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(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Blogger Ryan Pike on the Calgary Flames. Enjoy!)
By Ryan Pike
Every National Hockey League organization is haunted to some extent by its past. Some clubs have had awful, penny-pinching owners. Some clubs have been mismanaged by unqualified executives. The storied history of the Calgary Flames has been largely defined by two seasons: Their 1988-89 campaign that punctuated 16 seasons of Cliff Fletcher’s tinkering by winning a championship, and their improbable 2003-04 playoff run that left the club with a sense of unfinished business that would linger over their decision-making for the decade that followed.
It’s that 2003-04 season that this alternate history will focus upon and, in particular, a phrase that has haunted the Flames organization since June 5, 2004: “It was in.”
What if Martin Gelinas goal in Game 6 had counted?
The 2003-04 Calgary Flames weren’t expected to make a lot of noise. But the emergence of Jarome Iginla as an elite power forward and Miikka Kiprusoff as an elite goaltender, combined with the team’s strict adherence to Darryl Sutter’s rough-and-tumble system, propelled the Flames to three playoff series victories over the Western Conference’s three division winners: Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose. After failing to win a single playoff round since their Cup victory in Montreal in 1989, the Flames were four wins away from their second championship.
The 2004 Cup Final generally went the way the other three series did for the Flames. They traded 4-1 victories with the Lightning in Tampa Bay, then came home to trade shutouts in Games 3 and 4. Game 5 in Tampa Bay was punctuated by an offensive zone effort by Iginla in overtime thereafter known by fans as “The Shift,” ending with Oleg Saprykin’s game-winning goal. The Flames came back to Calgary for Game 6 with a chance to win the Stanley Cup on home ice.
Game 6 saw the Flames and Lightning trade second period goals and head to the third period tied 2-2. With 6:57 remaining in the third period, Saprykin drove towards the Tampa Bay net and chipped the puck at goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin. The puck careened off Khabibulin and deflected right to a charging Martin Gelinas, who redirected the puck with his skates towards the open side of the Lightning net. To many watching the game, including virtually everybody with a pulse and a red jersey, it appeared the puck had crossed the line.
The play continued, and was eventually whistled down a few seconds later on an off-side. ABC’s broadcasters reviewed the replay and declared that the puck was in. With limited time and limited camera angles available to them, the NHL’s officials reviewed the play and couldn’t conclusively declare that the puck had crossed the line.
(History ended up repeating itself in the second round of the 2015 playoffs, as an apparent goal by Flames forward Sam Bennett didn’t count – even with the NHL’s review resources having been beefed-up since 2004.)
In our reality, Gelinas’ goal didn’t count. The Flames lost Game 6 in double overtime and dropped Game 7 in another razor-thin 2-1 decision to end the series. To add insult to injury, the entire next season was wiped out due to a lockout and the Flames had to sit idle for 15 months stewing over their loss – which itself led to a lot of connected consequences.
In our alternate history, the NHL instead took their time with their review and eventually declared the Gelinas effort a valid goal. The Flames ended up surviving a late push from Tampa Bay, winning the game 3-2 in regulation and capturing their second Stanley Cup – ending Canada’s Cup drought after a scant 11 seasons. The lockout allowed the Cup winners a bit of extra time to rest up and reflect on their run, both on and off the ice.
When the CBA was finally cemented in the fall of 2005, Flames head coach and general manager Darryl Sutter decided to step away from his coaching duties to focus on helping his team adjust to the “new NHL” from a hockey operations standpoint – in our reality, Sutter stayed on as coach for one post-lockout season and arguably never really got his head around the “new NHL.” He handed the coaching reins to his right-hand man and longtime assistant coach Jim Playfair for 2005-06 and beyond. In our reality, the organization couldn’t afford to waste a year of their contention window to allow their new coach to adjust and demoted Playfair to associate coach after one season. With a Stanley Cup banner hanging from the Saddledome rafters, management was patient and Playfair ended up adjusting rather well to his new job.
As a result, Mike Keenan never coached the Calgary Flames.
The patience in the Flames organization also bled over into their hockey operations decision-making. In our reality, Sutter seemingly went mad trying to replicate the chemistry of the 2004 club. His other bugaboo was his perpetual quest to find suitable linemates for Iginla, annually sending assets out the door in an attempt to land a big-name center or dynamic winger to complement his captain. That’s not to say that Sutter never tinkered, but the selling of younger players and draft picks to acquire the likes of Daymond Langkow, Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri and Olli Jokinen (twice) didn’t happen nearly as frequently. In the alternate reality, Iginla owning a Cup ring removed the sense of urgency (occasionally verging on panic) and allowed Sutter to make decisions with a longer time-frame in mind and retain a lot of draft picks to restock his organization’s cupboards.
The lack of knee-jerk trades meant that Dion Phaneuf was traded at the NHL Draft for picks and prospects, rather than shipped out mid-season, and the Flames never made any trades with their rival Edmonton Oilers.
In our reality, one of the reasons the Flames failed to capture the 2004 Cup – aside from goal judge trickery – was running out of bodies that knew their system and could play NHL hockey, as a result of sharing the minor league affiliate. The 2004 near-miss resulted in a re-investment in the farm system, though the club’s drafting didn’t quite catch up to the NHL’s pack until 2011 or 2012. In the alternate reality, holding onto more high draft picks helped the Flames farm system catch up even quicker and helped soften the blow when the team’s biggest guns began to get long in the tooth and needed to be replaced with younger models.
By 2010-11, Sutter decided to make a change behind the bench and in much of his team’s personnel, hiring his own brother Brent to shepherd his club through a rebuild. In the years that followed, Sutter was eventually promoted to President of Hockey Operations by Flames ownership, hiring Arizona assistant general manager Brad Treliving away from the Coyotes to serve as his successor as general manager. And with no Stanley Cup to chase, Iginla was never traded and retired as a Flame after playing a season on the right side of Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau in 2014-15.
Amazing the difference one competent goal video review can make…
Ryan Pike covers the Calgary Flames for FlamesNation, The Hockey Writers and the Fischler Report. He almost won a Stanley Cup in NHL 17 once, but his players forgot how to back-check.