SUN Hockey Pool

Not your parents' old Saddledome

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

It's official: There's no tougher building in the Western Conference to play in than the Pengrowth Saddledome.

Just ask any NHL player.

A recent ESPN poll of players around the league confirmed as much, citing only two cities in hockey that offer a slightly more daunting environment to play in: Philadelphia and Montreal.

Asked simply which city's fans were the league's most intimidating, Philadelphia drew 24% of the votes, Montreal 22% and Calgary 19%. Edmonton was fourth at 10%.

"We've come a long way from The Library," proudly declared Flames president and CEO Ken King when informed of the results.

"It's a beautiful partnership -- when we (the team) perform at a high level, they're (the fans) are an integral part of that."

For more proof look no further than the club's league-best 20-5 record at home, which includes a current six-game winning streak.

News of the 'Dome dwellers' lofty rise to prominence just so happens to coincide with the club's 100th consecutive sellout that was celebrated Tuesday as part of Fan Appreciation Night. While Flames fever was fittingly ramped up another notch that evening with the memorable return of fan fave Craig Conroy, diehards know it wasn't all that long ago the Flames couldn't give tickets away.

No less than five years ago the Flames were playing in front of crowds of 12,000 and 13,000 following years of high-end player departures and poor management. A rudderless ship that was starting to pay for years of arrogance as the second-best team of the mid-eighties to nineties, it took a Flames Forever campaign to extend its life to 2002 A.D. (After Darryl).

It was six years ago King took over the club and set out with Jim Peplinski, Lanny McDonald and ticket manager Rollie Cyr to go hat in hand to thousands of fans for feedback.

"What we found is they were like a spurned lover --they were in love with a team they expected more from," said King.

"What was also clear was that if we delivered, they'd deliver."

Enter Darryl Sutter at Christmas 2002, who made it his first priority to build an identity that would make the 'Dome one of the toughest places to play. A big part of that, he said repeatedly, was the crowd, which needed Jumbotron prompts to cheer.

"I remember coming in here as a player and no word of a lie I'd see people reading books during the games," said Sutter famously.

No longer. Spurred on by the team's new direction, work ethic and a playoff run that introduced Canada to the Sea of Red, the team surged to the finals in 2004 and hasn't played in front of an empty seat since. Even the previously mum corporate fans show up now wearing the club's re-launched red jersey, which sold a record 80,000 units.

"It's louder now than the '80s," said King, whose club has more than 2,000 people waiting for season tickets despite the fact 2,200 upper loge seats are also in play.

"That playoff run -- you felt the rumbles in that building. There used to be some arguments that this building wasn't set up to make a lot of noise due to its construction. And while that's true it has been overcome by our fans.

"If you want to get your heart started, when that crowd roars it's a phenomenon of nature. But for a seventh game in Vancouver who knows what the world looks like."

Quite honestly, who really cares?

Let the good times roll.

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BAD MOJO

ESPN poll of 141 NHL players (20%) asked which team has the most intimidating fans?:

(24%) Philadelphia Flyers

(22%) Montreal Canadiens

(19%) Calgary Flames

(10%) Edmonton Oilers

(9%) San Jose Sharks

(6%) Toronto Maple Leafs

(3%) Minnesota Wild

(3%) Detroit Red Wings

(2%) Vancouver Canucks

* Players weren't allowed to vote for their own city's fans.


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