The Calgary Flames are in the midst of their best season in decades. They clinched a playoff spot with 10 games remaining, and are in an ongoing battle for the Pacific Division crown. It’s a far cry from where the team was as recently as four seasons ago.
The last time the Flames were in legitimate divisional contention was 2005-06, when they captured the Northwest Division crown. During that campaign, 22-year-old minor league call-up Mark Giordano made his National Hockey League debut.
Following that season, the Flames entered into a gradual decline as their veteran core aged. The white flag was finally waved on March 27, 2013, when the club traded Jarome Iginla to the Pittsburgh Penguins and officially began their rebuild. Since that game, the Flames have dressed 109 different skaters and 13 different goalies with just three players remaining from the last Iginla game with the club: Giordano, Mikael Backlund and TJ Brodie. While the organization has cycled through dozens of different new pieces and tried to find good fits, that trio has been retained.
It’s been 13 seasons since the Flames last won a division title, a span of just over 1,000 regular season games. For context, Giordano has played in over 80% of those games, with Backlund and Brodie each suiting up for more than half. The trio came up as young depth players on some talented Flames teams, watched the talent age out and be sent away, watched the team slide through mediocrity, commit to a rebuild, and then come out the other side.
On Tuesday night, Giordano tied Robyn Regehr for the second-most games played with the franchise – the only player ahead of Giordano is Iginla. Backlund is ninth among games played leaders and Brodie is creeping towards the top 10. Each player came to be Flames property through some unique circumstances:
- The Flames signed Giordano as an undrafted junior free agent because they needed to fill out minor league spots following their 2004 Cup Final loss.
- The Flames only had the pick they used to select Backlund because they traded down to recoup a third round pick so they could draft John Negrin – Darryl Sutter had previously traded their second round pick to Colorado because he loved trading second round picks.
- The Flames only had the pick they used to select Brodie because Brad Stuart didn’t re-sign with the club after a mid-season trade.
Despite joining the club under these odd circumstances, the trio has been part of the evolution of the team from also-ran to rebuilder to scrappy underdog to verging on a contender. They all dressed on the night Iginla became a Penguin. They were all part of the infamous Jan. 18, 2014 game in Vancouver that began with a line brawl, featured John Tortorella trying to fight Bob Hartley during the intermission, and ended with the trio setting career highs in ice time – with the shortened bench Giordano played 33 minutes, Brodie 36 and Backlund 27. They were part of emotional battles with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014-15 that pushed the Flames towards a playoff spot – and though Giordano missed that run due to a bicep injury, he was still around. Since they’ve been around for all the lean years, they seem to be appreciating the team’s upswing.
It’s easy to understand how fans can be so amped for how good the team appears to be. In a market where the Flames have been the biggest deal for decades – all due respect to the Stampeders – the team really hasn’t given its faithful a ton to be emotionally invested in. But Giordano, Backlund and Brodie have been part of the Flames for as long, if not longer, than many of the newest vintage of fans have been cheering for the team. If anything, they’re as excited as the fans are – if not more so.
After a recent Flames victory, Backlund joked about loving this time of year due to the lack of practice time and the importance of the games, but got a bit more introspective when noting the opportunity that’s before his team. Instead of battling for a playoff spot as they approach Game 82, they’ll be trying to lock down first spot in their division and conference.
“Being through some tough years, you really appreciate being in this spot,” said Backlund. “We want to make the most of it, for sure.”
The Stanley Cup playoffs begin on April 10. For just the fourth time in Giordano’s NHL career, and the third in Backlund’s and Brodie’s, the Flames will be part of the action.