(Steve MacFarlane is a veteran sports writer here in Calgary. Once upon a time he was a fixture at the Sun, but has since moved on to bigger and better things. We’re trying to add Steve to the permanent roster here at FN. For now, we debut his first exclusive piece for us today. Enjoy!)
By Steve MacFarlane
The Youth Movement. It’s about time.
While covering the Flames on the newspaper beat for seven seasons — from lockout to lockout — the team’s biggest problem became more and more evident each year. Too many veterans playing the latter half of their careers. Not nearly enough kids hungry to prove deserving of a spot in the NHL. That much was obvious to everyone.
But it was a subtle side-effect of that lopsided mix of age and experience over youth and exuberance that I’ve always believed really caused the gradual disintegration of the team’s success on the ice: The players’ off-ice chemistry.
By the time the spring of 2004 rolled around, Jarome Iginla was 26. His best friend Craig Conroy was one of the older guys on the team at 32, but as everyone found out during that Cup run is one of the greatest social butterflies the world has ever known. Andrew Ference had just turned 25, Robyn Regehr 24, Rhett Warrener was 28, and their Scandinavian pals Miikka Kiprusoff, Marcus Nilson, Toni Lydman and Ville Nieminen were 27, 26, 26 and 27, respectively.
There was raw youth mixed in with Jordan Leopold (23), Matthew Lombardi (22), Lynn Loyns (23), Chuck Kobasew (22) and Oleg Saprikyn (23).
Some of the young members of that core were married or in serious relationships, but they still made efforts to get together as groups in Calgary. They flocked together on road trips in massive numbers for dinners, drinks or movies. These guys were more than teammates. They were friends. They didn’t want to disappoint each other. They knew they had something special and they wanted to win for each other as much as themselves.
After that unfortunate series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, head coach and general manager Darryl Sutter made the statement his team needed to get older and get faster.
For Everything, There is a Season…
And they indeed got older.
Over-the-hill veteran re-treads like Tony Amonte, Jeff Friesen, Darren McCarty and Bryan Marchment were brought in at the expense of giving the prospects opportunity to show they belonged.
Those dinner, drink and movie groups grew smaller on the road. Good friends got traded away. Even the core group of players that hadn’t changed began to separate. There were more responsibilities than ever at home.
Iginla became a father during the lockout in the fall of 2004. He’s since had two more kids. Regehr and Warrener — two of the more notorious promoters of fun after hours — both married and eventually started families, too. Accountability, over the years, became associated with life outside of hockey as opposed to inside the dressing room and on the ice.
It’s a natural progression. Priorities change, even if it’s subconsciously. You can’t blame players for having kids and growing up, but it’s up to the coaching staff and management team to make sure the chemistry continues by adding the right pieces to the mix.
So if the Flames have now finally realized they need to turn to the young prospects and watch them find their way together, I have higher hopes for the future — at least in terms of the chemistry in the room. With a little luck, that will translate into wins on the ice, too (although the Oilers have shown there are no guarantees there).
Already you can see a difference in the Flames locker-room atmosphere with guys like Max Reinhart, Sven Baertschi and Roman Horak getting a real opportunity to show what they can do. T.J. Brodie is thriving with his additional minutes since Jay Bouwmeester was traded away. The pressure of making the playoffs is gone, but for the kids, there’s still a feeling of expectation. They don’t want to disappoint. The others being shuffled from Abbotsford have to make the best of their opportunity. As does former Penguins prospect Ben Hanowski when his chance arrives this week.
“For us young guys, I think there’s more pressure now than before,” Baertschi told me after their overtime win against the Coyotes. “We’ve got to step up and be really good players. We want to stay here for a long time. We want to make their decision for next training camp as easy as possible.
“My goal is I’m not going back to Abbotsford. I did it this year once or twice. My goal is to show I can actually play at this level. The pressure is even higher than before.”
The more of them who show they should be a part of this team moving forward, the more change we’ll see on and off the ice. New dinner bonds will be formed. The young players will grow together as people and players, and form a new core capable of the kind of hunger we saw in 2004.
It takes time, but it’s worth it.
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