Little team that could

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

Consider it proof positive you don't have to be a champion to be the best. The annals of hockey will call the 2003-04 Calgary Flames runners-up.

It'll be noted their Cinderella run came one-victory shy of the Stanley Cup.

That they weren't good enough.

But not in the minds of Canadians.

The upstart Flames who came within a whisker of hockey's Holy Grail were yesterday named Team of the Year by The Canadian Press and Broadcast News.

The Flames comfortably beat out Team Canada's World Cup hockey club by 246 points to 164 in balloting of sports editors and broadcasters across the country.

Darryl Sutter's squad had 62 first-place votes compared to 34 for Wayne Gretzky's Team Canada. The Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts were third with 12 first-place votes and 109 points.

Funny how those teams won titles, as did the Canadian world championship squad that finished fifth in voting.

"I think it's a combination of things," captain Jarome Iginla told the Canadian Press. "The expectation for Team Canada is to go in and win the World Cup, while we weren't expected to do much in Calgary. And the way we did it, it was exciting hockey, there were overtime games, it was pretty cool.

"And when you think of it, it's been a long time since a Canadian team has been there and no one expected the first one back to be the Flames."

The Flames were the first Canadian team to reach the Cup final since the 1993-94 Vancouver Canucks and the first NHL team to win the Team of the Year Award since the 1989-90 Edmonton Oilers.

Before the playoffs even began, there were signs the campaign would be one to remember for the Flames. With goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff holding the fort between the pipes, the Flames snapped a seven-year playoff drought.

Hoping simply to make the playoffs for the first time since the spring of '96, they placed sixth in the Western Conference.

Then the real fun began.

A thrilling seven-game series victory at the expense of the Vancouver Canucks -- Calgary's first post-season triumph since the 1989 Cup win -- was followed by an amazing six-game win over Detroit, the regular-season champions.

That was followed by another upset, again in six games, over San Jose.

At that point, the Red Mile was a household hockey phrase across the continent, the Stampede City was painted red, you couldn't go a block without seeing a car flag and the 'C' of Red was back and more boisterous than ever before.

Unfortunately, the Stanley Cup final, which could have been won on home ice in the sixth game, ended in disappointment with a Game 7 loss in Tampa.

"It obviously didn't end the way we wanted but it was so much fun," Iginla said. "And it was so close, all the way to Game 7.

"The level of electricity in the building was just amazing, the Red Mile after the games, the traditions that were started, it was all amazing."

The 1988-89 Stanley Cup champion Flames also won the CP-BN award but last year's Flames squad couldn't match the team from 16 years earlier.

"If we would have had one or two more healthy guys, we felt it would not even have gotten to Game 7," said GM-head coach Darryl Sutter. "But guys were playing so banged up, they just gave it everything they had."

The Flames' award is a consolation prize and won't change history.

But yesterday's honour proves they did.


Videos

Photos