SUN Hockey Pool

Flames return to Tampa

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:29 AM ET

TAMPA, Fla. -- They say time heals all wounds, but for some Calgary Flames, the sting of losing the winner-take-all game of the 2004 Stanley Cup final hasn't gone away.

More than three years after falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the championship series, the Flames return to the St. Pete Times Forum, the scene of their biggest disappointment in recent history.

Only eight players remain from that spring and only six who suited up in that final game are on this trip.

For those who were a part of the magical run, it will be impossible to ignore the memories, sure to be even more vivid as they enter the building for tonight's game.

There are good ones -- like the way they felt after Oleg Saprykin netted the Game 5 winner in overtime to put them one win away from the ultimate prize -- and bad ones that can never be erased.

"It was a rollercoaster the whole playoffs," said Flames captain Jarome Iginla. "You want to stay even-keeled but, no, you win in the playoffs, I'm telling you, every win is just a step closer. The losses are magnified too."

Especially the last one.

The celebration that followed was probably the hardest part for the Flames. Iginla said they are some of the "toughest memories" he's had in hockey -- and life in general.

"One of them is not winning in the seventh game and having to be in the dressing room afterwards and hear the other team cheer and their fans cheer -- big roars -- and you know that it's each different player that's holding the Stanley Cup," he said.

"It could have been us. It was definitely hard."

Craig Conroy remembers the feeling of disbelief that their long journey ended so suddenly, forcing them to leave empty-handed after all the effort they put in.

"Is it really done? Like that's it?" remembered Conroy of his thought process in the wake of the final buzzer. "That's the hardest part, I think."

A free meal won't chase the pain away, but it's the closest thing to reparations the Flames will get during their brief stop in Tampa.

They're all expected to enjoy a dinner on former Bolts defenceman Cory Sarich's tab. In fact, the entire team is probably in line for the treat -- often a tradition when a free-agent signee returns to the city where he last played.

It might just taste a little sweeter for guys like Conroy, Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Miikka Kiprusoff, Marcus Nilson, Stephane Yelle and Matthew Lombardi.

"We'll let him buy us dinner," said Conroy after Tuesday's shootout win over the Florida Panthers, the second stop on a six-game road swing. "He owes us."

None of the Flames have been to Tampa since that painful night that saw them fall a couple of goals short in a 2-1 loss June 7, 2004.

Not even Conroy, who was dealt back to the Flames by Los Angeles right before the Kings were slated to head this way.

"Literally, they were there like three days later. I haven't been back either, so this is my first time," said Conroy.

"I wouldn't have felt like anything if I went by myself. But for Jarome and the other guys here, Kipper, it'll be different for sure."

It will be hard not to think about it at the dinner table, staring across at one of the guys who was hoisting the Cup in this same city just a few years ago. Not that they'd turn down the invitation.

"No hard feelings," said Iginla with a laugh. "We just probably won't want to hear any stories about it for the few days we're there."


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