Charlton's NHL: Button Pushed for Change

Rick Charlton

November 6th, 2001

Speed and more speed. A crash and bang style. Four lines attacking and returning hard on the backcheck. Defencemen rushing into the play. No weak links. No passengers. No individual agenda's.

Winning the only objective.

While that may sound like the 10-2-0-2 Calgary Flames of this season it more accurately describes the Baby Flames in St. John last year. On their way to the Calder Cup, the minor league AHL team was graced for a time with the presence of Calgary GM Craig Button and his "interim" coach Greg Gilbert. Both were in St. John ostensibly looking at individuals but also bearing witness to a team concept that would soon be applied to the big league team.

But there was a problem.

The Calgary Flames didn't have the pieces to make it work. There were individual agenda's, not everyone wanted to back check and those who shied away from crashing and banging were still on the roster.

And the coach had made it clear the "interim" tag in front of his name wouldn't change until he had iron-clad assurances an assault on the lesser elements of his roster would be priority one over the ensuing summer.

While Button declared Gilbert his coach, the object of his desire waffled, saying nothing had been agreed upon.

It was widely speculated at the time that Gilbert wanted a different roster than the one he had inherited. It's nothing more than an educated guess on my part, but it seems likely Gilbert wasn't keen on stepping into a Don Hay like situation where changes might take months - if they happened at all - thus leaving him swinging in the wind with an unworkable situation.

That left Button with the unappealing task of being butchered from head to foot while he tossed out fan favourites in favour of parts that seemed a step backwards.

Not that Button has done anything that was particularly popular at any time in his one-year tenure.

Igor Kravchuk? You're nuts.

Stillman for Conroy? Book the train for Portland.

Roman Turek for Brathwaite, Tkaczuk and Varlamov? A klutz for the greatest guy in the world? And our best prospect? Cancel my season tickets.

Val Bure AND Jason Weimer for Rob Niedermayer? Ok, I'll buy some tickets again just so I can cancel them twice!

Bob Boughner? Nine career goals for more than $2 million? Good luck losers.

The Button freight train might have left the station without Gilbert's help but it only picked up speed when the two finally landed on the same page. And that page said "make a lot of changes and make them now".

Brian Sutter wasn't shy about forcing alterations onto Al Coates either, to the point where you might have been wondering who was running the team, the boss or the underling.

But the trades promised by Button, gutsy to say the least and career-threatening without exaggeration, were the only way to remove the interim label from Gilbert's job description.

Similarly, a GM who insisted he would stick his neck out with seriously unpopular moves just for the sake of ensuring he had the right coach must have been an impressive vote of confidence for Gilbert.

There are few GM/coach tandems in the league that are successful without being on the same wavelength.

But the Button/Gilbert pairing in Calgary took a leap of faith on both sides.

And the long overdue but highly unpopular housecleaning - orchestrated by one and insisted upon by the other - seems to have started the Flames back onto the road to respectability.

As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in the closing seconds of Casablanca:

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

A SCRATCH AND WIN LOTTERY CONCEPT FOR THE FLAMES/OILERS has been imminent for weeks according to Calgary president Ken King. In fact, King said an announcement was within "days" during a Flames hosted chat about a month ago and he's said "days" at least twice more in the ensuing weeks. Which probably means negotiations are going about as well for King as they did for Ron Bremner. Make no mistake about it - the province suckered the Flames/Oilers into keeping quiet leading into a spring provincial election then backtracked as soon as it was safe. Now the only thing in front of the desperate local NHL teams are a few crumbs from the lottery fringes. If $1 million in revenue for each of the teams is what the final number is then we should label it a disaster because that is what it would be. Considered one of the four pillars brought forward by Flames owners for staying in Calgary, a $1 million lottery solution is chicken feed (to use the polite version of a different word) in the big scheme of things. Are the Flames so desperate they would actually accept such folly? Or would they go the route they should which is sue the province for a fair solution, knowing full well that would take time they might not have? Tough choice. And the province knows it.

SPEAKING OF BREMNER, THE EXILED EX-FLAME PRESIDENT must be wondering what twist of barbaric fate brought him to this point, where the architect he put in place, Button, is now fearlessly leading the Flames back to glory while his successor, King, gets all the ancillary credit. Flames ownership has never been shy about fingering a scapegoat when it suited them and there is no doubt Bremner had emerged as a front running lightning rod for fan discontent after yet another season gone bad. So his demise on a desultory, nondescript day in mid-August was a surprise that surprised no one. But let's face it - if Bremner was responsible for a 27 win last year and, relatively speaking, nothing changed between last campaign and this season except himself, then he must also share some credit for the direction the Flames are taking today. Even if it is belated.

IT'S NO SECRET THE FLAMES AND OILERS ARE BEING SLAUGHTERED by the crumbling Canadian dollar but Calgary's continuing outrageous claim that it has the lowest ticket prices in the NHL when converted to U.S. dollars - must surely be put to rest for good. A 67 cent dollar with a $50 CDN ducat would have a U.S. cost of $33.50. A 61.5 cent dollar with a $50 CDN ticket would have a U.S. cost of $30.75. Good news Flames fans, the lower the Canadian dollar goes the cheaper your ticket becomes in Calgary! Now ... does that sound like a lie or what? Obviously we're all poorer when our currency declines. This silly claim from the NHL that the Flames have the lowest ticket price in the league is a sham and a shame. The average Calgarian earns his money in Canadian dollars, purchases his goods and services in Canadian money and entertains himself in Canadian dollars. In other words, a $50 ticket is all he cares about. And that puts the Flames nearer the top half of the league in terms of cost than it does the bottom. The NHL is an American business with U.S. dollar costs and Canadian revenue. At the moment, that's a losing combination. For owners and fans alike.

AS FLORIDA'S OLLI JOKINEN SINKS FURTHER into his own private sewer of mediocrity, there will be few on the roster of the Flames shedding any tears. It was Jokinen, after an invisible performance against Calgary two weeks ago, who dissed the Flames as being a team comprised of minor leaguers which would miss the playoffs. The charge was particularly galling coming from a player who has literally done nothing with his career. Now Jokinen, a highly regarded first round pick counted on by the Panthers as their second line centre, is in danger of finding himself in the press box. "Offensively, he hasn't put up any numbers,'' Panthers coach Duane Sutter said, laying out the bottom line. Good riddance and don't let the door hit your butt on the way to the minors say the Flames.

WHEN JOE NIEUWENDYK DEMANDED A HEFTY RAISE in the summer of 1995, he was run out of town on accusations of being injury prone and soft. Although a Conn Smythe Trophy a few years ago should take care of the soft part there was a recent incident in Dallas which reinforced the point that Nieuwendyk has a little more mustard than Flames brass gave him credit for. Nieuwendyk broke his nose Oct. 20 against Chicago, spent the night in the hospital and hopped in a car the next day for a charity softball tourney he had organized. He had to stop three times on the way to regurgitate. His tourney raised $115,000 for the benefit of victims of the Sept. 11 New York terrorist attack. Flames fans will remember Nieuwendyk as one of the more philanthropically inclined players to ever don a Calgary uniform.

MOST MODERN STADIUMS APPEAR QUIETER THAN THE BUILDINGS THEY REPLACE. WHY? The United Center in Chicago, if I remember rightly, has four times the internal volume space as Chicago Stadium did. A fan shouting "Yahooooo" has his voice lose strength through distance and volume versus the old, cramped Stadium. The Saddledome was one of the first of the modern large volume arena's and therefore fans in Calgary, who are definitely quieter than normal anyway, got the initial reputation as being non-involved compared to fans in Boston and Chicago. Not necessarily true - as any fan who attended NHL hockey at the Corral can attest - but the reputation stuck. Highlight moments have been few and far between lately but on those rare occasions when local fans had something to cheer about the Saddledome roof has taken a beating. Memorable ear plug games might include playoff Game 7's versus Vancouver and San Jose or, just to pick one out of the hat, a few years ago against Colorado when Chris Dingman scored a winner to give the Flames a stunning come-from-behind victory over Colorado. But cavernous rinks - and quieter rinks - have become the norm around the NHL. Don't blame the fans for that.

NFL OWNERS QUIETLY RATIFIED ANOTHER three-year extension of a labor agreement with their players. Imagine this perfect world - revenue sharing and a salary cap and everyone's happy. Then again, with $70 million per team per year in television money you can see why. Imposing the same arrangement on the NHL, with only about $3 million per team from television, would be far more difficult for all parties.



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