- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2004

CALGARY, Alberta — All of Canada has been consumed by Flames, and the national obsession with Calgary’s overachieving hockey team is about to spread.

The sixth-seeded Calgary Flames advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals on Wednesday night, winning the Western Conference championship in six games over the San Jose Sharks. From the 17th Avenue entertainment district to the streets around the Saddledome, fans partied until dawn, which arrives early in Alberta.

After missing the playoffs in each of the previous seven seasons, the Flames will open the final round Tuesday. It’s not quite a worst-to-first transformation — Calgary finished 12th in the conference last spring — but it’s more than the Flames or their fans ever imagined.

“I can honestly say I hoped we’d be here, but I didn’t expect it,” said Craig Conroy, who centers the Flames’ dangerous top line. “It’s just more than anybody expected. We’re appreciating every moment of this.”

Despite the festive atmosphere in the Saddledome after the clinching win, the Flames aren’t doing much celebrating yet. Thanks to a charismatic captain, a humble roster and a coach who won’t tolerate individual aggrandizement, they haven’t lost their focus or their appreciation for their humble roots in this hockey-crazed community.

Just look at captain Jarome Iginla, who stayed late at the Saddledome following Game6, chatting for two hours with fans after the Flames finished off another opponent of higher regard and higher expectations.

“They don’t get enough credit for how great a hockey city this is,” said Iginla, who grew up in Edmonton rooting for the archrival Oilers. “Easily, easily one of the best in the NHL, if not the best. You look around the league when other teams went through tough times and they were out of the playoffs. We were still getting 14,000 or 15,000 fans.”

Game 6 was a celebration of that commitment. The Flames had won just three of their first eight home games in the postseason, but they took an early lead and hung on against San Jose’s blistering third-period attack.

Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, whose arrival in a November trade with the Sharks transformed the season, did most of the work and got most of the credit. But the fans cheered every blocked shot, every save and every iced puck as Calgary clung to its lead.

They cheered when coach Darryl Sutter appeared on the overhead scoreboard, and they cheered when mascot Harvey the Hound banged a drum to start a chant of “Go Flames Go!” When the game ended, the Saddledome shook with noise.

“This is really for the fans,” defenseman Steve Montador said. “We know what they’ve been through up here, and they never let us down.”

The city grinds to a halt during playoff games, and everybody in town seems to own something with the flaming “C” logo. Radio stations have written several song parodies honoring the team, and they all seem to be in heavy rotation, rivaling Usher or Maroon5 on the local airwaves. There’s a wildly popular version of 50 Cent’s hit “In Da Club” called “In the Dome”: “You can find me in the Dome, chillin’ with Jarome/Got my eye on the Cup, baby, we gon’ bring it home.”

With their first conference title in 15 years, the Flames are the first Canadian club in the finals since Vancouver in 1994. A Canadian champion hasn’t reigned over the NHL since Montreal won the Cup in 1993, Canada’s longest previous drought in league history was a mere five seasons.

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