Expectations are a funny thing. Not fun. Funny, as in peculiar.
If someone told you at the end of the disastrous end to last season that the Calgary Flames would be 5-5-1 through the first month of the coming season, with wins and loser points versus the Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals, you probably would have been thrilled knowing they were successfully competing against some of the league’s top teams.
But because of the offseason moves made to improve the culture, expectations have been much higher. A new coach. A big free-agent signing. A blockbuster trade followed by long-term deals for the newcomers. Nothing short of a playoff pace is acceptable right now.
And after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals on Saturday night, the Flames woke up behind both the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers in the Pacific Division Standings. (Even though they’re just a point behind the leading San Jose Sharks).
Fans, and maybe the team itself, are unsure of how to feel about all this. The inconsistency probably should have been expected given the new system bench boss Bill Peters and his staff has implemented, and a sizeable percentage of new players finding their fit — free agents James Neal, Derek Ryan and Austin Czarnik, incoming trade pieces Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin, and rookies like Dillon Dube, Juuso Valimaki and Rasmus Andersson.
However, in a hockey market like Calgary, it’s easy to focus on the frustrations instead of the fun — both from a fan perspective and from within the locker-room.
The pressure the players put on themselves when external expectations are high can quickly become a burden.
There’s a reason former Flames Dougie Hamilton and Micheal Ferland are having nothing but fun with Peters’ old team in Carolina, where external expectations for the Hurricanes were about as low as they get in professional sports after their coach opted out and a new owner whose hands-on approach had become very public and off-putting to some.
In case you’re still grieving the loss of Ferland and Hamilton and haven’t been following their early days with the Canes, things are pretty good over there. They’ve got a rather shocking 6-3-1 record and are a point behind the Penguins for top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
Ferland looks even better alongside Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen in Carolina than he did early last season with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan on the top line in Calgary. He’s got six goals and 10 points in his first 10 games.
Dougie Hamilton is flossing on the ice, poking teammates with umbrellas during interviews, and generally looking like a happy dude with his new club after being shipped out because he wasn’t accepted by his teammates while with the Flames.
After wins at home, the Hurricanes are leaving the centre-ice salute to the crowd to the rest of the league and coming up with new ways to celebrate in front of their faithful fans. They’ve recreated the hockey version of the Lambeau Leap, and recently paid tribute to the rowers of the world.
Maybe they are onto something here. Hockey is a game. It’s supposed to be fun. That’s why every player got into the sport in the first place. Yes, it’s a profession and ultimately a business that can’t be successful without wins. But if you take the fun out of it, it’s just work — and everyone can admit they’re better at their job when they’re having fun.
Easier said than done in the NHL, where individual personalities have historically been sacrificed in favour of a team culture. We’ve seen it with trades that took P.K. Subban from Montreal to Nashville, and Hamilton from Boston to Calgary to Carolina.
Let’s consider the Canes a modern hockey experiment. Maybe the Hurricanes will be able to create their team culture as a result of mixing together all of their eclectic individual personalities rather than creating a philosophical or foundational culture and identity for every player to buy into.
And maybe in Calgary the expectations should be for the Flames and their fans to start to have fun. We’ll see if the wins follow.