April 11th, 2003

Seven Steps Backward
Calgary Flames Going in Circles
D'Arcy McGrath


Here we go again.

When you don't do it right the first time, repeat your mistakes forever the new official bumper sticker of the Calgary Flames.

Bad enough that the club is saddled with the league's longest running non playoff drought, but do they have to lead the league in off ice categories as well?

  • Most management shake ups.
  • Most coaching changes
  • Least likely to key into the importance of stability
  • Most likely to shoot one's foot completely off one's body.

The Calgary Flames virtually self destructed again on Thursday when they failed to renew general manager, Craig Button's contract.

It says here that Craig Button has made mistakes. Many of them. He's also made some pretty shrewd moves and appears to have righted the ship heading into a somewhat promising off season.

That is until the ship was sunk.

And today it was.

No matter who steps into to run the team from a managerial standpoint the result is a major step backwards, and a serious haze to the immediate future of the club.

Coach Darryl Sutter, who was handed the reigns, faces landmines in the future are almost too numerous to count.

He's never done any hockey management in his career.

"This is not unlike when I came here on December 28th, to establish leadership and direction downstairs and that's what I plan on doing upstairs as well, " said Sutter. "Our focus is really simple. There will be tough decisions, such as getting our budget in line, working on our identity and to becoming a playoff contender. We have a big responsibility to ourselves and to our fans."

He already has the job of coaching the club, a dual position only held by Pat Quinn in today's NHL, a sure sign that the model isn't one to emulate. (Doug MacLean and Glen Sather hold similar, temporary roles, and both sit out of the playoffs)

Can anyone imagine facing Darryl Sutter at an arbitration hearing? Think you'd want to skate through a wall after he made you and your agent cry for the better part of an hour in a Toronto court room?

Pat Quinn has Bill Watters, a former player agent, as his contract guy, a right hand man to over see the financial and negotiation issues so Quinn can focus on player acquisitions and coaching the team.

In Calgary it appears Sutter will have Lanny McDonald, a former player that very likely hadn't even seen his own contracts through his playing days.

Who picks up the dollar side of the business?

The moves today, whatever they entail, reek of personality clashes, back stabbing and inter office politics. What the club really needs is for an adult to take King and Button by the ear and make them get along or not be allowed to play in the sand box. As I pointed out in my article of December 6th, 2002 (My Guy, Your Guy, Whose Guy?) the past four seasons have featured a myriad of off ice moves that has created a virtual self help book on how not to run a professional sports franchise.

Today's announcement is sure to make said book an over night best seller.

Bright Side?

On a day where the team sought to entrench their moniker as the laughing stock of the National Hockey League, there really can't be a bright side.

Simply put once again they've stepped in it.

But that doesn't mean things won't work out.

The reverse Midas Touch that has seen this team's tradition turned to dust over the past decade surely has to reverse itself at some point, and maybe, just maybe the timing will coincide with this move to finally turn this team around.

If you dig really deep you may find the timing of this move to be a bright spot. Waiting until the heat of summer to make a move would have had left the average fan frustrated with the seemingly lack of decision making skills, and the team ill prepared to start the next season.

Getting it done now puts a very important entry draft into some doubt with the decapitation of the franchise just eight weeks before they are set to pick 9th overall.

The quiet winner in today's announcements may be Jim Playfair, Sutter's current right hand man in the coaching scheme. Short term it stands to reason that Playfair may see a huge step up in his responsibilities with Sutter forced to hold down two jobs. In the mid to long term it may be his job out right if Sutter steps upstairs full time.

Fan Reaction

The true acid test to any move made by a professional sports franchise is the delayed reaction from their fans.

The Calgary fans were the team's true MVP this season, filling the Saddledome to an unbelievable 96% capacity rate despite the club's plummet down the standings and failed playoff bid for a seventh straight season.

Is this the last straw?

Will season ticket holders tell Ken King and his merry crew to get bent when the renewal notices are sent out in short order?

Or will the rumoured increased involvement for Calgary's favourite son, Lanny McDonald, be the added public relations boon that keeps the fan base on side.

A former local hockey hero teamed up with a gruff and determined member of Alberta's royal family does have a marketing appeal.

Time will tell.

Time is a huge factor these days. The club is 17 months away from hockey Armageddon, a crucial turning or end point for hockey markets like Calgary in the NHL grand scheme.

Not a great time to be breaking in new legs even if said legs come from a proven gene pool.

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