Sea of Red returns

Jarome Iginla is denied by Miikka Kiprusoff during the Calgary Flames intra-squad game Thursday at...

Jarome Iginla is denied by Miikka Kiprusoff during the Calgary Flames intra-squad game Thursday at the Saddledome. (Calgary Sun/Kevin Udahl)

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

No introductions, no national anthem, no announcers, no music, no rink boards, no Jumbotron, no Sea of Red, no power ring, no concessions, no gate admission, no instant replays and no Harvey.

Just hockey.

And that was more than enough for close to 2,000 fans at a dressed-down 'Dome yesterday where an afternoon scrimmage marked Day 4 of the Flames training camp.

After packing the Don Hartman Sportsplex for the first two skates, fans followed the boys downtown yesterday for a red and white game that attracted a shocking number of hockey purists pining for a glimpse at a team that already has the city buzzing.

Welcomed to the 'Dome with free lineup sheets and instructions to sit anywhere they wanted within a cordoned-off chunk of seats behind the benches, onlookers stretched out to watch their hockey heroes for the first time since a Game 6 loss 15 months earlier.

Aside from applause that welcomed the players to the ice and ushered them off it, the cavernous building that hosted the biggest love-in hockey has seen in decades was stripped of all distractions. The sounds prevalent throughout the skate were those of skates scraping and players directing one another -- audio rarely heard above the roar in Canadian NHL rinks. (Perhaps a glimpse of upcoming silent CBC hockey broadcasts?)

Rewarding the fans with unparalleled access throughout camp, the Flames greeted them yesterday by the words 'Thank You Fans!' painted in big blue letters below both bluelines.

Although every single seat for the entire season will be sold out by tomorrow morning when remaining single-game ducats will be snapped up within minutes, it's one of the only reminders of the year-long lockout that had a nation in a tizzy.

It's also a damn nice touch.

Yes, this year's camp is as much about the fans and their undying support, as it is about the team.

To prove the point, let's take a survey:

In a league that supposedly would have to beg fans to come back, hands up for all those still holding a grudge against the NHL and its players. Didn't think so.

The excitement level in this city rivals that of the late '80s -- fitting considering the Flames threaten to return as one of the league's elite.

And the club wants to pay that allegiance back any way it can, whether it be with open practices or by making every player have a chance in the shootout after yesterday's 5-2 game. Fans stayed for close to 50 shots.

Well aware Dion Phaneuf and Eric Nystrom are the only two rookies with any hope of challenging for an opening night spot, knowledge that the Flames future has been stabilized on and off the ice has them interested in seeing everyone from Matt Lombardi to Matt Hubbauer.

Murmurs abounded as Chris Simon and Darren McCarty shoved one another and had words. Turns out their conversation was more amicable than first thought. Then, Brantt Myhres tried unsuccessfully to goad Jason Wiemer into a fight. Nothing doing.

"Everybody's excited -- you know bloody well if it was an evening game we could have filled the place," said Darryl Sutter of the crowds embracing camp like never before. "I was surprised how many kids cut class."

He shouldn't be. After years of ridicule that came with sporting Flames gear in the schoolyard or at the office, being a Flames fan is cool again.

And both the players and fans are thankful for that.


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