SUN Hockey Pool

We are family!

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

It didn't take a Red Mile, The Eliminator or Darryl Sutter to put the Flames on the map in Calgary. With classic names such as Hakan Loob, Willi Plett, Jim Peplinski and Joel Otto, the Flames have been an integral part of the Stampede City for 25 years. Over a five-part series, Sun writers Eric Francis, Randy Sportak and Steve Macfarlane will examine the team's history, its greatest players and its finest moments.

---

Shortly after Nelson Skalbania followed up on a newspaper ad to purchase and relocate an Atlanta-based NHL franchise 25 years ago, one of the first additions to the Calgary Flames was a local boy named Mike Vernon.

As such, the Calgary Wranglers junior sensation experienced firsthand what the Flames organization has been all about since 1980.

"Family," said the retired Flames netminder when asked to describe the organization with whom he spent more than a dozen years.

"I remember owners like Harley Hotchkiss and Norm Kwong and GM Cliff Fletcher in the room after a game, shaking your hand and it wasn't all about hockey. It was about, 'How is your family and how are you?'

"Ask any player from Dougie Gilmour to Eric Vail to Kent Nilsson and to the players now and they'll tell you the organization always makes the players feel at home when they're here. I think doing that and being true to your word there's a sense of calming that allows players to focus on their hockey."

And that has been a big part of breeding the on-ice success that won a Stanley Cup in 1989 to the off-ice kudos that position the Flames as one of the league's classiest outfits.

"If I had to nominate one word, 'family' would be it. I'm thrilled Mikey said that," said team president Ken King, a longtime publisher who worked closely with the club long before becoming the boss in 2001. "Family would be among the sacred elements. And, like all families, we're not perfect."

They certainly were in 1989 when the team capped almost a decade of building with the first and only visiting team Stanley Cup celebration at the Montreal Forum.

Make no mistake, the team was solid when it arrived, starting its three 'cosy years' in the jam-packed Corral with players such as Kent Nilsson, Paul Reinhart, Willi Plett, Jim Peplinski, Guy Chouinard and Vail, who immediately posted a winning season under coach Al MacNeil.

From there Fletcher added names such as Lanny McDonald -- the club's first true superstar -- Hakan Loob, Al MacInnis, Gary Suter, Gary Roberts, Joe Mullen, Joe Nieuwednyk, Doug Gilmour and Vernon, who took the team to a Cup final (1986), two Presidents trophies (1987-88, '88-89) and then the Cup.

Fuelled by a provincial rivalry that elevated both clubs to the top of the NHL tables, the Flames spent close to a decade as Cup contenders before the difficult years began.

Rising salaries saw most of the franchise's best players depart the small-market squad in the '90s, leaving little Theo Fleury to spearhead a franchise still backed by a fan base that saw long season-ticket waiting lists eroding with every losing season.

Following an S.O.S. campaign that urged Calgarians to buy tickets to keep the rebuilding team in town, the maturation of Jarome Iginla and the hockey mind of Darryl Sutter has Calgary celebrating its silver anniversary as the pre-season toast of the NHL.

And while the fans, players and city have formed a tight-knit relationship of sorts, the bonding between teammates began as it has every year -- with the owners' annual barbecue.

"Community-mindedness and family are what the organization are all about -- it was a selling point for players around the league," said Perry Berezan, who attended the recent party at Ann McCaig's home. "The barbecue started years ago and never stopped and what a way to welcome everyone. It was like going over to the Hotchkisses for Sunday dinner. There are tons of pro franchises that say they care but this one is genuine."


Videos

Photos