SUN Hockey Pool

Heaven in Alberta

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:48 AM ET

All things being equal -- which is what the introduction of an NHL salary cap is all about -- the Calgary Flames should be one of the biggest winners of the new CBA.

Given the fact the Flames can now theoretically throw the same amount of money at a free agent as any other team, players will be more apt to choose Cowtown over most rival cities.

The same Alberta Advantage that has made Calgary one of the most desirable cities in Canada to live in, will likely see the team continue to flourish and grow much like the rest of the city.

"I think there will be more free agents who are attracted to Calgary," said Jarome Iginla, when asked how Cowtown will fare in the NHL's new marketplace. "It's easier for small markets to compete in free agency because the salaries won't be as high as they were before the 24% salary rollbacks."

Faced with choosing between a handful of teams offering roughly the same money, free agents will now look much closer at the cost of living and lifestyle issues that make Calgary much more favourable than most other cities.

First of all, Alberta's massive tax advantages save residents significantly more money than those in any other province. (The 3% Alberta NHL players tax introduced in 2002 by then-Alberta Finance Minister Pat Nelson is set to expire Dec. 31, 2005.)

The cost of living in Calgary is much more reasonable than most NHL cities, compounded by the fact the players are paid in American bills which stretch farther north of the border.

The relatively cheap housing market allows players to live close to the rink in houses that are likely to continue appreciating in value due to the strong local economy backed by low taxes and a vibrant oil and gas industry.

With more and more companies moving headquarters to Calgary, corporate support at the 'Dome will continue to amaze. After the Stanley Cup run in 2004, fan support here will never again be questioned given the nightly gatherings on the Red Mile shown across North America.

"I think because of the run, other players got to see the atmosphere and what a great hockey city Calgary is," said Iginla, a St. Albert native who could double as a city or provincial tourism official.

"It's a vibrant city. Talking to other players, they come and enjoy staying here. Downtown is alive -- it's got all the restaurants and other stuff you want."

Another attraction to Calgary comes in the form of a stellar management team and coaching staff led by Darryl Sutter. Add to that the fact he heads up one of the classiest organizations in the league.

Don't think for a second players don't talk about how they're treated.

In Vancouver yesterday to launch a Nike off-ice hockey training program from the roof of a parkade, Iginla said by far the biggest draw to the Flames is the talent of the team, which he figures will challenge for the Stanley Cup regularly.

"The success of the team and the playoff run showed how much fun it is to play here," said Iginla, a nine-year Calgary resident, who wants to sign a long-term deal to stay in town.

"Players who become free agents are getting older and want a chance to win and we're legitimately growing and having that chance."

Adding quality free agents should only help that cause -- a likelihood that will grow exponentially with the new CBA in place.


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