December 12th, 2002


Charlton's NHL

As the Stomach Turns

by Rick Charlton

AP Photo

Lanny King and King?: Former Cup Captain McDonald, Now Has Off Ice Leadership Role

Like sand through the hourglass of time, so too are the days of our lives . . . . . wasting, wasting away as we watch the Flames grind another season slowly into dust, now six and a half hellish hockey years you'll never get back.

Yet another nice Christmas present for Flames fans, an apparent duel to the death among the pencil pushers and bean-counters at the top, no coach at the helm as they round the Horn and eight points in arrears of the nearest team Calgary could reasonably be expected to catch for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NHL's Western Conference, the Chicago Black Hawks.

But why act surprised with the season of good cheer upon us?

This is becoming old hat.

First it was an 8-0 home ice whipping by San Jose in early December two years ago, coinciding with the unwinding of Val Bure's mind.

Then the first of Marc Savard's trade demands in early December of last year, not surprisingly coinciding with the disintegration of the Flames otherwise miraculous start.

And lately we hear the flabbergasting news Flames President Ken King thought Scotty Bowman, a guy who showed throughout his Hall of Fame career he was a finisher and not a builder, might actually want to coach a team which has scored two or fewer goals in 14 of its last 15 games.

Merry Christmas Flames fans.

Which allows us to segway nicely into the annual Christmas List

MARC SAVARD - We'll pretend he's still around because we were dying all Fall to give him a copy of PR Spin For Dummies.

KEN KING - A Scotty Bowman blow-up doll, the closest he'll ever get to the real thing. We've been waiting to get that one in too.

AL MACNEIL - The strength to keep up the Badger Bob imitation. And, we'll point out, the Christmas list last year gave MacNeil "more than one win every 20 years." Well, he had two in the last week so now you know Santa is real.

CRAIG BUTTON - A Jim Playfair bobble-head doll, only this one bobs its head up and down instead of side to side.

ROB NIEDERMAYER - Real, pure enjoyment in the last year of his life he'll ever earn $2.1 million U.S.

FLAMES FANS - Real, pure enjoyment in the last year of their lives they'll have to pay Rob Niedermanyer $2.1 million U.S.

JAROME IGINLA - Please Santa, pretty please, give him back the legs he had last year.

CHRIS CLARK - The 20 goals that will finally have his naysayers shut the hell up.

TONI LYDMAN - An erasure to wipe out that minus nine start to the last road trip. Ugly.

ROBYN REGEHR - Give him a double helping of whatever they were feeding him down on the farm last summer. Wow, what an improvement.

SCOTT NICHOL - Give him more of Barret Jackman to beat up.

CHUCK KOBASEW - A glimpse at his 40-goal future.

BLAKE SLOAN - Give his legs another four inches Santa. The heart is already big enough.

OLEG SAPRYKIN - A refund on those Siberian Airlines plane tickets he bought a month ago.

STEVE MONTADOR - A big furry noogie to everyone who said he'd never make it.

DENIS GAUTHIER - One long, healthy season for the first time.

JAMIE WRIGHT - The King Of The Call-Up gets an entire season in the NHL.

CRAIG CONROY - Pull that old Jarome Iginla out of the bottom of the sack and wrap it up nice Santa.

BOB BOUGHNER - Ted Nolan arriving on Christmas Day would make him very happy.

PETR BUZEK - Last year we gave him "a name tag so everyone knows who he is." Maybe another name tag is in order.

JORDAN LEOPOLD - The five years of experience he needs to be an All-Star

CHRIS DRURY - Wrap up his October and multiply it for the rest of the year.

STEPHANE YELLE - Recognition as one of the best penalty-killers in the game.

MARTIN GELINAS - Consistency. The long stretches where he isn't there, the hallmark of his career, is driving us nuts.

MATTIAS JOHANSSON - Give him more ice time, he's earned it as one of the more pleasant surprises of an otherwise moribund season.

STEVE BEGIN - A facial. Those scars . . . .!!!

CRAIG BERUBE - I guess another 1000 games is out of the question. So to is 100 goals. Give him his 60th career goal tonight.

THE UNKNOWN COACH - A tomb out front of the Saddledome for his eventual corpse.

BRIAN SKRUDLAND - No more panic attacks when he's making line changes.

ROMAN TUREK - Wrap up that 3-0 shutout over Buffalo and multiply it by oh, say, 40 more starts.

JAMIE MCLENNAN - Goals, goals, goals, any goals by his so-called teammates.

THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIRS TAKING PLACE IN THE DARK CORRIDORS OF THE SADDLEDOME, denied by all as just good teamwork, have roots from even before the hiring of Ken King. Ron Bremner once told the story of the Craig Button interview process where the eventual Flames GM pointedly asked Lanny McDonald, a member of the committee looking at candidates, where he saw himself fitting into the organization, the implication perhaps being "not as my boss." With Button at the GM helm only weeks later, there was the Freudian and startling introduction of an ebullient McDonald at the 2000 Draft as the Flames Director of Hockey Operations followed by his resignation from the Calgary organization altogether shortly thereafter. Shall we call those events a hint of a power struggle or just a clerical error? In time, Bremner left and McDonald reappeared a year ago at the insistence of King. In Charlton's NHL on March 19 of this year, ( 031902.htm) I remarked on the turbulent events surrounding Mike Vernon's departure to the minors and subsequent reappearance after McDonald had escorted Button by the ear to Connecticut. All eventually met King and the team on a road trip to the southeast USA where King, clearly angry in a radio interview, remarked on the treatment veteran athletes should expect. And what of King? He was there on that road trip to "lend support" as the Flames, their hopes dimming, choked in four key games against Florida, Tampa, Columbus and Minnesota, effectively ending their season. Just as he was there "lending support" as the Flames wallowed through disasters in Washington, St. Louis and Detroit only weeks ago. And now the news swirling around our feet that Button has all manner of fingers poking him in shoulder as he tries to engage another coach with his first choice, Jim Playfair, chopped by his insistence on a deal with security. Since a three year deal is fairly standard form for any new coach in the NHL and presuming Button isn't managing to fit his own mortality, it seems logical the kibosh on length of term came from higher up. It also seems appropriate to end this series of observations, but not judgements, with the same comment I made on regarding the Vernon situation on March 19, not as out of date as I might have hoped: "My advice - if you hire a guy to run the team then back him up and let him do it. If you don't trust his decisions or somehow feel compelled to publicly overrule him - particularly over a minor incident like this - then save everyone some time and replace him. But he's the third GM in seven years. And his partner is the third coach in three years. On who's desk does the buck stop?" Make that four coaches. And maybe another GM.

"THESE ARE PEOPLE WITH REALLY GOOD, STRONG IDEAS. And that creates really good, strong discussion and debate. That's healthy. And I feel it will make this whole organization better. It doesn't weaken us. It'll make us better. And if I feel crowded, that would be something I'll deal with internally." - Flames GM Craig Button commenting to the Calgary Herald on media speculation he's being badgered into a course of action he may not want to take.

"DOES CRAIG HAVE AUTONOMY TO HIRE WHOMEVER HE WANTS, at any price, for any term? No. I'd be interested in knowing what GM on the planet has such freedom," said King. "But I don't want to suggest he doesn't have autonomy and the ability to do his job. Obviously, I think he does -- and I hope he thinks that. But it's important to understand that matters of such weight would obviously require a due-diligence process. At this point, he's doing a fine job." - Flames President Ken King describing his role in the hiring of a new coach in a Calgary Herald article.

IF FOLKS ARE THINKING THE HIRING PROCESS FOR A NEW COACH IS TAKING A LONG TIME then they really haven't been watching the Flames very closely these last few years. Button himself was the subject of a search by a committee that lasted months, resulting in his hire only days prior to the 2000 NHL draft at the Saddledome. The hiring of Don Hay by Button (with many looking over Button's shoulder at that time as well) also took an inordinate amount of time. So the ongoing search for a new bench boss at mid-season - whether right or wrong - is nothing but well within the character of this organization. It seems almost comical, however, that such careful thoroughness could yield the same grave results year over year.

IT WOULD SEEM PLAYFAIR has been reduced to the fall back position, the guy they can go to if the others fail to pan out. Although I've supported Button in the notes above - on the principle of management being given the rope they need to succeed or fail on their own merits - I'm actually in favour of searching out as many qualified candidates as possible and can see some logic in the notion that if a three year deal has to be on the table (because only the desperate would come here for four months) then looking beyond a rookie bench boss and into the minds of those more established isn't out of line. The remarkable coincidence of Darryl Sutter coming up just as their own need arose must have cocked some eyebrows among King and his crowd. If the Flames are tired of continuing to pay fired coaches while they hire new ones then Sutter has a history of longevity, five years with the Sharks and three years with Chicago, in the latter case leaving the Hawks on his own accord to attend to a child with a disability. Sutter is a fanatic about defensive hockey, which his critics might argue held back the more talented elements of the Sharks. His supporters would argue that a team like the Flames, which has finished in the bottom third of the NHL defensively for six seasons and not coincidentally in the standings as well, will never go anywhere until it establishes a firm commitment to team defence, giving itself at least a chance to win. Scotty Bowman made such a commitment the hallmark of any team he ever coached, a franchise goal to take pride in being first overall defensively every year. Kevin Constantine is something of the lower budget version of Sutter, also a defence first fanatic who tends to have great immediate results but with a message that fades fairly fast, usually within two years of his hiring. Terry Murray is an experienced name still on the sidelines but getting little or no press. Ted Nolan is the people's choice but may be so far removed from today's game after a five-year absence that he'll be called out of courtesy more than anything else. That's at least one thing Nolan can claim in his five years of purgatory - leading the league in interviews. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. If this were a simple process, Playfair would have been here last Saturday, even if he'd wanted a three year deal. The length of time its taking says a more experienced hand is becoming more probable.

"WE STILL SEE THE TEAM AS A CIVIC TRUST. We have lost $5 million to $7 million a year the past few years -- cash losses. We'll never recover that money with the sale of the team. And we're not prepared to go on doing that forever. But we made a commitment to get to 2004 and see if we can get a new plan that works for not just the Calgarys and Edmontons, but the Pittsburghs and Buffalos, too. And I still don't see any change in that." - Flames owner Murray Edwards, saying Calgary will have a hockey team next year.

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