The Calgary Flames will launch the ”Forever A Flame” program on February 27th with a boom as they kick things off with Al MacInnis as its first inductee. The program marks the beginning of the long overdue process of former Flames being paid their due respect by the organization. Fitting since most of the booms historically heard in the Dome, came off the stick of the man we all knew as “Chopper”.
On the surface, the program cloud be nothing short of spectacular. However, marketing the program has gotten off to a shaky start and the direction and management of it has me as worried as the structure of the current team. What on earth could possibly be construed as a negative aspect of honouring former players? Well that’s just it, there is an apparent disconnect already on how the team is actually honouring these players.
… is to extend the upmost distinctions to the players that have demonstrated an equal dedication to the City and the organization when they donned the Flaming “C”. Such honour has so far only been extended to Lanny McDonald’s #9 (in 1990) and seventeen years later, Mike Vernon’s #30 (2007). The Flames as an organization, and Ken King, have admitted that they have been absent in their responsibilities to some players that are still waiting to receive this acknowledgement. The “Forever A Flame” program is their initiative to correct these oversights and beginning with Al MacInnis is an attempt to right a wrong that is long overdue.
“We think (MacInnis) is the very best person on a long list of people we want to recognize. We wanted to begin a Calgary Flames way.”
– Ken King
I want to start off by saying that I think it’s great the Flames organization is doing this and that I agree with Mr. King that it is long overdue. However, what concerns me is the criteria that governs this program going forward. The term that is being emphasized in this process is “honouring”, and it is very suitable; the whole idea behind the program is honour. As it seems right now, the plan going forward will be to recognize past Flames players as honourees, but not limit future stars from perhaps wearing the same number if it’s deemed warranted by the franchise.
This is where I start to get concerned. Does this mean that the Flames will not ever officially “retire” another jersey number? And if so, what does that mean to the only two numbers that have been retired? Are they to be unretired and then “honoured”? I can’t for the life of me imagine that the organization would ever even imagine doing this as it would most certainly be viewed of nothing less than a slap in the face to both Vernon and McDonald. But then, what does it mean for future stars that earn the distinction? Where do they slot in as far as having their jersey honoured or retired? The best I can figure is that the “Forever A Flame” program is going to give Calgary the flexibility, or a loop hole if you will, to be able to pay tribute to multiple players without getting into the mess of conflicting numbers. In that respect, Vernon and McDonald are already safe from scrutiny, but there are a number of potential conflicts that will arise, and I think this new program will give King and the owners a way to save their integrity and still save face with the fans.
THE POTENTIAL CONFLICTS
Let’s start with some jerseys that for many fans are considered obvious but that the Calgary Flames may not be in any rush to lift into the rafters of the Saddledome.
#25 – Joe Nieuwendyk: I don’t perceive any conflict with the likes of Eric Vail or Willie Plett, or even current Flame, David Moss; rather the problem here is the strained relationship between Joe and the Flames organization. There is no doubting the merit of Nieuwy, and if it was based on merit alone then I would have no quarrel with seeing #25 go up into the rafters. However, the manner in which Joe left the Flames is a problem. In 1995, after playing eight years in Calgary, Nieuwendyk walked out on the Flames over a contract dispute; Calgary was forced to trade their franchise player with a gun held to their head. The return on Niewy turned out to be a home run in Jarome Iginla, and while that end result may have softened the hurt feelings of the fans from 1995, it may be a case of forgive but not necessarily forget for the organization. By honouring #25 in the future and not retiring it, I believe the fans are getting what they want without the team giving what they may feel is undue credit.
#14 – Theoren Fleury: If you are a strong advocate for Nieuwendyk having his jersey retired, then believe it or not, it might have been Theo’s fault it hasn’t been, or ever will, get done. It follows a certain logic that if the Flames had retired #25, then #14 would have to follow suit. Theo broke Joe’s record for all-time scoring leader as a Flame and he did it will far less support than Nieuwendyk had. When Calgary had Theo as the franchise player, Joe was winning the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe with Dallas, Gary Roberts only played 35 games in what was his final year with the Flames (1995-96), Sergei Makarov was long gone, and Jarome Iginla was a rookie that didn’t even join the team until the playoffs where he only played two games.
So how exactly did Theo spoil a jersey retirement ceremony not only for himself, but also Nieuwendyk? One again we have to look beyond the merits of the player on the ice. Fleury was always a fan favourite from day one and has always maintained a connection to the fans of Calgary no matter where he played and for what team. It’s no surprise that when the question arises as to who should be the next number to be retired by the Flames, Theo’s name is emphatically endorsed by the people. However, once again the team might have a different outlook on approving such honour. When Theo was signed by the New York Rangers, he ripped the Flames organization claiming that he was under appreciated – not by the fans but by the ownership. That’s a pretty big bridge to burn.
You probably also have to consider that as Iginla approached breaking Theo’s record, Fleury wasn’t exactly supportive. Instead he made comments like the game is easier now for players and the rules were changed to protect franchise players like Iginla. He went on to even boast that if was able to play under these protectionist rules, that no one would have broken his records. That would be strike two: you don’t go out of your way to discount the face of the franchise just because he is about to break your record.
Strike three would have to be when the Flames took Fleury’s attempt at an NHL comeback to heart. They signed him to a training camp contract with no special criteria or expectations; if he made the team, great. If not, both parties would part ways with no ill will. When the latter took place, Theo ripped the Flames again for not giving him a fair shot and that they were stupid for playing players like Craig Conroy (yes, he actually called out Conroy specifically), when he could score more goals than them anytime. While fans erupted that Theo wasn’t once again back in a Flames jersey and it will be hard to ever forget Theo scoring the shootout winner in his first pre-season game, the ownership group might just see him in a different light and not want to be reminded of it every time they look to the rafters.
The “Forever A Flame” program might give the fans what they want, Theo’s name and the number 14 recognized. The fact that he will be honoured and not retired might also allow for the ownership to get the final word as well.
It is entirely possible to see the Flames also put up #14 for Kent Nilsson. After all, he was the original “Magic Man”. Having him up there might just be a message from the Owners to Fleury – you may have been great, but you weren’t the only one.
The Flames have the solution save for one small *error in the program. In the words of Ken King himself..
“The number retirement system works for some teams as their tradition, but there is no longer a universal tradition for honouring players,” King said. “This is a high, high honour not second to anything. We will have many more facets than this. It’s the beginning of a new tradition, and we need to be bold and brave enough to do it for all of the good reasons we have. There can’t be a downside to honouring a player we think so much of.”
This program is tailor made to circumvent any hard feelings over the decision to include some players, while excluding others. It can make the organization look good and appease the fans at the same time. It affords them the luxury to pay tribute to players that may deserve it but not to the extent where they have to say, “no other player will ever wear this number because of him.” Let’s take as an example, the two current faces of this team.
#34: There is wide support to see Miikka Kiprusoff number retired, and I can’t argue with it. Kipper has broken all the records set by Mike Vernon so it only makes sense that someday his name sits beside Mike’s in the Dome. But under the “Forever A Flame” program, the team might also have the ability to honour Jamie Macoun, a player that was very much a key part of this franchise and a name that is praised by the likes of Al MacInnis, your first inductee.
#12: Along with Miikka, there is no disputing that once Jarome Iginla is done with the number twelve, no one should ever even attempt to wear it again. He is the captain, the all time leading scorer, the face of the franchise and an icon in the city. There is no question that Iggy will have his jersey retired, but again under this new initiative, the Calgary Flames could honour a player like Hakan Loob. He may not have been with the team long enough to warrant retirement, but he does deserve distinction. A key part in the Flames winning the Stanley Cup in ’89, the only Swedish born player to score 50 goals in the NHL and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Not many fans would complain about that honour.
Don’t start off such a great program by making a mistake on your first inductee. Keep your options open on future possible conflicts, but there is just no logical argument that prevents the organization from a full out retirement of Al MacInnis’ #2. There is no one before or after that is even in the same class as Chopper, so there shouldn’t be an issue. It doesn’t seem right that St. Louis had no hesitation in their decision, yet MacInnis played 190 more games for the Flames and won both his Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe trophies with Calgary. Mr. King, you said you need to be “bold and brave enough to do it for all the good reasons we have.” So do this for the best reason, because it’s just the right thing to do.