Who Are The Calgary Flames?



Oh, hey guys, it’s me, The Book of Loob.  BoL.  Loober.  Nancy.  If you’re at all familiar with my work, you know that when it comes to things like Corsi, PDO, Zone starts, QualComp and the like, I’ve almost learned what some of them are.  So while the Kents and the Azevedos of the world will give you fancy numbers as to why Anton Babchuk is not a very good player, I’m just going to say he is just the absolute worst and it’s probably because his mother didn’t love him enough.  Or because he has a debilitating addiction to Beanie Babies that garners all his attention away from learning how to position himself in his own end.

(I have no proof of either of those claims, but I’m still saying they’re true, and you can take that to the bank)

These 100% verifiable facts and more are the next level fluff I bring to the table here at The Nation, and is the basis for what we’ll be talking about here today.  So gather round, children, and let your ol’ Gampy tell you a tale!  This potboiler is called "Your Calgary Flames And The Quest To Remember".  It’s a giddy romp featuring a beskated pack of scamps, intrepid young men (er…young?) who toil day and night, I guess, atop a frozen surface when their corporate overlords deem it to be acceptable through the terms laid out by a needlessly complicated Collective Bargaining Agreement. Armed with nothing but hockey sticks, pucks, pads, helmets, skates, shin pads, a mile of tape, agents, and millions of dollars, the Flames set out to remember their identity, the id of their hockey team, or, failing that, forge a shiny new one.

It will be riveting.

Who They Were

There are a variety of reasons as to why NHL caliber hockey players are allowed to ply their trade up in The Show. They get drafted, signed, or traded for, because they have appreciable skills that teams deem important to their success.  These skills are imprecise and differ from player to player.  Sidney Crosby and Craig Adams are on the Pittsburgh Penguins for very different reasons. Tommy Wingels does not have the same expectations placed upon him by the San Jose Sharks as does Joe Thornton.  These realities are understandably reflected in the contracts for these respective players. The goal scorers, the "game breakers" will always sign the big money contracts that owners are currently crying about and is the reason why we won’t have hockey for a few more months.

But it’s obvious that these players are all pieces of a bigger thing, The Team, a collective that takes on a life of it’s own.  In the immortal words of Sammy Hagar and Van Halen – a band truly as terrible as the analogy I’m making here – "It’s alive, and it’s kickin’"

Which is to say that, every player, with every strength and weakness, contributes to their team, and every part of that affects just what that team as an organism is. Some clubs have a larger than average crop of speedsters, so their style of play is based on speed. Others have top notch defensive players, and employ a suffocating defensive style to eke out wins. It goes on and on. Specific players have tangible proficiencies that don’t necessarily translate to better odds of winning games, but are nonetheless important to a franchise. They’re the kind of talents or characteristics that bring fans to the games (and make no mistake, a well developed and unique fanbase certainly attaches itself to a team’s bravado), makes money, and dictates a style of hockey that distincts itself from it’s opponents.

It’s not always talents that dictate this. French Canadian players will always be important to the Montreal Canadiens. They’re a team that’s synonymous with Francophones, and have a deeply forged relationship with the culture, and the idea of Quebec nationalism itself. 

It’s so deep it’s a political matter. 

Which is ridiculous, but it’s the way it is. It’s started riots. Bob Probert is still loved and revered in Detroit, because he represented something that the Joe Louis locals felt resonated within themselves. Here was this blue collar pugilist that had to work hard for his ice time and do the dirty things to protect his star teammates. If Steve Yzerman was a Ford Mustang, Probert was an F-250 (do you get it?  People in Detroit like their Fords). He was never the guy on the ice when you were trailing by a goal late in the game. He’ll never be a Hall of Famer or have his jersey in the rafters, but win or lose, he was important to the Red Wings.  

The point is, teams have identities, and it absolutely dictates the way it plays the game. I’m a firm believer that the reason why the Flames have floundered in recent years can be directly traced to who they think they’re supposed to be. For a long time, the Flames roster has been built to reflect the region they play in, the fabled New West.

Calgary is Cowtown, home of the rough and tumble cowboys and roughnecks, who are up early, work long hours in treachery, and don’t go in for those fancy things like lattes or hybrid cars or this internet thing we all hear so much about these days*.  

*(Obviously this only defines a portion of the population around here, and it’s arguably far too rigid to group people into such concrete boxes, but right or wrong it’s the prevailing stigma revolving around our fair city at the moment)  

Because of this, the Flames have perennially managed to stock their shelves with any kind of behemoth, corn fed Prairie farmboy on skates they can find. Call it Cory Sarich hockey.

For awhile, this was effective. Size mattered. Calgary became a team that was so hard to play against because they were so big and strong, worked hard in the corners, would hold onto youcand never let you go. The image of Robyn Regehr perpetually making Ales Hemsky a part of the endboards became a strong metaphor for Flames hockey (and a hilariously accurate one for the Oilers).  

But then there was that whole lockout thing, and when the dust settled on that miserable debacle, the game of hockey had evolved. It got younger, it got faster. It was far more mobile. The Flames, however, became older, more stubborn, and refused to evolve, and the game began to pass them by. The boys in the Flaming C were performing as goofy and out of place as then General Manager Darryl Sutter looked.  

Over time, the gap between the Flames and the rest of the league widened so considerably that we now sit in this dysfunctional era where the team has missed the playoffs for three straight seasons, failed to escape the first round in the four campaigns prior to that, and look to be generally screwed for at least a few more years due to some pretty hearty mismanagement along the way.

Who Are They?

This season, or half season, or whatever this is going to be finds the Flames caught in a crossroads. Jay Feaster has done his part to try and abandon the old Flames identity. I’m no Feaster habitué by any stretch, but I do find this strategy admirable. If it doesn’t work, sweet merciful Håkan, change it up. Drafting players out of non traditional Flames locales like the NCAA and USHL (and wherever the hell it was that Mark Jankowski came from), while more or less ignoring the tried and true WHL defenseman route signifies that a new brand of Flames hockey is coming our way.  

Going out and signing Czech slickster Roman Cervanka, seen by many as a coup by the team to win his rights, is extremely unorthodox for this franchise in this post lockout era. The future of this team looks to be in the hands of Sven Baertschi, and who would have ever predicted that to be the case as little as five years ago? Certainly it looks like the future of this team could be more focused towards skill and offense, and also, if what John Wiesbrod has to say has any merit to it, players that think the game smarter. Quite a concept.

However, it may come at a price. As it stands, this team is currently a mish mash of the old guard and this newer brand, and there’s sure to be a real tug-o-war to find out just who they are as a unit. There was no real reason to re-sign Cory Sarich, and yet they did. For more money than he’s worth, which more or less dictates that he’s going to play. Bob Hartley is as much the Brent Sutter/Mike Keenan style coach that he’s replacing. Matt Stajan’s abomniable contract was never even considered for buyout purposes. Nor was Anton Babchuk’s. Players like Jay Bouwmeester and Mikael Backlund are still perceived to be liabilities, and it doesn’t seem like there’s any real effort to foster their very real skills into roles that will help this team win in the long run. Instead, they constantly remain as trade fodder in the media, an asinine notion given that they both serve in positions where the Flames can’t afford to downgrade.

Who Cares?

No, Andy Sutton, I’m not an expert. I have no idea how this whole thing is going to shake out. One benefit from this inevitable lockout is that it should give the Flames a clean slate to stake out a new identity, something they never took advantage of in the previous work stoppage.  

I hope they smarten up and take advantage of it. If this new post lockout NHL ushers in an exciting new breed of hockey that the last one did, the Flames HAVE to have the foresight to adapt to it this time if they ever want to succeed at this whole hockey thing. I think they can do it. Certainly a lot of their recent transactions can be classified as high risk, high reward (or if you’re one of those cynical pundits I just love SOOO much, just high risk). And while it may not come to fruition immediately, a smarter, more skilled identity for your Calgary Flames should be something we all encourage, and look of it as a long term goal. The Roman Cervankas of the world are merely a starting off point to a greater good.  

So when we’re finally allowed to do so, let’s all go pack the Dome with our boisterous young selves and help foster in this new era of Flamesitude (It’s a word now, chumps!). This IS important. Because while on paper it makes sense to boycott a team that is underperforming due to a tired old system, the reality is when you stop going to games as a protest, teams leave town. I know what I’m talking about. I was, and still am, a lifelong Montreal Expos fan, and nothing is more painful than watching a very exciting Washington Nationals team challenge for a pennant.  

As a fanbase, we do have a louder voice than we think regarding all of this. Maybe it’s time we demand a new Calgary Flames, lest we become a new Montreal Expos. I have no idea how to do this, I just want people to go to games and drink heroin beer and be loud and all that.

Okay, so that’s that. This is what I do. There are no charts, and I’ve laced this entry with enough narrative to make Azevedo Hulk out and choke on his breakfast. Mark my words, this will be my legacy.  

GO FLAMES GO! (you know, eventually)

  • I’ll say I don’t reallt fear the Flames leaving town (unless the Canadian dollar slides to $0.65 American again). The market isn’t one of the biggest in the league, but it’s one of the strongest nonetheless.

  • loudogYYC

    Good article! Totally not Flames Nation fashion, but a little change is a good thing.

    Regarding fans revolting, the Flames have huge corporate support, a downtown location, no other major sports team and a pretty affluent fan base so I’m pretty sure the majority of seats will be full next season.

    I’m on the revolting side though. I went from 26 home games in 2010/11 to 4 games in 2011/12 and all 4 were gifted to me. I got tired of drinking and yelling my ass off in the stands just to watch Brent Sutter resorting to the 4th line on a powerplay cuz the first 3 lines couldn’t care enough.

    The identity right now is nonexistent and I think players, coaches, management and ownership are all at fault.

    I’m also an admirer of this new direction Feaster and Weisbrod are aiming at. I’m not sold on it yet, but I hope ownership gives them a fair chance just like they gave dumbass Dinosaur Sutter when he was named GM.

  • The Flames finances are benefiting from the dollar, which allows the team to spend a lot AND gives a lot of Canadian companies confidence to pump money into the Flames via sponsorships. (Tim Hortons, etc.)

    Who knows what’ll happen if oil prices go down.

  • On the real topic at hand, tam’s usually build their identity around whatever it is they do really well. The Flames are facing this sort of identity crisis because the team currently doesn’t do anything particularly well. Not well enough to structure a strategy around that is. The club can’t hand with the best offensive teams in the league, nor the best defensive. They can’t build around a 36-year goalie or 35-year old sniper. They have other, functional pieces, but no obvious fulcrum or focal point around which the club can create a winning strategy/persona.

    Welcome to our existential crisis!

  • Yup, that’s it in a nutshell. I think their idea is to start acquiring these “smarter” players Wiesbrod talks about, and that’s a pretty good start.

    That was an underrated facet of who the Detroit Red Wings were for so long. Yeah, all of those guys had a lot of skill, but they were always really smart with the puck. A guy like Federov never got enough credit for the things he would do when he didn’t have the puck.

    • Im encouraged by the shift in focus as well, although Im really curious as to how the team is evaluating things like hockey IQ. It seems like something that is easy to *see* in players, but there’s definitely a question of how accurate those sorts of observations are and how well the persist in the future.

      That caveat applied, weighting smarts and skill a little heavier is not a bad thing.

    • RexLibris

      Exactly. Evaluating hockey IQ only works if the guys doing the evaluating have any sense themselves.

      Your sentence about the Flames not screwing up the team after this coming lockout reminded me of the old bumper stickers, amended to fit, “lord, send me another lockout and I promise I won’t waste it on re-signing Sarich”.

      • It’s actually beyond that Rex. Humans tend to be fairly lousy at making global evaluations of other humans that accurately predict success/failure in the future. Particularly when the evaluators in question are using fuzzy, intuition/feeling based methods. Even when the activity is as bounded as hockey and even if the people in question are all experts.

        You can somewhat limit errors by codifying evaluation methods/scores and measuring their success/failure rate, so perhaps that’s what they’re doing.

        • RexLibris

          I’m not against the whole idea of picking players based on hockey IQ. In fact the players I’ve always cheered for have been the ones that had to accomplish more with their effort and intelligence than the brute force and innate skill ones.

          But as you’ve said, codifying particulars helps and gives some quantifiable data. I’m just not certain how you would quantify something like that. My own aversion to the faith put in IQ numbers forces me to question how it can adequately done in a sporting context.

          The aspects that I can think of would generally fall in between the measurable and contextual. In other words, was the player where he needed to be to make a play succeed and did he do it proactively or reactively? Does the player activate the other teammates in a play, be it offensive or defensive, such that he is making use of the strengths and weaknesses of his teammates accordingly?

          Words like proactive, collaborative, anticipatory, and efficient are all things that come to mind when trying to map out how I might evaluate a prospect’s intelligence for the game.

          Not quite standardized testing, but it is an interesting area to explore. And much like any kind of testing, it is often only as reliable as the skill of the person delivering it.

  • beloch

    You make a good point about how there seems to be a clash of hockey styles brewing. I don’t know if there’s enough speed and skill on the team to really challenge the old grinders yet, but it does seem inevitable “one of these seasons”.

    Even the old-guard aren’t particularly well-suited to the Sutter defense-first style of hockey they’ve been playing. In the seasons when the team has loosened up their system and traded more shots for more shots they actually seemed to do better (aside from Kipper). They’ve certainly been more fun to watch when playing a high-event system. Hopefully Hartley’s talk about playing offensive “fun to watch” hockey means they’ll use a defensive system that doesn’t completely stifle the team’s offense this season.

    One thing I have to disagree with you on is your seeming acceptance of the lock-out as inevitable. I’m not saying it won’t happen. I’m saying that, as a hockey journalist (and you are one now!) you shouldn’t meekly accept that there will be one. You should be screaming mad about the prospect of one and, if you have to mention it, you should also point out the greed, obstinacy, and idiocy of everyone concerned. I say this because I think the lock-out is a reprehensible thing and fans should be encouraged to be as hostile to the notion as possible purely on general principle. If all the newspaper writers and bloggers instead say, “Yeah, there’s a lockout and we should probably just accept it” then that reduces the pressure on Fehr and Bettman to pucking hug it out and hammer out a deal! If you want hockey sooner rather than later, keep as much pressure on those guys as you can!

  • Tenbrucelees

    Nice article Loob. Refreshing to read something which isn’t focused on how terrible Ignla is perceived to be as the vogue appears to dictate.

    I think the fact that this is a transitional time pretty much dictates that the their identity is also in flux. I’m happy to see how it shakes out. New coach, some new players, some young players coming potentially coming through….it gives me optimism although I realise I’m in the minority in this option.

    Remember, it doesn’t take long for an identity of a team to change. The Kings went through a quick late season metamorphosis last season.

  • Reidja

    Identity identity identity. It is so singular as an interesting existential concept and also a viable hockey conversation. Who am I? Who are you? Who are we? These are such fundamental questions, but they are so hard (some may say impossible) to answer.

    While the question of personal and communal identity is abstract and subjective, the question of hockey identity is not. It can, as you mention, be geographical, physical (as in size and speed), based on various statistics such as PIMs, Goals F/A.

    For the purpose of this blog, to me the conversation is really interesting at the intersection between personal/community identity and hockey identity. On which you have begun the conversation above:

    “Because of this, the Flames have perennially managed to stock their shelves with any kind of behemoth, corn fed Prairie farmboy on skates they can find. Call it Cory Sarich hockey.

    For awhile, this was effective. Size mattered. Calgary became a team that was so hard to play against because they were so big and strong, worked hard in the corners, would hold onto you and never let you go. The image of Robyn Regehr perpetually making Ales Hemsky a part of the endboards became a strong metaphor for Flames hockey (and a hilariously accurate one for the Oilers).”

    Ahh… the old Calgary Flames. What a pinnacle of Sutterized (new)old-time hockey we were witness to in 2004… okay, maybe not the pinnacle of Sutter hockey as it turns out, but the Calgary Flames were possibly the last great clutch-and-grabbers. The Ville Nimi-never-turn-your-back-to-ems, the Corey Sar-you-clutching-that-guy’s-sweather-iches (thanks TFFs). And yes, they took after the identity of their coach – who, as a native Albertan, just happened to take after the identity of the town, before the clock turned over that is…

    “Calgary is Cowtown, home of the rough and tumble cowboys and roughnecks, who are up early, work long hours in treachery, and don’t go in for those fancy things like lattes or hybrid cars or this internet thing we all hear so much about these days.”

    Ahh… the old west. How quaint and simple a picture Canadian’s paint of Calgary (and Alberta). Of course we often blend the colours on their pallets, pose for them, and hold their hands as they paint the brush strokes.

    But as Calgarians know, down came the signs that read “Heart of the New West” a few years ago. Calgary is now post-New West (let alone old west). We are young, we are smart, we are wealthy, we are cosmopolitan. We have changed. As with a hockey team, you can look to the statistics to tell these stories, but there is more to Calgary than statistics. Just ask mayor Nenshi @nenshi, he’ll probably answer you.

    I live in downtown Cowtown, about 2 blocks from the Saddledome, and I believe there is no lack of unwritten poetry in the fact that city council added the arena to the City’s historic resources inventory in 2011. Not just because the building itself is out-of-date (although the architecture is timeless), but because almost everything that goes on under it’s hyperbolic paraboloid is out-of-date.

    Food, drinks, music, clientele, surface lot requirements and, of course, the product. New blood courses through the veins of this city, but doctor… I think we have an arterial blockage somewhere in the fair-ground region.

    But I could expound on this ad nauseum.

    I, like you BoL, take comfort in the new blood Feaster has acquired. Alas, I feel there is substantial clotting still on the payroll (last blood metaphor, eeeww). I will thank Feaster for kicking-off the rebuild when/if the fruits of his labours ripen (not personally though because he will have been sacked by that time…)

    The franchise is reluctantly dragging itself into the present. The present of NHL hockey, the present of fan disenfranchisement, the present of Calgary. I know we will have made it when I’m sipping back a micro-brew under the newly refurbished hyperbolic parabola, listening to something other than Metallica, waiting to watch a young and exciting team try hard to be successful. Just like a good Calgarian.

    For a fantastic read on Calgary’s past, present, and future check out Chris Turner’s article published in The Walrus this past June:


    Now back to work…

  • xis10ce

    Mr Simpson, the boot is one of the oldest and proudest Australian traditions, disparaging the boot is a bootable offense.

    In other words glad to see you as a writter here BoL, I always enjoyed the blog and look forward to more of your articles.

  • SmellOfVictory

    At this point it appears that the man responsible for evaluating hockey IQ for the Flames is the man who’s always talking about it: John Weisbrod. As a Flames fan, it’s still too early to say how good his eye for smarts and talent is. But the thing that is surely apparent to anyone who listens to Weisbrod is that he ain’t Ken King or even Jay Feaster – he’s not mainly a lawyer or a corporate shill: he’s mainly a hockey guy. Pretty smart hockey guy is my initial reaction, but time will tell. I saw Jankowski at camp: along with the skill and the skating, the superior hockey smarts seemed obvious compared to most of the older guys.

    • I think you’re right when it comes to Weisbrod. The guy takes a lot of flack for some alleged mismanagement during his tenure as the Orlando Magic GM, but he was never a basketball guy, he’s absolutely a hockey guy, and I think, at least relative to most of the Flames brass, is a pretty astute judge of talent. He comes across as very methodical to me. That could be all kinds of crap on my part, but it’s the perception that I get.

      I saw Janko at the Development camp too, and I agree, but I’ll caution that we not get TOO excited over what we saw there, it’s nothing like actually playing in the NHL, and it was just a sampling of a couple of hours over a few days. But you’re right, he seems to have most of the tools, just needs to fill out his frame a little bit.