A Refresher for Playoff Starved Calgarians
Calgarypuck Playoff Coverage 2004

D'Arcy McGrath
April 5th, 2004
It's a shame that hockey fans from long deprived cities like Calgary can't have an informal meet and greet before the heat of the playoffs burns up television set after television set at a dizzying pace.

The group needs a minute or two to reintroduce themselves to this playoff hockey thing.

Oh sure the average Calgarian has kept an eye on the Stanley Cup playoffs these past seven years, but now it's more than office hockey pools and keeping up with water cooler chat, the Flames are actually back at the dance.

And that's a whole new brand of hockey to literally half the city. It's watching games with gnashing teeth, sweaty palms, and that queasy fear of failure knotted in one's stomach.

We're back ....

The Year 1996

Top Songs: Macarena (Los Del Rio), One Sweet Day (Mariah Carey), Because You Loved Me (Celine Dion)
Top Movie: Independence Day (Will Smith, $306 million)
Worst Movie: The People vs. Larry Flynt
World Events: Prince Charles and Princess Diana agree to divorce, Bill Clinton appoints Madeleine Albright as first female U.S. Secretary of State, Ella Fitzgerald passes away, Bomb interrupts Atlanta Summer game.
Sports Champions: NHL: Colorado Avalanche, NFL: Dallas Cowboys, MLB: New York Yankees, NBA: Chicago Bulls
A lot has changed since the Flames fell in game four of their opening round series to the Chicago Blackhawks in April of 1996.

Sure the puck is still shaped like an oversized tuna can, the uniforms are back to red and white (though flipped as to home and away, with the black symbols of on ice despair put in the closet for the playoffs), the nets the same size, number of player held constant and the game is still played on ice.

But that is where the similarities stop.

The NHL was a 26-team league in 1996. There were no Jackets or Wild, no Panthers, no Thrashers, and it was a solid belief that making the playoffs was a given, not a barometer of a club's success on the season.

Now the league looks more like NFL football, where coaches are fired based on missing the playoffs, but to make it and loose quickly is still a good year for clubs outside of Green Bay or Denver.

The 1996 Flames were led by Theoren Fleury and a comeback player in Gary Roberts. The supporting cast included German Titov, Michael Nylander and Phil Housley.

Riding the return of Roberts, the Flames staged a dramatic second have run to close in and take a playoff spot, but ran out of gas and quickly exited stage left after three somewhat forgettable games, and one overtime thriller.

This season the Flames are a little more likeable.

Their leader is a throwback to the days of role models and sports athletes, the coach an Alberta product and their goaltender with a first name that wouldn't seem out of place on a fuzzy headed doll on the shelves of Toys 'r Us.

If there's a silver lining to missing the playoffs for the better part of a decade, it's the disconnection to the failures of playoff past. Up to 1996 the Flames were known as a regular season team that stumbled every year in the playoffs, having not one a single round since defeating Montreal to win the Stanley Cup. How many times were city natives force fed the word "chock" on the front page of the sports page with the team's emblem replacing the font in the title?

Now, like the Nashville Predators, the Flames are almost like an expansion team gaining their first wobbly steps in the meadow with mother close by to watch. The casual fan from other NHL cities may even want to see the Flames win as they represent one of the true rags to riches stories of this year's post season. The underdog. The new team on the block. Those crazy misfits from Calgary.

The expectations have already been met, the team has nothing to lose, and they won't have to be held accountable for teams that in the past found ways to lose to inferior post season opponents.

It's back to the future for Calgary fans with a new group of young fans reconnecting to the team much like many of us did when they first arrived from Atlanta in the fall of 1980.

That team got a taste in the first spring in Calgary and went on to a dominating decade of hockey.

Can this chapter do the same?

With a young nucleus and possible cost correction on the horizon, the timing is certainly right.

The Flames will be hoping to add to a winning foundation when they take to the ice in Vancouver on Wednesday night.


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