- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — The Stanley Cup Finals that begin here tonight would seem to have everything a fan could want: two hungry teams that play an appealing style of hockey, stars that are humble and likeable and an underdog team carrying the hopes of an entire nation.

And yet, there is a major question dogging this series between the small-market, low-budget Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning: Will anyone outside of Canada and this part of Florida know what they’re missing if these finals turn out to be as exciting as expected?

“Likewise, I am sure,” Flames general manager/coach Darryl Sutter snapped yesterday when asked about his team being unknown in Tampa.

The Flames have a feel-good story in MVP candidate Jarome Iginla, a prolific scorer who has endured the many recent bad years in Calgary. The Lightning counter with captain Dave Andreychuk, who has played more games without winning a Cup than any active player.

But there will be more fresh appeal to this series than just a few warm and fuzzy stories.

“I don’t know if these teams from smaller markets without the big, sexy names will attract any new fans,” Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said. “But if you’re a hockey fan, you have to be licking your chops over two teams opening it up instead of boring everybody to death.”

The targets of Feaster’s scorn — the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche, who have dominated recent seasons — have long hit the golf courses. Gone, too, is the numbing defensive trap that has bogged down the finals for most of the past decade.

In its place is something different.

The Flames are the first Canadian team to reach the finals in 10 years, a fact that has jacked up the fanaticism in hockey-mad Calgary.

In football-mad Tampa, interest in the NHL has soared with the temperature. The city suddenly has taken to heart the Lightning, who before last year had made the playoffs just once in their first nine seasons.

“I remember when we were losing 50 games a year and couldn’t put 10,000 people in the building,” Feaster said. “So after Game 7 [of the Eastern Conference finals] I stood there and soaked it in with 22,000 people going wild. I don’t know about being an example to the rest of the league, but you have two organizations in smaller markets that have smaller revenue streams. It makes you focus. You can’t afford to make mistakes.

“We need to make it work responsibly, so we try to draft well, be patient with those kids and identify the core guys that we want to keep. I’m proud that we have grown together and have stabilized. Playing under one coaching staff, one philosophy makes a difference.”

Sutter agreed small-market teams have a slim margin of error. He said he did 16 or 17 contracts last summer with the idea “that we need a new [labor] system going forward.” Sutter, who previously helped build the San Jose Sharks into contenders, quickly molded the Flames into a hard-hitting team that mirrors his no-nonsense style.

“Darryl is very focused,” veteran left wing Martin Gelinas said. “You can’t take a day off. Doesn’t matter if it’s [Iginla]. If you’re not playing well, he’s going to let you know, and if you keep not playing well, you’re going to be benched.”

The Flames’ success in the 1980s — they were in the finals in 1986 and won the Cup in 1989 — seemingly was destined never to be repeated: They failed to reach the playoffs for seven straight years until this, Sutter’s first full season.

But the Flames upset the Vancouver Canucks, Red Wings and Sharks to reach the finals, and they can set a playoff record by knocking off a fourth division champion in Tampa Bay.

Even more than the Lightning, the Flames are a little team that could.

“We don’t have the most superstars, the best defensemen, all the high payroll guys, but we have heart and we can work,” Flames center Craig Conroy said.

Calgary ranked third in defense and Tampa Bay third in offense, but both sides think the teams aren’t that different.

“We feel defense starts when you don’t have the puck,” Lightning coach John Tortorella said. “Why wait to get back in your end or the neutral zone? Why not go get it now? I’ve always liked pressing, forechecking. It’s the best way for us to win, and it’s a fun way to play. …

“I think it will be a heck of a series with both teams pushing it up the ice. It’s good to get some new blood in here. It’s terrific to have two teams that deserve to be here in the way they’ve done it.”

For Iginla, the only member of the Flames to endure all seven seasons without a playoff appearance, this year has been wonderful.

“It was very tough when they committed to rebuilding, and [it took] longer than we thought,” said Iginla, the only NHL player to score more than 50 goals in any of the last three seasons. “But it’s been worth it. I wouldn’t change a thing. I have always enjoyed playing in Calgary.

“I wanted to be here when we turned the corner. I’m very thankful that the organization has kept me around. It’s been an unbelievable ride.”

And the Flames have millions of extra passengers along for the trip.

“People from Vancouver and Montreal are phoning me,” Quebec native and former Canuck Gelinas said. “The entire Canada is behind the Flames, which is exciting. This series is pretty special.”

Considering a lockout is expected to occur in September and there might not even be a finals next season, pretty special would be sweet.

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