Red-and-White delight

ERIC FRANCIS, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:00 AM ET

With the money he saved on tickets and parking, Larry Jack decided to load up on beer.

Skipping work Monday to sneak a peek at 44 of the lads vying to fill out the Calgary Flames' opening-day roster, Jack stood in a lengthy line with pal Merle Miller for a couple of Coors.

At $4.25 a cup, he didn't get soaked, which was one of the first signs this wasn't an ordinary glimpse at the Flames.

Heck, for a paltry $2.50, he could've added popcorn or a Rice Krispy square.

Indeed, for the first time in years, the club deviated from the norm by staging a Red vs. White scrimmage at Max Bell Centre that was free to the public. Thanks largely to a Justin Bieber concert at the 'Dome and a coach looking to do things differently, the club made it known the doors would be open and the parking would be free.

"Hey," asked Jack before heading into the rink where more than half the 2,100 seats were full. "Do they sell beer during those morning practices at the 'Dome? If so, I'm quitting my job."

While the media has been skeptical about the direction of the club throughout the summer and into the fall, it's evident city-wide support of the club is still on the up-and-up.

If you couldn't tell by the full parking lot outside the northeast rink, you could see it in the eyes of jersey-wearing parents and kids dotting the railings alongside scouts, scribes and even GM Darryl Sutter.

Clinging to free lineup sheets they picked up at the front door, they oohed with every shot and awed with every save as part of a memorable afternoon of hockey hooky.

They cheered when Jay Bouwmeester found himself on the opposition's goal-line, slapping home a rebound and they roared when Miikka Kiprusoff kicked out a tester.

The highlight of the early afternoon affair came when the top trio of supposed saviours -- Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay and Olli Jokinen -- combined for a nifty goal.

"It's gonna work!" said one fan of the All-Our-Eggs-in- One-Basket line.

Oh sure, the crowd was peppered with jaded journalists like FAN 960's Andrew Walker, who offered his insight early in a scoreless game.

"It's 0-0 after one period, and Gio (Mark Giordano) is the best player on the ice -- welcome back to 2009," Walker deadpanned as colleagues sent the silliest of tweets updating the action.

A controlled scrimmage that saw both teams work on their powerplay, penalty killing and four-on-four play, the end result was a 3-1 win for the Red squad slated to host Vancouver's scrubs Tuesday night at the 'Dome.

The losers went straight to the airport for a split-squad tilt in Vancouver slated for an hour later. Both contests will see patrons charged full whack for tickets, parking, popcorn and, obviously, beer.

"I just like the thought of changing it up," said Flames head coach Brent Sutter, who decided Friday to replace practice with a scrimmage.

"It wasn't something that was overly promoted or anything like that but open to the public, and obviously, seeing a great turnout says something about the support that this organization gets from Calgary and this area. Some people don't get an opportunity to come to a game at the 'Dome. Being off-site was great, too -- I thought it was a great day."

So did Jon Skruggs, a 39-year-old plumber who admittedly ditched an afternoon appointment to catch his local heroes up close.

"I heard about it an hour ago and immediately started faking a sickness in front of my boss," Skruggs laughed.

"I'll be OK . though. It's nothing a beer and free NHL hockey can't cure."

eric.francis@sunmedia.ca


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