SUN Hockey Pool

The sea of dread

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 7:54 AM ET

For eight months, the Calgary Flames took this city on an amazing journey.

The hard-working 2003-04 edition of the Flames ended a seven-year post-season drought, washed away 15 years of playoff frustration and came one win away from claiming the Stanley Cup.

They were the ultimate example of what a team -- a true team -- can accomplish.

Now there's a real possibility the NHL lockout will rip this close-knit crew apart.

Labour talks resume today in Toronto with the 2004-05 season hanging in the balance.

If the NHL and the players' union fail to reach an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement, and the labour dispute interrupts the 2005-06 season, the core of that beloved squad may not be back to fight another day, as players scatter like seeds in the wind.

Some may skate with high-paying Russian squad AK Bars Kazan, some may join Djurgarden's quest for success in Sweden, some may try the WHA if that gets up and running. Heck, some may play senior hockey with former Flame Theo Fleury.

And there's no guarantee they'll ever return to Calgary.

"We knew that it wouldn't be the same team again when we were going through the final series in the Stanley Cup playoffs," blueliner Robyn Regehr admitted yesterday.

"We had to take advantage of the situation because through trades and free agency and certain things, we wouldn't have the exact same group again, ever.

"Now, with the way the state of the game is -- with the owners' lockout -- our team might change even more."

A few key pieces are already gone: Craig Conroy via free agency to L.A., ditto for Krzysztof Oliwa to New Jersey, while Denis Gauthier was traded with Oleg Saprykin to the desert dogs in Phoenix.

Seeing as Regehr, Jarome Iginla and Rhett Warrener -- who hosted a fund-raising bowling tournament last night -- don't hold out much hope a solution will come from today's meeting, the 2004 Western Conference champs could be dismantled further.

"It saddens me we didn't win," Regehr said. "And it saddens me we don't have a chance right now to be playing and working our way back to being in the position to win a championship again."

A lost crown that still makes the heart ache.

"I lose more sleep over that, not winning that thing, than anything," said Warrener. "But what are gonna do about it? It's in other people's hands."

In more ways than one.

The Cup belongs to the Lightning, indefinitely for now, and the NHL's fate rests with NHLPA president Trevor Linden, Flames part-owner and board of governors chairman Harley Hotchkiss and a litany of lawyers on their negotiating teams.

"I'm not as optimistic as I was before," said Iginla. "So it seems far away thinking what team will be here if (today) doesn't go anywhere. If this (season) goes, there's a chance we'll go two. What's gonna change?

"But this is bigger than what team we'll have in Calgary. It's more on the state of the game of hockey."

Yet, even with the clock ticking, the heels are dug in deep.

"You're not going to sacrifice the rights of every player in the league and everyone to ever come up for a selfish reason -- your own chance to win the Cup," said Warrener.

Like it or not right now, that determination to fight for every inch is what made the Flames what they were in the spring of '04.

"Certainly, the money is great and ... obviously a nice perk but we didn't go through two months of grinding it out and gutting it out for a paycheque," Warrener said. "It's because we wanted the Stanley Cup. I think that's how a lot of our team approaches every game."

Make that 'approached,' past tense. Possibly the only way we'll be able to discuss the Flames for a long time.

TODAY'S MEETING

All you need to know about today's NHL-NHLPA meeting in Toronto:

- It's three-on-three: Trevor Linden, Ted Saskin, John McCambridge on PA side; Bill Daly, Harley Hotchkiss and Bob Batterman representing the NHL.

- Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow will not attend.

- League says it will not present a new proposal but will try to jointly craft 'something that might work.'

- Reports Mario Lemieux may join the group of six were denied yesterday.


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