Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a seven-part series here on Jet City Ice, providing you with a guide to the Pacific Division teams, those that our beloved Seattle franchise will see most frequently during the season.
Imagine the scene: it is late in the 3rd period on May 25th, 1989. We are inside of the old Montreal Forum.
The puck drops. Diminutive Calgary Flames center Theo Fleury, number 14, usually tenacious on the face-off circle, backs out. He retreats with shoulders lowered. He hardly even pursues the Canadiens player, choosing instead to watch casually as his opponent claims the puck and circles around behind his own net.
Fleury lost the face-off. But as those last five seconds elapse and the horn sounds with the score reading 4-2, he won something else.
After a decade of good enough but not great hockey, not only had the plucky Flames slain the provincial dragon in Edmonton by winning the fierce Battle Of Alberta, they had just exacted revenge on Les Habitants, the quintessential NHL powerhouse, for beating them in 1986.
It was the franchise’s first and, three decades later, only Stanley Cup.
Meet The Flames: Calgary’s Team
Outside of Portland, Oregon, Calgary, Alberta is the only other city with one team in the four major North American sports to win only one championship.
Other one sport cities have been to the brink, winning none. Think of the NBA’s Utah Jazz. Other one sport cities have won multiple championships. Think of the Flames’ bitter rivals, the Edmonton Oilers.
Only Flames and Trailblazers fans, however, know this painful malady. It is a strange and conflicting predicament that defines the fan base.
But why does that distinction matter so much?
The Hangover: Stanley Cup Version
With those awful dragons in Edmonton and Montreal slain, the outlook on the 1989-90 season seemed terrific for Calgary. Sure, Lanny McDonald had announced his retirement, but the Flames still had a boatload of talent.
There were anchored by Doug Gilmour and Al MacInnis. They had an awesome pair of Garys on the roster, Suter and Roberts. Joe Nieuwendyk and Theo Fluery were up and coming stars. The net was minded by two pretty solid backstops in Mike Vernon and Rick Wamsley.
1989-90 was also the season that, due to Cliff Fletcher’s deft diplomatic efforts, Russian players began their gradual matriculation to North America. The wall was down. Awesome. This meant that Red Army great Sergei Makarov would fill in where Lanny McDonald would have been.
All of the pieces were in place.
Something happened on the way to repeat glory though. With the Smythe Division title in hand, the Flames lost unceremoniously to the Los Angeles Kings in six games. Season over and no one in Stampede City could have known they would not win another playoff series until 2004.
What led to the catastrophic drought? Any casual Calgary Flames fan would be able to tell you the sordid and painful history.
The architect of the Stanley Cup winning team, General Manager Cliff Fletcher, left for supposedly greener pastures in Toronto. The new GM dealt Doug Gilmour, one of the all-time great glue guys, for the dried out husk of once lethal sniper Gary Leeman.
A couple of years later, Nieuwendyk was gone too, albeit that trade netted a young super star in Jerome Iginla.
The 90’s were tough on everyone but they were especially tough on Calgary. The franchise, once accustomed to competing for President’s Trophies, endured a few 70-point seasons.
There were a few 50-point seasons, too.
The product on the ice sucked. The Trevor Kidd goaltending experiment was a bust, failing to bring a stalwart, Vernon-esque presence to the net. Desperate to put some talent around the rapidly improving Jarome Iginla, the team brought in a host of past-their-prime players, warped and slower versions of Phil Housley, Dave Gagner and Steve Smith.
They had great players. But they could make little headway building anything around them.
By the late 1990’s, the Canadian dollar was so weak against the American, that ownership could hardly afford to keep anyone around. 1999 rolled around and the ultimatum from ownership went out. Either Calgary supported the team in the form of increased attendance, or they would go the way of the Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets.
If not for the miracle run to the 7th Game of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004, we may be talking about the Houston or Kansas City Flames.
Why Does Star-Crossed History Matter?
In 2009, I was in Siena, Italy. I was eating dinner in a basement restaurant on the north side of town. Seated at the only other table occupied in the dusky place were two women. They were from Calgary.
We chatted about our trips. We talked about our homes. Everyone was cheery with Tuscan sunsets and red wine.
When the topic of sports came up, though, both of these ladies went utterly ballistic. All they wanted to talk about was their beloved Flames.
Four years later, at a retreat, sitting in a sauna, I asked the man next to me where he was from. This sweet, quiet little soul who ran a Vegan bakery said, Calgary, Alberta. Then he introduced me to his dog, Jarome.
I’m not making this stuff up. The Flames matter to people in Calgary.
The one city, one championship phenomenon is a curious one. And, as I mentioned, there is only one other petri dish to compare Calgary to.
One team forces a sports loving city to focus intensely. Although it is a cold comfort, I’m sure, but the Toronto Raptors just gave that city a reprieve from a longer (and obviously more painful) Cup drought.
There is no relief. But that could be said of any one-sports city though. Outside of weird CFL antics, the Edmonton Oilers are IT up there. Gross.
The one-championship phenomenon gives a unique ray of hope to that intense focus. There is, in that one banner, a path.
Lo that path may be fraught with pain and mania. As time marches on, the road back gets weirdly muddier. But there is something to point to.
We have been There. Remember?
When the Calgary Flames fans come down to Seattle in a couple of years, give them heck. Give them hell. Unless another sport miraculously drops into the Scotiabank Saddledome, give them a moment.
Let them regale you with tales of glory. That and a bony sniper nicknamed Johnny Hockey, is all they have.