Family Feud: Flames edition?

Thank goodness for the Olympic break as far as the Calgary Flames are concerned. If the chemistry-rattling trades with the Maple Leafs and Rangers weren’t enough to resolve the discord in the dressing room, then surely the two-week cooling-off period for the winter five-ring circus will bring relief to one of the National Hockey League’s most dysfunctional clubs. 

At least, that’s the situation some folks would have you believe. Reading all the stories and listening to all the gossip from somebody who has a cousin who car-pools with someone who is the next-door neighbour of a guy whose nephew has inside connections at the Saddledome, you get the idea nobody likes anyone else in Flamesland. The team’s $7-million forward was challenging the $6.5-million defenceman to after-school fist fights. The coach was hacked off at the players. The players, including captain Jarome Iginla, were mad at pick your least-favourite Sutter. Everyone this side of Jack Bauer’s daughter had a hate on for Dion Phaneuf.

Heck, maybe all the whispers are bang-on. Maybe this Flames squad is (or was) overloaded with prickly personalities that created constant tension. Maybe this is a bunch that even Will Rogers would be hard-pressed to get along with. And maybe the folks who cater Flames meals have chosen not to serve T-bones lest a player be tempted to bury a steak knife between Brent Sutter’s shoulder blades.

Even if everything nasty that’s been said about the (in-)Fighting Flames is the gospel truth, so what? There’s an excellent chance that the chronic losing since Jan. 5 has caused the supposed fussin’ and feudin’ (and all the outside speculation about same) rather than the other way around.

Or to put it another way, if the January/February Flames were plagued by internal anatagonism, how is it that no one noticed how much these guys hated each other when they went 10-2-2 in November?

Again, this is not to suggest that all the innuendo is off-base and that the Flames, to a man, are in reality lovely souls with a penchant for holding hands and singing church hymns straight from the heart during intermissions. The point is that the timing of the flap about the poisonous atmosphere in the Flames’ quarters is awfully suspicious.

Besides, where does all this talk come from in the first place?

Few members of the media spend more time with a hockey club than beat writers. The scribes attend road games which, especially in U.S. cities, provides greater opportunity with one-on-one interaction with players. The reporters sometimes stay at the same hotels as the team and there are still a couple of media contingents in the NHL who travel on team charter flights.

And yet, all that additional exposure to the team gives the writers very little actual insight into the goings-on in the dressing room. If any beefs exist between players and players or between players and coaches, they certainly aren’t going to be aired during the relatively brief time their inner sanctuary is open to infestation by media vermin. NHLers are trained by experts to talk a lot but say little and even the most chatty of players instinctively keeps his emotional distance from the wretches who ask questions and scribble in notebooks.

It’s certainly possible for reporters to have a good working relationship with hockey players but rarely does the scribe truly get to know the person behind the cliches, let alone how cozy that person is with the other cliche-spouters. So imagine then the reporters’ surprise when a radio personality who hasn’t been at the Saddledome since the previous season’s training camp comes on the air and declares with absolute certainty that personality conflicts are responsible for the local team’s ongoing slump. It’d be funny except that when such stories arise, the reporters are saddled with chasing down stories that are pretty much impossible to pin down without the planting of electronic bugs or the administering of sodium pentathol.

It was slightly scandalous during the off-season when Robyn Regehr suggested that the game had passed Mike Keenan by, but please note two things. One, the comments got great play because they were a rare example of a difference of opinion being offered for public consumption. And two, even at that they were delivered after the fact when the coach had already had the can tied to his tail and left town.

Now, all of that aside and without venturing an opinion about its potential effect on the team’s play, is there any visible evidence that the Flames are a dysfunctional lot?

Well, anyone who has seen Darryl Sutter in action during press conferences and media scrums will find it hard to believe that the man is warm and fuzzy when dealing with the paid help. But given the relatively few occasions that a GM interacts with the players, this probably isn’t a big deal.

And there’s no question that the brash Phaneuf — who was a prominent player in many of the stories about the internal strife — wasn’t unanimously and unconditionally loved by his colleagues. During practices, the defenceman had a tendency to yap a lot, to beaver-tail his stick on the ice to demand passes during drills and to just generally act like a ninny. Most ignored his antics but on occasion, a veteran (Tony Amonte, Owen Nolan and Todd Bertuzzi immediately come to mind) would respond with a hard stare, a verbal rebuke, a slash on the calves or some combination of the three. And if that was going on in the open, you’re free to imagine what might have been happening behind closed doors.

But somehow, it’s hard to believe any of that would have mattered had Phaneuf not, in perception at least, deteriorated from Norris Trophy-winner-in-waiting to seriously flawed underachiever in his final couple of seasons with Calgary.