Make believe

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:06 AM ET

Shortly after 5:30 p.m. tonight, the Tampa Bay Lightning's Stanley Cup banner was supposed to be raised at the Forum.

Dominik Hasek was to become a Senator, Craig Conroy was to be anointed King and Todd Bertuzzi would likely have started his on-ice parole.

Matt Barnaby would've been let off his leash in Chicago, the Av-nots in Colorado would've started life without Peter Forsberg and Brett Hull would've introduced his sorry act to the Phoenix fans he couldn't care less about.

All the NHL storylines that help make Canadian winters more bearable were scheduled to start playing themselves out tonight when the curtain was to be raised on the 2004-05 NHL season.

Instead, the only players getting face time the next few months will be NHL and NHLPA 'negotiators', whose stats will read 0-for-ever until someone makes a move to get things back on track.

Meanwhile, there's silence in NHL rinks across North America.

Following the most exciting, improbable turnaround and playoff run in recent NHL lore, Flames fans tuning into tonight's season opener against the Ducks will instead see Texas Hold 'Em.

Tight shots of Billy-Joe Jimbob bluffing with queen high will replace the unveiling of Darryl Sutter's ace defensive pairings, which may or may not have included Dion Phaneuf.

Fans won't be able to find out the extent of Matthew Lombardi's ongoing concussion problems, the strength of Steve Reinprecht's shoulder or the resiliency of Shean Donovan's knee.

We can now only speculate where Jason Wiemer, Byron Ritchie or Anders Eriksson would've fit into the Flames lineup. The debate over how well Daymond Langkow would've meshed with Jarome Iginla lives on.

Which forwards would have started and which defencemen would've been re-assigned will remain as big a mystery as Miikka Kiprusoff's ability to duplicate his heroics of last year.

Will former Flame Oleg Saprykin finally develop into a consistent threat in Phoenix, will Desert Dog Denis Gauthier's reconstructed knee hold up to the rigors of his game or will Roman Turek win back the fans?

Would the raising of the Western Conference championship banner at home against Vancouver next week have rekindled powerful memories or equalled noise levels similar to last spring? Would the upper loge have been kept open, will the Red Mile become a distant memory and will FlamesGirls.com have any new material?

How high would the expectations be for the Flames and how disappointing, if at all, would it be if they failed to reach the finals again? How realistic is it they even could have made the playoffs?

There are no answers in all this madness, only more questions.

It's a sad, lonely feeling, especially considering how unlikely it is anyone south of the border would bother wondering if Martin St. Louis would've repeated as scoring champ, if Mario Lemieux would've played again, if Steve Yzerman could've shaken off his horrific injury and if Mark Messier could defy Father Time one more year.

As the week progresses and CBC's Movie Night in Canada approaches, Montrealers will ponder the purchase of Radek Bonk, Torontonians will mull over Mats Sundin and Edmontonians will remember Ryan Smyth.

The only solace for Flames fans is the Lightning and its fans won't celebrate the championship Calgary came so close to claiming.

How long they'll have to wait is just another question to add to the list.


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