SUN Hockey Pool

Iggy's backing a cue for Flames fans

ERIC FRANCIS -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Just last week, Darryl Sutter was asked if he'd consider signing a player with baggage like Sean Avery.

"I'd have to talk to the guys first," said the Flames GM of his leaders in a tight dressing room. "They're the ones who'd have to deal with it every day."

Fast-forward to yesterday's signing of Todd Bertuzzi, a man with more baggage than Greyhound.

Well aware public sentiment would be mixed, as it was a year earlier when he hired Mike Keenan, Sutter made it clear he did not take the decision lightly.

In fact, shortly after announcing the shocking acquisition, the Flames set up not one or two but three conference calls involving principals. In other words, while Sutter repeated his mantra he could care less about what the fans think, the organization knew better.

Vilified in the press and the pews for the four-year-old attack on Steve Moore some radicals equated with attempted murder, the disgust for Bertuzzi is such that he's been booed by virtually everyone in Canada, including customs officials. While agitators like Avery or Darcy Tucker would easily have been able to go from public enemy to local hero with the stroke of a pen, the hatred for Bertuzzi runs much deeper. He's that good, that punishing.

Understandably, it will take time for most fans to adjust.

But they will. Quickly.

It says here the first time Big Bert beats up an opponent or takes someone's head off (legally), they'll love him.

All may not be instantly forgiven or forgotten, but in a sports world all but devoid of loyalty and lifers, he'll be a fan favourite in no time. After all, if character people like Jarome Iginla pushed hard for the move, how can the team's loyal supporters shun it?

"As far as winning fans over I think it's something that's going to be on the ice," said Iginla, credited by Bertuzzi as being the biggest reason the unlikely deal came to pass.

"I think when they see him compete and his fire and his big hits and his presence in front of the net ... fans will give him a chance."

Of course they will.

While most reacted negatively -- and in utter disbelief yesterday -- clearly they just need time to digest news that perhaps the meanest and most hated rival they've had the last decade is now on their side.

Facilitating matters is the fact he only signed a one-year deal, meaning the 33-year-old winger has all the incentive he needs to prove he's more than a 14-goal scorer and deserves more next year. He also won't be burdened by the expectation of signing a massive contract. At $1.95 million, he's not only a far better deal than dearly departed Owen Nolan ($2.75/year), he's also more capable.

He could end up spending the bulk of the year on the first line and powerplay, or he could be a productive second or third liner who fills many other roles. Either way, the former 46-goal scorer is a relative bargain.

"I talked to our captain lots about a lot of players, and the one player he identified more than anybody if we were going to add a veteran forward was Bertuzzi," said Sutter of Iginla's input.

Indeed, Sutter doesn't care what fans think -- after all, the building will be sold out as long as oil is above $70. He cares about what the team needs. Bertuzzi embodies everything Sutter has been looking for this summer except speed, which he'll make up for with experience, ferocity and an offensive upside few can match.

The price is right, the fit is good, the players love it and, fact is, fans need to realize Bertuzzi did his time.

"You have an impression of a guy and usually anyone you play against you don't like -- Iggy wasn't nice to me when I first got here but was fine after a month," said Craig Conroy, shocked when told of his new teammate. "I hated playing against Bertuzzi, but I don't see it being a big issue as new guys are usually on their best behaviour. I don't think one guy can ruin anything because we're so close. He'll probably be fired up."

It's only a matter of time before fans feel the same way.

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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