During a recent appearance on Nations Radio, Lowtide asked me if the Flames fanbase would embrace a rebuild should the organization choose to go that route in the near future. My answer was a cowardly "it depends" with some caveats applied. Upon reflection I’ve decided to expand on that answer here, because I think it’s a question that will rapidly become more relevant – and more divisive – as the Flames travel further down the "post-Darryl" path.
The Flames wondered the desert for nearly a decade, starting in the late-90’s when the Canadian dollar mimicked the peso and the execrable "young guns" era. The franchise could only promote hope, albeit dimly, back during a time when Todd Simpson was the team’s captain. "Hope", of course, being more marketing term than actual sentiment amongst Flames fans.
The Young Guns was the dark ages for this team. Established stars fled or shied away in droves. HIgh-end prospects faltered. Rare, expensive UFA signings turned out to be busts. The Flames became a punchline league-wide for a time; a sort of low-budget, B-grade comedy where only the brothers of stars, fading stars, and guys whose names kinda sounded like stars would bother to slum for a paycheck. "The Calgary Flames! Starring….Valerie Bure! Rob Neidermayer! Marty McInnis! Andrew Cassels! And Zarley Zalapski!"
Shudder. It was ugly. There was really no apparent rainbow on the horizon for the long-suffering amongst us back then. People gave their season tickets away, when they could. Hopelessness and cynicism hung on the club like a drab fog.
It’s this seemingly unending terribleness that older fans no doubt recall when the word "rebuild" gets thrown around. Victims of the Young Guns know all too well the promises that come with stripping a team to it’s foundations hold no guarantees. Your 6th overall draft pick might just become Rico Fata. Or Daniel Tkaczuk. Maybe you’ll pick Oleg Saprikyn 9th overall and then Brent Krahn 11th. Meantime, being lack of success can mark the organization with a scarlett letter, warding off worthwhile free agents. Suddenly, the way out of your self-dug hole seems beyond your grasp…
This is no doubt what the organization itself fears when it comes to blowing things up. From a business perspective, being consistently competitive is far more palatable than dynamiting things and hoping you can cobble it all back together from the wreckage. The risks of going full rebuild are large and apparent, which is why I’ve said on numerous occasions that teams almost never pull the plug voluntarily. Rebuilds start when they have to and never before that.
There’s the other side of equation, of course. Calgary is probably closer to Detroit than they are to Edmonton right now in terms skill level and competitiveness. Unfortunately, those last few inches between the Red Wings and the Flames might as well be miles..
The Flames have exhausted all efforts to escape the NHL’s growing middle class since the lock-out, trying desperately to leverage the peak years of Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr and Miikka Kiprusoff, without success. "Solidly middling!" is the hypothetical critical reception of Darryl Sutter’s tenure – consistently able to beat up the lesser lights, never good enough to challenge the heavy weights. And now fans no doubt see the bright future promised by the 2003-04 cup run inexorably fading, the final step between their team and the venerated elite class of the league becoming insurmountable as their core stars age.
As such, a different kind of hopelessness grips the modern Flame fan relative to those in the late-’90’s: the possibility of a never-ending cycle of mid-range finishes, mid-range draft picks and scrambles to make the post-season just to "see what happens". A gray, perpetual purgatory where ultimate success if denied but tantalizingly close enough to avoid sweeping away the vestiges of failed dreams to start anew.
As a result, the chilling spectre of yesteryear wars with the growing frustration of a vain pursuit. It’s traumatic memories versus a wild goose chase in the minds of many I imagine. I suspect the conflict will resolve itself as a matter of course one way or the other over the next few seasons, but the debate is going to be a hot one in the interim.