Contributed by Steven Bigg
Now that the “Faceoff In The Foothills” is in the rearview mirror, it’s time to get back to business in the NHL. The trade deadline is almost here, the playoff race pressure cooker is going full tilt, and focus becomes paramount for every team still in it.
When you experience an event like the Heritage Classic, it takes a day or two to really let it set in. I know this because I attended it, and it almost seems like a dream. I think the entire Flames organization, the local media, and Calgary hockey fans in general feel some kind of hangover effect… whether it’s a real hangover or just an adrenaline one.
Friday night saw the Flames’ AHL affiliate Abbotsford Heat host the Oklahoma City Barons (Edmonton’s affiliate) at the Saddledome. A decent crowd filled the entire lower bowl and dotted the second tier to watch former Flame Ales Kotalik be held off the scoresheet. Okay, that wasn’t nice, but Oklahoma won 3-1 and were cheered on by an impressive showing from local Oilers fans.
Saturday afternoon brought throngs of people to McMahon Stadium. It was bitter cold in mid-afternoon, and the temperature dropped faster than a Canucks defenseman (local joke) as the sun dipped behind McMahon. A mix of Flames and Canadiens fans braved the cold for the Alumni Game between heroes from the Flames’ 1989 Cup team and whoever picked up their phone in Montreal. That may sound a tad harsh, but while the Flames had big names (Lanny McDonald, Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk, Theoren Fleury, Mike Vernon), the Habs had guys that not only didn’t play in the ‘86 or ‘89 Finals (Kevin Haller, Jyrki Lumme, Sergio Momesso), but players that DIDN’T PLAY FOR MONTREAL AT ALL (Martin Gelinas, Craig Levie). Eric Fichaud, Montreal’s goaltender, had an 0-2-0 career record as a Hab. But really, the Alumni Game was a chance for Calgary to celebrate the high watermark of its 30-year NHL history. Even though Montreal prevailed 5-3 in the two-period affair, we all went home satisfied, and very excited for the premier event.
Sunday was definitely a little less cold (hard to say warmer) than the previous day, and it had a playoff atmosphere. I’ve never seen so much red in my life… from jerseys to scarves to toques, it looked like everybody had walked out of a commercial for the Heritage Classic, and for that reason alone, it was a massive success for the NHL. Everybody was into it, and when the Snowbirds jets flew overhead after the anthems, well, we Canadian hockey fans live for moments like that. I won’t go into the details of the game. I’ve gotta say, it’s not easy to follow every minute of an outdoor game when you’re actually there. So much is going on, and the rink is so far away that it’s tough to fixate on the action. The one thing that surprised me a bit was the shot total (39-37 Montreal). It’s usually difficult to move the puck during an outdoor game, but both teams seemed to find a way, despite the concerns about the overall conditions (no Zambonis were used). The Flames were victorious 4-0, on the strength of Rene Bourque’s two goals on 11 shots and Miikka Kiprusoff’s brilliant goaltending. The vast majority of the 41,022 fans stuck around until the end, even though the temperature was as low as the Oilers in the standings (another local joke).
I was still frozen on Monday, so I declined an invitation to the Calgary Hitmen-Regina Pats WHL matchup, the first ever Canadian junior outdoor game. Over 20,000 fans did go, and that set a record for a Canadian junior game. Regina scored late in the third to edge Calgary 3-2.
So… about that hangover I mentioned. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Flames players or coaches after going through something like this so late in the season. It’s one thing to have an outdoor game right after Christmas, prior to the All-Star break, when the games aren’t as magnified as they are in mid-to-late February. But this felt like a major distraction to ME, and I didn’t have to be down on the ice, fighting for a playoff spot. All the extra media, the parties, the electricity in the air: does it hurt, help, or even make a difference to the team? There’s been a lot of local coverage in Calgary that questions the timing of such an event. Then again, if the Flames weren’t in the playoff hunt, it probably wouldn’t even be brought up.
Me? I had a blast, and if they decide to hold one of these in Calgary again, I’ll be there in a heartbeat. Just one thing – give someone else a chance, because a city can only handle a hangover like this every few years.
Follow Steven Bigg on Twitter at www.twitter.com/stevebigg