLean stoned the Flames Robert Reichel in Game 7 overtime in 1994. Click, click, click, click - thousands of radio dials in Calgary instantly flipped over to Rock 92 FM for some head banging. The TEAM badly needs a local Calgary show. The surprise of The TEAM so far would be Jim Van Horne, a normally dour character on TSN, with a precisely delivered dry sense of humour on the afternoon show with Stephen Brunt.

WASN'T IT THE HERALD'S BRUCE DOWBIGGIN WHO SUGGESTED the Flames and Oilers convince the provincial government to tax visiting players and teams, with the proceeds going to the teams? A few weeks later the Flames announced they were pushing the idea onto the Klein Tories. Give credit where credit is due.

HERE'S HOW YOU CREATE A NON-STORY OUT OF THIN AIR. The Flames announce they have only 9,400 season tickets from a base of 14,000. Send a reporter to a couple of city aldermen whom you know opposed the recent Saddledome lease re-arrangement and ask them if they would be in favour of giving the Flames more help. Watch said aldermen explode red-faced in anger. "No frickin' way," is the general message. Print reactions in Herald under banner headline: "Flames Woes Get Icy Reception." The missing element that would have made this work? Any indication at all that the Flames - or more precisely the Saddledome Foundation - had any intent of ever revisiting the city for more money. Nice carve job.