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Hammer time

Flames defenceman Roman Hamrlik is excited to be playing in Canada again, where hockey is the...

Flames defenceman Roman Hamrlik is excited to be playing in Canada again, where hockey is the primary focus for sports fans. (Calgary Sun/Kevin Udahl)

STEVE MacFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

Dozens of screaming kids filled the hallway, virtually climbing on top of each other to get a peek past the double doors and into the gym.

Calgary Flames players still stretching and cooling down inside were trapped.

The meaning of the mob scene wasn't lost on Roman Hamrlik.

"Welcome to Canada," said the wide-eyed defenceman.

The Flames were only a day into training camp at the Don Hartman Northeast Sportsplex when that spectacle unfolded last week and already the fans were in a frenzy.

A far cry from Hamrlik's days with the New York Islanders.

"You can say it's a big, different jump from New York," said the 6-ft. 2-in. Czech blueliner yesterday after a morning practice at the northeast complex where all the commotion took place. "It's the number one sport in Canada. The atmosphere is great."

It's been nearly six years since Hamrlik toiled for a Canadian club. He got his start with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the early '90s but joined the Edmonton Oilers midway through the 1997-98 season for his first taste of the Canadian hockey life.

After spending a couple of years with the Oilers, Hamrlik was shipped to the Isles for Eric Brewer, Josh Green and a draft pick in 2000.

On days like these, when pre-season games south of the border are about as popular as root canals, the contrast up north is obvious.

"You can tell right away you're in Canada," said Hamrlik.

"When we had training camp in the U.S., not too many people follow hockey. Hockey's probably their fifth sport. It's a big difference. Hockey here is number one and people are into it more."

Especially when the city's team is a lockout removed from the Western Conference championship.

Hamrlik hasn't yet played in front of his new hometown faithful, something he may get the chance to do tomorrow when the Blackhawks visit the Saddledome. But he said the idea of playing in front of enthusiastic fans is much more attractive than the 6,000 or so that came to watch him in Chicago last Saturday.

"You're obviously more pumped up when you have a sold-out hockey arena," said the veteran.

The Flames are expected to lean on Hamrlik and his cannon of a shot to bolster their powerplay. He may also have to take a locker-room leadership role -- if only by default.

"I just found out I'm the oldest defenceman here," said the former first-overall draft pick with a hint of a smile. "I don't know if it's good news or bad news. I try to (set) an example for the young kids and work hard and see what happens."

Despite playing 81 games with the Islanders in 2003-04, Hamrlik amassed his lowest point total (29) since the 1994-95 NHL season, during which he played only 48 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

With the new rules resulting in a plethora of powerplays, Hamrlik has a chance to return to form and once again become a 30- or 40-point player.

"Whoever has better special teams -- penalty killing and powerplay -- is going to win more games," said Hamrlik of the new NHL guidelines.

"We have a few guys who can really shoot the puck from the blueline. It's up to the coach and if he feels comfortable with you. If I'm (on the powerplay) I'm going to do my best."

Either way, you can be sure the Flames faithful will be behind him.


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