Calgary Flames and the 2004 Stanley Cup

There’s a new disease running through Calgary. It’s highly contagious, spreads like wildfire, and while it has yet to prove fatal, it certainly causes some debilitating effects. Symptoms include sore throats, aches, extreme exhaustion, the urge to paint your face (and even car) red and yellow, and to wear Flames jerseys.

It’s called Stanley Cup Playoff Fever.

The last time the Flames were in the playoffs was 1989. Around here, that’s an eternity, it seems. (We’ll ignore the Leafs’ 37-year absence from the Stanley Cup finals, despite a few valiant attempts at getting there.) Excitement was building towards the end of the season — hey, we at least made it to the playoffs, unlike arch-rival Edmonton. (This was an oft-played promo on the local JackFM radio station.)

The excitement is infectious. Especially to people who, like me, don’t actively watch hockey, but will if the calibre of the game is good. (Call it a “fair weather fan” thing if you must — I don’t much like boxing on ice. I prefer playoff hockey because the pressure tends to bring out the best.) It’s not hard to get sucked into the whole thing.

Such as it was that on Saturday afternoon, a group of us wandered our way down to Classic Jack’s on 17th Ave. for an afternoon of hockey. I was still partly hung over from a binge with friends the night before, so being in a loud room with more beer seemed like a great idea.

When the final seconds of the game ticked away, there was a loud cheer, and people emptied out onto 17th Ave. This is when I was confronted with some of the most fanatical behaviour I’ve seen in hockey fans. This wasn’t a critical game. It was a quarter-final. It wasn’t even game seven in the series. But the street was lined with cheering fans, and for at least two hours, cars drove up and down, people hanging out of doors, windows, and sunroofs, all cheering, yelling, screaming, waving flags, and carrying on like we’d just won the Stanley Cup.

Last night was a pivotal game — Calgary could move on to the next series by taking Detroit (reported to be the NHL’s toughest team) out of the picture. So naturally, we wanted in on the party. The plan was to go back to Classic Jack’s and do a (more or less) repeat of Saturday afternoon.

Too bad that the management of Classic Jack’s seem to be complete morons. When Tamara got there to try and arrange for a table, the formerly “first-come, first-serve” policy (as verified by phone earlier in the day) was thrown aside for “VIP-only” access. Yet there was no information (or warning) about that, nor was there any way to even find out how to be a VIP. It appears that Classic Jack’s is far more interested in pissing off customers in favour of … who knows what? Tamara’s inquiries to the effect of that information were met with attitude more akin to a snotty New York club than a lower-class Calgary watering hole. Needless to say, we won’t be returning there again. Ever.

We ended up at Boston Pizza. Not my first choice in places to go (I wanted to hit Melrose, which is where the party always seems to end up), but we got a good-sized table. We had time to kill before the game started, which was plenty of time to finish reading a book on the Trans-Siberian Railway. (I can hear your curiousity piquing. More information will be coming on that, later.)

The book is significant because of what happened next. So here I am, in a pizza-restaurant’s lounge along 17th Ave. in Calgary, waiting to watch game six of the Western Conference Semi-Finals, when who should come along but Jodie (Rose’s cousin), a resident of Australia who’s leaving Canada tomorrow for home, who will be riding the Trans-Siberian Railway two months from now. What are the odds of something like that happening? Either way, made for good conversation.

Anyway, onto the game.

I’ve seen a fair few hockey games in recent years, and even with the Hitmen’s division victory of 2001 and plenty of great Olympic hockey, I haven’t seen a game as intense as the one last night. Both teams entered the rink like class five hurricanes, thoroughly determined to crush the other. For the Flames, it was the goal of making to the next round of playoffs; for the Red Wings, it was just staying alive.

To that point, the hockey was solid right from the beginning. My single biggest complaints of Calgary as of late have been their inability to pass well and their unwillingness to confront Detroit directly. Neither complaint was uttered last night, as Calgary returned the favour done to them several times by Detroit, and became a monkey on the back of the Red Wings.

The TV regularly panned around to the audience at the Saddledome when play was temporarily halted. Over the last couple of weeks, home games have been turning more and more … red. Last night’s game was a sea of crimson, a result of an NHL record — the most number of team jerseys sold. Almost everyone in the audience was wearing a jersey. Those who arrived without them felt compelled to buy one just to fit in. The effect, I can only imagine, must be intimidating for visiting teams.

Kiprusoff fended off 38 shots on goal. He was undoubtedly aided by a guardian angel, as there were at least two or three shots that, really, should have gone in but somehow didn’t. Those were enough to drop the air pressure around Calgary by a few kilopascals as people inhaled deeply at the mere thought of a near goal.

Scoreless at the end of regulation play, we entered into the dreaded overtime. I hate overtime. I hate it because the game is about who gets the first goal, and nothing else. No chance to make up for it. Overtime is your best friend and worst enemy. The pressure is considerably worse, and everyone expends their last bits of energy — as if the frenetic plays of the previous three periods weren’t enough!

In the end, it came down to a deflected shot, popped in by Gelinas to win the game. Calgary’s air pressure probably spiked a few kilopascals as everyone exploded into a unified din of cheering. Within moments, 17th Ave. turned into a cacophony of car horns, whistles, cheers, screams, yells, air horns blats, even firecrackers.

We walked down towards 8th St., heading to the Melrose (where the parties usually spill out onto the sidewalks, if not the streets). By the time we were almost at 7th, the cops had closed down 17th Ave. to cars, and the street was packed with revellers. Tamara and I just watched in amazement. This was a quarter-final victory, and it looked like we’d just won the Superbowl.

Actually, this is one of the strange things about sports — how people get so wrapped up in it. Think about it — you don’t play for the team. You’re not directly involved. Most people have absolutely no direct tie to the teams whatsoever. Yet they get so worked up that people wear the clothes, paint themselves or their cars, will run through the streets doing things they wouldn’t be caught dead doing on any other normal day, all in the name of a group of people who get paid to play a sport they love doing.

It’s a modern version of ancient Roman gladiator sports. Sure, there’s no actual tigers (there are Panthers, Ducks, Bruins, Kings, Devils, among other things) or swords (though the warriors do carry long sticks), and the armour has changed a little, but the overall effect is the same: distraction.

Okay, yes, in Ancient Rome, the distraction was politically geared to placate the populous so they wouldn’t riot or otherwise attempt to overthrow the more tyrannical emperors. While that’s not the goal with organized sports such as NHL Hockey (at least, I hope not), it has a similar effect: people tend to be happy because they find a way to identify with a group of people who do battle against another group of people. You can’t tell me that people don’t react to the fighting…

Now in a sense of strange irony, the result of a particularly important win is more likely to bring on a riot, rather than squelch it. While Calgary has not yet befallen this particular outcome, many other cities (including Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver) have had their joyous occasions turned sour due to a few bad eggs who decide that something needs to be broken.

Is ice hockey little more than a collection of gladiators on ice with better padding? Maybe. The analogy isn’t quite exact, even if the effect might be similar. Last night was a perfect example of how a usually quiet little city (not counting the Stampede, that is) can get very excited about events that would not be quite so meaningful in other metropolitan centres.

This might not have been the Stanley Cup, but it’s looking a lot closer.

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